The world over, the approach to biodiversity conservation has undergone a gradual metamorphosis, largely in response to the changing socio-economic milieu. While ensuring better protection and management of inviolate habitats was relevant and sufficient for producing results at one time, the same approach will not fly in this day and age. We live in times where visions are growing shorter and the list of demands from the planet, longer. The argument for inviolate spaces for biodiversity in isolation has long since lost traction, and the conservation world has duly evolved in response to this—no longer does it confine its focus to biodiversity alone, but also on the agents of change that are driving its endangerment and loss. Communities and people living in and around forests have also become a critical area of engagement, and necessarily so.
The Indian Forest Act has some failings which cannot be ascribed to antiquity alone. The first is its curious ineptitude at "speaking to" the other laws operating in and around forests...
Conservation in India has always been a bit of a tightrope walk. Communities that traditionally lived in and around forests, and their complex historical contexts, make the conservation argument an extremely fraught one. Moreover, we are a country still some way off from the "development goals" which were defined by history and are being upgraded constantly and exponentially on the same trajectory. Our model of economic development is still, largely, the product of a legacy which has carried on—mostly unquestioned and unchanged—from the global past. While this model ought to be questioned and revaluated on its own merits (which is happening), that is a discussion that merits its own space and time. Suffice for now to say that there are well-entrenched structures and institutions in place—across the world and in India—which ensure the active sustenance of such a model. Among these development-enabling structures, and one of the most telling evidences of the colonial hangover, are our forest laws, specifically, the Indian Forest Act of 1927.
Historically, forest-dwelling communities have always posed a bit of a problem for sovereign authorities in the subcontinent. Forests were for a long time inaccessible and beyond the administrative scope and capacity of rulers. Gradually, with the advent of colonisation and a more industrial outlook towards natural resources, forests began to interest the state a little more—enough to warrant concerted efforts to appropriate the wealth of these forests from their original occupants. Concepts which developed in English common law—of the "eminent domain" of the State, and "private property"—proved extremely useful in solving the forest dilemma. The concept of eminent domain was used to extend the scope of authority of the State over forest lands, and the concept of private property brought exclusive use and alienability to these lands. These two concepts formed the backbone of the Indian Forest Act of 1878—most of which was unchanged in the Act of 1927 and survives to this day. The historical context in which these provisions developed, and the context in which they are sought to be enforced today, are very different to say the least. The long title of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 reads thus: "An Act to consolidate the law relating to forests, the transit of forest produce and the duty leviable on timber and other forest produce." Forest conservation must operate within such a legislation; one which provides for the reservation of forests for economic use (reserved forests), and protection from the very people that have co-existed with them throughout history (protected forests).
This contradiction, between the object (conservation) and the tool (legislation), is glaring. To assume that this exercise will further the participatory model of forest conservation that the State of India is avowed to pursue (see the "current" National Forest Policy of 1988) is, to put it delicately, naïve.
Until the dissociated thinking that founds these laws is not addressed, forest conservation will remain a patchwork of small success stories embedded within a quilt which is becoming irreversibly threadbare.
Being anachronous is not the only vice of the Indian Forest Act—it has some failings which cannot be ascribed to antiquity alone. The first is its curious ineptitude at "speaking to" the other laws operating in and around forests in India—the Forest Rights Act, 2006 for example. The Forest Rights Act was enacted with the noblest of intentions—to rectify the historical injustices that had been the lot of forest dwellers for centuries. It "recognises" (rather than the paternalistic and authoritarian "grants") the rights of these people over forest resources, and provides a mechanism for formalising such recognition. The Indian Forest Act has its own provisions for community rights over their forest resources—section 28, specifically, provides for the assignment of rights to village communities, by the state government, over forest resources on which they depend. This may seem well meaning at the outset, but in operationalising this provision through rules, state governments have (whether intentionally or otherwise) sought to undermine the progressive Forest Rights Act in favour of a more State-involved regime with a greater degree of control on revenue-generating forest produce like bamboo. Contradictions like this abound in law. No real reconciliation is possible unless the contradictions between the avowed and practical objectives of the State machinery are sorted out first.
The diversity of contexts over which the Indian Forest Act extends its jurisdiction is another issue. Certain states in the northeast are testament to this. The failure of the Act is best brought out by the fact that in parts of Arunachal Pradesh, the best examples of coexistence between the state authorities (forest departments) and forest-dependent communities are ones which operate outside the rigid and unsympathetic confines of statutory regulation. Here, the state authorities, exercising their executive discretion, have recognized the role the communities have played in conserving their forest resources through sustainable use and chosen to work with them to ensure that the forests remain biodiverse. The fact that this exercise is not supported by the law represents another failure of the Indian Forest Act—a failure which must not be dismissed through the easy rhetorical route of "poor enforcement". It is a symptom of the schizophrenic policymaking that plagues forest laws in this country. Until these larger contradictions remain, and until the dissociated thinking that founds these laws is not addressed constructively, forest conservation will remain a patchwork of small success stories embedded within a quilt which is becoming irreversibly threadbare.