IT WAS icing gone sour on a cake you can break your teeth on. On January 4 this year, the Madhya Pradesh food and civil supplies minister, Ramesh Solomonand, griped to the press about his disapproval of the state forest department's decision to impose a total ban on the collection of any forest produce in the national parks and sanctuaries under its jurisdiction.
Solomonand was concerned that the measure would deprive "poor tribals living around the specified regions of their livelihood". Agreeing with him, many of his party colleagues in Bhopal and New Delhi goaded the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) into initiating measures for an eventual reversal of the decision.
While party mandarins denied the serious implications of this deafening protest from within its own leadership, it became clear that the Congress is already lost in deep 'woods over the proposed Conservation of Forests and Natural Ecosystems Act. Some nonCongress state governments have already denounced it volubly.
Non-governmental organisations have already held a national level workshop on the issue, and are planning to launch a muscular nationwide campaign from mid-March. Further, there are clear indications that movements for autonomous regions in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will make it their prime enemy target very soon. It is a surprisingly all-party consensus that is predicting that forest-dependent people are bound to react.
Since November last year, politicians, NG0s, ecologists, lawyers and others have been voicing their dissent, and although there is little by way of a concerted movement, the clout of the dissenters is massively broadbased.
Senior MEF officials reveal that at least 3 state governments have sent in acerbic critiques. Rajasthan's colourful chief minister, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, says, "This is the latest example of the Narasimha Rao government's repeated attempts at denying the states their rights to enjoy natural resources.
Orissa's Biju Patnaik and Jyoti Basu of West Bengal share Shekhawat's views. They flagellate the Bill for stripping the states of all their previous authority over forests. Their ire has been stoked by Section 77 (1) of the draft Bill, which says that any rules made by the state forest administration need Central approval before notification.
Besides, if the law comes through, the states will have to surrender all their rights over a giant annual kitty of Rs 1,100 crow - the last available figures (1990) for revenue from forest products. Sections 27 (A), 29 (2) and 34 (4) empower the Central government to 'stringently direct the use of forests". Despite waffling governmentese, the financial implications are clear.
Other factors are equally galling. Parnaik, pugnacious at the best of times, splutters that the strong conservationist orientation of the proposed Bill will be 'used entirely to check developmental activities in the states".
Politicians from regions gripped by strong movements for autonomy voice other concerns. Major-General (Retd) B C Kiomduri, the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Garlawal, is convinced that "it is only a matter of time before the proposed forest Bill becomes a target of the Uttarakhand movement". Leaders from Bihar's Jharkhand region, regardless of party affiliations, echo similar apprehensions.
Indeed, grousing is on within the ruling Congress itself. One 1ok Sabha member Emma tribal belt of Madhya Pradesh spoke darkly about its grassroots workers cautioning leaders that tribal are extremely tureasy with the proposed legislation.
The view from the grass
Such grassroots level awareness is a very recent development and has come about almost entirely due to information dissemination by NGOs and voluntary agencies working with forest- dependent people- In fact, the NGOs had tapped leaking Congress sources and knew of the gavernmerit's plans in May last year. However, recent attitudinal shifts have lent the NGOs a new sense of immediacy.
"Within the NGOS, there has been a rise of elements who have begun to call for an outright rejection of the Bill," says Ashwini Chhatre of Delhi's Indian Social Institute. They oppose "those who seem to be willing to go along with the basic structure of the Bill, calling for only a few reformative changes".
Chhatre, who is coordinating the anti-forest Bill lobby,, insists, "The for" department aims to slow down, even reverse, whatever trends India has witnessed of popular participation in forest management since the mid-80s."
Environmental researchers and academicians have exposed the dubious use made of several general ecological concepts, reaffirming the NGOs' conviction that they are right in demanding complete withdrawal. For instance, Sections 1.12 and 13(D) say that the communities' rights to collect fuelwood and fodder will be subject to the carrying capacity" of forests. moreover, if forest officials are convinced that an area is already degraded, they can stop communities from using it until the land "is restored to its original productive capacitr.
Seemingly to keep forests healthy, such apparently useful measures are unacceptable to experts, who point out that "carrying capacity" is very difficult to define or estimate accurately because it depends upon multifarious factors. And, as Amita Baviskar, a Delhi University lecturer and environmental activist, points out, "Our foresters have failed miserably in establishing the carrying capacities of national parks or sanctuaries even for a single species -saytigers or elephants." It is naive to expect them to map the forest lands in their entirety. Without such data, they will be free to take arbitrary anti-people decisions.
Critics decry the insensitive approach towards shifting cultivation, or jhum, widely practiced in the northeast, The Bill seeks to ban jhum within 3 years of notification of the identification of the practice, and to immediately ban jhum on any slope with a gradient of over 30 degrees. It also makes Central permission mandatory for farming on any slope inclined between 10-30 degrees. "Which sensible government would want to spare time or effort to go around measuring the gradient of every patch? " asks Mahesh Rangarajan.
Rangarajan says research has firmly established that largescale commercial extraction of timber poses a much greater environmental threat for the northeast. But "no such curbs as proposed on jhum are applicable on commercial forestry here".
Critics also revile the pacifying lollipop of "people's participation" in forest protection: first because, while village forests can be declared "reserved", the reverse will be prohibited. And with the forest department having already cornered the best pieces of land, "where will good quality land for village forests come from?" asks Chhatre.
The provisions for arresting without warrant, on mere suspicion that some- one may possess forest produce illegally have been branded as "simply Draconian".
Judicial elbow power
Vociferous support from the legal community has given more power to the NGOS'elbows. Rajiv Dhawan, a Supreme Court advocate specialising in environmental laws, fears that "the provisions will enable maverick environmental authorities to claim they are ecologically sensitive, even as they perpetrate disasters". He also feels that many of the provisions run counter to the spirit of the panchayati raj legislation enshrined in the Constitution through the 73rd amendment.
A sitting Supreme Court judge opines, "The Bill seems to replace all natural rights to forests with mere concessions Maverick granted by the state."
The 3rd encouraging enviromental factor for the NGOs is the draft People's Natural Resource Management Bill prepared by P R Seshagiri Rao and Madhav Gadgil of the Centre of Ecological Sciences at the Bangalore- based Indian Institute of Science. Regarded by some as the alternative forest bill, this document addresses itself to a "sustainable, biodiversity- friendly, integrated, people-oriented system". Rao says that the underlying principle of their draft is "the recognition that any sustainable system must be based on the empowerment of the masses".
Convinced that their protests against the government's draft Bill may find legal legs after all, NGOS are gearing up for an all-out attack. Now corralling mass responses at 4 regional levels, some groups will first hold 2 major meetings towards January-end in Madhya Pradesh and Chhotanagpur. By mid-March, they will convene again to evaluate the responses and try to hammer out a consensual alternative draft.
AD this does lend a semblance of unfolding activity. But, warns Rao, "It will have to be seen whether the groups will actually be able to develop a concrete strategy to chatmelise their opposition." Much more brainstorming and purposeful action is required before such a strategy can emerge, he says. Chhatre also talks about the need to gather popular support.
Aware of these developments, the bigwigs in the MEF are uneasy but are putting up a brave front. The minister himself feels that, lacking a popular support base, the NGOS' will probably achieve little. The quiet but firm inspector general, forests, A Ahmed, however, says: "Mark my words - we will be there." There is an army of disgruntled people chafing to prove him wrong.