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Forest Community a Neglected lot in India
Sunday January 25, 2015 3:17 PM, Syed Ali Mujtaba

The forest community is the most neglected lot in our country. While the vote bank politics has reached to the lower segment of the society, the bounties of shining India has yet to reach the communities that have been living in the forest since time immemorial. Perhaps their miniscule vote-bank makes them a innocuous lot to make electoral difference and such are subjected to deprivation and neglect.

As such India continues to follow the colonial forest laws that alienate the communities from their land and resources. At present, the government recognizes community rights over their forests under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, and empowers the gram sabha (village council) to protect and manage them. But the law remains poorly implemented as forest departments continue to resist ceding any control over forests.

Community right over forests is critical to sustenance of rural and forest communities and also for the conservation of the forests. Under the Forest Rights Act, the government has allowed gram-sabhas to manage and protect forests, but the community rights are recognized only for over 2.5 million hectare of forests. This is in contrast Forest Survey of India report of 1999, which identifies 31 million hectare of forests lay within revenue villages.

Further, this mostly has habitation rights for tribal families and hardly includes community forests. It is obvious that government policies are such that the forest people are hardly benefitting from the forests.

Forest Rights Act does not provide explicit rights to communities over timber. Government only recognizes community rights over timber but not over non-timber forest produce.

As a result forest communities are deprived from the benefit of the sale of most lucrative non-timber forest produce such as bamboo and 'Tendu' leaf that are controlled by the forest department.

While the forests in India are legally owned by the government, the standing forests are now seen as unproductive entities. Government owned forests provide only 2.5 million cubic meters (cum) of timber a year. This is meager to meet India's soaring timber demand, which is expected to increase from 74 million cubic meters in 2005 to 153 million cubic meters in 2020, says CSE report.

The forest department's priorities conservation over production but CSE report suggests that India is fast losing its forest cover. The report says, our country might have lost 9.4 million ha of government-managed forests between 1999 and 2013.

Certainly, something is wrong with the way forests are being managed in India. The obvious indication is since the forest community are non- beneficiary to forest resources, they are willing accomplice in the lucrative illicit trade that is going on unaccounted in the Indian forests.

In comparison to India, Nepal has a far better record in managing forest communities in South Asia. About 23 per cent of the forests in Nepal are under community forestry for over 20 years and are managed by over 17,600 community forestry user groups.

Nearly 33% of Nepal's rural population has benefited from the earnings from the forests. Community forestry user group villages have improved their livelihood when compared with non community forestry user group villages. There are federations of community forestry user groups which protect the rights of communities against the government policies diluting community rights. These communities are also known for transparency, equity, equal women's representation. It's a remarkable feat for a developing country like Nepal.

While Nepal has among the best track records in Asia, Mexico is among global leaders with more than 70 per cent of its forests (65 million hectors) are controlled by about 35,000 indigenous and rural communities. The earning from forests has slowed down migration from villages to towns.

In Mexico, more than 500 communities are operating as market-based community forest enterprises which harvest their forests, own and operate saw mills, produce furniture and also sell non-timber forest produce.

A total of over 2,300 communities (having 300 hectors to 20,000 hectors of forests each) have forest management rights, with timber-logging permits over 8 million hectors of forests. More than 80 per cent of Mexico's timber production (6.8 million cubic meters) comes from community forests.

Individuals are not allowed a share of the profit which is used for community purposes such as education, health facilities, roads, public buildings, and water and sewage structures or is reinvested in the business.

Community forestry has also restored the ecological value of forests which was lost due to severe exploitation by the timber industry during the period of private forest concessions in the 20th century.

Satellite data shows that between 1990 and 2010, Mexico's deforestation rate has reduced from 354,000 hector per year to 155,000 hector per year.

This has happened after a long period of struggle waged by the community. Communities had to fight to gain their right over forests and to get actual control over forests. This struggle saw a transformation of the government from being a controller of forests to a facilitator of community forestry.

Unfortunately, India has been lagging behind in granting rights over forests to its communities. The CSE report indicates that Nepal and Mexico have made great progress in recognizing forest rights of indigenous people.

This is important in the current context in India where the government is pushing for the dilution of Forest Rights Act and where standing forests are almost seen as unproductive resources, waiting only to be chopped for the non-forest use.

India needs to learn from these countries to mage its forests and the communities living there. Our forest laws have to be amended and the state has to loosen its control over the forests, letting forest communities to benefit from them.

The government should look towards democratizing forest governance and enabling communities in forest management by recognizing community rights under the Forest Rights Act, to make standing forests productive for people.

The time bomb of global warming is ticking on our head. We cannot afford anymore depletion of our forest cover. It is high time that the policy paralysis that rules the roost in forest management has to be attended. The forest community too has stakes in the development of the country as others do. They should not be deprived of the basic rights that are provided to common Indian.

[Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at His write-up, 'Witness to Environmental Degradation Scene in India' can be accessed at; degradation.html]

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