Patches of green

Patches of green It is introspection time. As the country's forest bureaucracy sits down to assess the progress of the joint forest management (JFM) programme, a decade after it was introduced in 1990, what comes out clearly is that its success has been limited to only some parts of the country. Even today, some states are yet to launch this programme. And even those states that have adopted JFM, the benefits are not reaching the local people.

Hyped as a shift to the participatory mode of forest management, the JFM concept largely remains unimplemented uniformly in the country, even though 22 states have adopted it. Of the total areas under JFM in the country, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh alone boast of 75 per cent of the areas, while 20 other states make up for the rest of the 25 per cent.

At a recently-held international workshop in New Delhi to assess the success, pitfalls and constraints of JFM, well-known social activist Anna Hazare said: "We have done good work, but have still a long way to go." Many forest experts feel that the local people still do not get a major part of the earnings from the regenerated forest. The government usually blocks the flow of income to the community by making provisions for different joint accounts and takes a large share of it as revenue, they say. The promised share in the regenerated timber hardly reaches the people. Till 1999, JFM was for protection and maintenance of degraded forest only. Only in February this year, the Union government issued an order extending it to 'better' forest areas.

"JFM is not taking shape because it doesn't see forest biodiversity as an integrated system and still looks on the basis of timber and non-timber forest produce," says Ashish Kothari of Kalpavriksh, a Pune-based non-governmental organisation which works on natural resources management. "JFM is not working due to corrupt forest officials," says Rajiv Mishra of the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun. "It has been successful only where individual groups or some forest officials have taken special interest," adds Kothari.

Even forest officials realise the importance of a suitable and equitable methods of benefit sharing. "If we ensure economic benefits to the main stakeholders -the villagers -there is no doubt that it will succeed," says Pradeep Kumar, a forest official from Uttar Pradesh. Agrees Ram Prasad, director, Indian Institute of Forest Management (IIFM), Bhopal: "The programme should be strengthened by making all institutions under it, particularly in the benefit sharing aspect, which would ensure community participation."

The issue of community participation and local planning has also been echoed by some prominent politicians. Sunder Lal Patwa, Union minister for rural development, accepts that "the forest communities have not degraded the forests, instead, they have protected it. Only the politicians, forest officials and big contractors are responsible for forest degradation."

Despite these candid submissions from government officials, little effort has been made to decentralise forest management. At a recent meeting of chief ministers held in New Delhi, it was decided that the Panchayats should get all the money for watershed development and for JFM. But experts feel that the benefits should go to the users' groups and not to the Panchayats. They believe that JFM institutions should be legalised. Moreover, government control over the forests should be minimised. "The environment ministry has been the worst caretaker of India's forests. They have just become a rubber stamp for the destruction of forests," says Bittu Sahgal, editor of the wildlife magazine Sanctuary.

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