Stuck in limbo

Mad­hya Pradesh's de­ci­sion to al­low pri­vate in­vest­ment in 36,000 sq km of forest­land has reignited an old de­bate


The Cen­tre's mi­croir­ri­ga­tion scheme is nowhere close to a launch, even af­ter two bud­gets and huge in­vest­ment

IN­DIA'S FIRST bam­boo in­vestors’meet in Bhopal opened another chap­ter in the con­tentious “forest­land for in­dus­try”de­bate that has haunted the coun­try for the past two decades. On June 20, Mad­hya Pradesh Chief Min­is­ter Shivraj Singh Chouhan, in a lauda­tory re­mark at the in­vestors’ meet, de­clared: “We have 36,000 sq km of de­graded forest­land in the state open for in­vestors.” While the pri­vate in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives present cheered him, for­est ac­tivists and for­mer bu­reau­crats saw this de­ci­sion as a fresh at­tempt to give in­dus­try ac­cess to forest­land. It was way back in 1995 that the is­sue of grant­ing in­dus­try ac­cess to forest­land first came in na­tional lime­light. Protests by civil so­ci­ety groups have re­peat­edly shot down such pro­pos­als (see ‘Lessons un­learnt’).

Be­fore Chouhan wel­comed in­vestors to take up bam­boo plan­ta­tion, the state gov­ern­ment had al­ready worked on a plan. Un­der the plan pri­vate in­dus­try can sign mem­o­randa of un­der­stand­ing (mous) with for­est pro­tec­tion com­mit­tees set up un­der the Joint For­est Man­age­ment (jfm) pro­gramme to take up bam­boo plan­ta­tion. Com­mit­tees set up un­der jfm have joint rep­re­sen­ta­tion of for­est of­fi­cials and the lo­cal com­mu­nity. It is known that for­est of­fi­cials usu­ally con­trol func­tion­ing of such com­mit­tees.A sim­i­lar at­tempt to give ac­cess to forest­land through jfm com­mit­tees was made in un­di­vided Andhra Pradesh in 2000 which was later scrapped.

Cir­cum­vent­ing laws

Mad­hya Pradesh has made changes in jfm rules to fa­cil­i­tate pri­vate­com­mu­nity part­ner­ship over forest­land. Rev­enue forests and re­served forests are con­served un­der jfm rules that have been in place since the 1990s. But Mad­hya Pradesh (MP) changed jfm by pass­ing two sets of rules—Gram Van Niyam2015 (per­tain­ing to rev­enue for­est) and San­rak­shit Van Niyam-2015 (per­tain­ing to re­serve forests).

“Un­der these two rules,in­vestors can sign mous with vil­lage com­mit­tees formed un­der jfm for plan­ta­tion or cul­ti­va­tion of bam­boo,” says A K Bhat­tacharya, di­rec­tor of the Mad­hya Pradesh State Bam­boo Mis­sion (mpsbm). mpsbm is the apex co­or­di­nat­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion for im­ple­ment­ing the ac­tiv­i­ties of the Na­tional Bam­boo Mis­sion in the state. How­ever,N C Sax­ena,for­mer Union sec­re­tary, ru­ral de­vel­op­ment, says,“It is illegal. It is against the For­est Rights Act (fra) that gives rights to com­mu­nity to de­cide on for­est pro­duce and land re­sources.”

Ac­cord­ing to Bhat­tacharya, the mis­sion has al­ready re­ceived in­vest­ment

pro­pos­als of ` 1,400 crore. “We are not giv­ing in­vestors land but help­ing them get into mous to un­der­take bam­boo plan­ta­tion and take away the pro­duce, ”he adds. There are no de­tails avail­able on how the in­vestors will share re­sources with the lo­cal com­mu­nity.

Madhu Sarin, a Chandi­garh-based for­est ac­tivist, says the move would be detri­men­tal to ecol­ogy. “jfm was an ad­min­is­tra­tive ar­range­ment which has no le­gal sanc­tity.The present no­ti­fi­ca­tions are in vi­o­la­tion of Cen­tral laws,” she says. “States have been try­ing to favour in­dus­tri­al­ists. They do not prop­erly im­ple­ment fra and over­ride Cen­tral laws,” she adds.

Anil Garg, an MP-based ad­vo­cate who works for land and for­est rights ,says,“These two rules are illegal and favour in­vestors, al­low­ing them op­por­tu­nity to grab land.” Ac­cord­ing to Garg, these rules over­ride a plethora of laws, in­clud­ing the Sched­ule XI of the Con­sti­tu­tion, the Pan­chay­ats (Ex­ten­sion to Sched­uled Ar­eas) Act, 1996, Sec­tion 29 of In­dian For­est Act,1927, fra and the land­mark 2011 judge­ment of the Supreme Court which says that the “gram sabha land must be kept for the com­mon use of vil­lagers”. The judge­ment was against an in­di­vid­ual who had built a house on com­mu­nity land in Ja­gir Ro­har vil­lage of Punjab’s Patiala dis­trict.

“By trans­fer­ring the de­ci­sion-mak­ing power from the gram sabha to jfm vil­lage com­mit­tees, the rights of com­mu­nity are be­ing in­di­rectly taken away,” says Garg.

“These com­mit­tees will eas- ily be man­aged and mis­used in the in­ter­est of in­vestors,” he adds.

The un­der­min­ing of con­sti­tu­tional rights through rules will in­duce con­flict, es­pe­cially in sched­uled and tribal ar­eas set up un­der Sched­ule V of the Con­sti­tu­tion. These ar­eas have a dif­fer­ent ad­min­is­tra­tive setup and the gram sabha in these ar­eas has the first right over mi­nor for­est pro­duce (that in­cludes bam­boo) and re­sources.

“Tribal pop­u­la­tions de­pend on de­graded for­est for their live­stock, fod­der and for­est pro­duce.If these are taken away, it will cre­ate con­flict,” says San­jay Upad­hyay, a Delhi-based en­vi­ron­ment lawyer who was present at the Bhopal in­vestors’ meet.

There is another prob­lem, he says. “States like Ut­tarak­hand and Odisha have clearly no­ti­fied vil­lage forests. But their de­mar­ca­tion and iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in Mad­hya Pradesh is un­clear and would cre­ate another com­plex­ity.”

Fear of mis­use

Sarin fears that nor­mal forest­land would be di­verted in the name of de­graded forest­land. “If in­vestors don’t show in­ter­est in de­graded forest­land, the gov­ern­ment will di­vert prime forest­land be­cause there is no mon­i­tor­ing agency to over­see the process.”

Amitabh Singh of De­bate, a Bhopal­based non-profit work­ing for de­cen­tral­i­sa­tion of gov­er­nance, says, “No in­vestor is in­ter­ested in bar­ren land. More­over, once the land gets di­verted, what is the guar­an­tee that it will be used for bam­boo plan­ta­tion?”

Upad­hyay also says that the state gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion of di­vert­ing de­graded forest­land would not at­tract in­vestors.

“From what I have ob­served, once a piece of land is taken over by in­dus­try, it is rarely used for plan­ta­tion. For ex­am­ple, there has been no as­sess­ment how much land in Mad­hya Pradesh is un­der ja­t­ropha, a bio­fuel, even af­ter crores of ru­pees were in­vested by the gov­ern­ment in 2008 to pro­mote ja­t­ropha cul­ti­va­tion,” Singh adds.

Lib­er­al­is­ing bam­boo

In 2003, then Plan­ning Com­mis­sion of In­dia had sug­gested lib­er­al­is­ing the bam­boo sec­tor and had rec­om­mended that bam­boo be treated as a plan­ta­tion and hor­ti­cul­ture crop, with­out any re­stric­tion on its move­ment and felling for com­mer­cial pur­poses. But noth­ing sub­stan­tial has been done so far for the pro­mo­tion of the sec­tor. Ac­cord­ing the Na­tional Bam­boo Mis­sion, the sec­tor has a mar­ket worth ` 50,000 crore and could help in bring­ing mil­lions out of poverty.

But ac­tivists re­main sus­pi­cious about the re­newed fo­cus of the gov­ern­ment on bam­boo. MP-based Tribal Rights ac­tivist, Anurag Modi, says, “In 2003, the World Bank came up with a re­port for in­vest­ment in for­est. All these ef­forts are only be­ing made to fol­low their line and open for­est for in­vest­ments.This is just another at­tempt to pri­va­tise forest­land.”


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