India's tribal ministry slams proposal to 'privatise' forests
BANGKOK: In a rare rebuke of another government agency, India's Tribal Affairs Ministry has sent a letter to the forest ministry warning that its proposed policy would lead to the "privatisation" of forests and undermine indigenous rights.
The draft National Forest Policy 2018, released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change in March, suggests allowing plantations of teak, eucalyptus and bamboo in forest lands under public-private partnerships.
That could open the door for private firms to grow and harvest commercial plantations, which would hurt the ecology and deprive tribal communities of their livelihoods, analysts say.
"The policy has disregarded the traditional custodians and conservationists of the forests, namely tribals," the Tribal Affairs Ministry said in a June 19 letter, a copy of which was provided to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
A spokesman for the forest ministry acknowledged receiving the letter, and said on Thursday: "All feedback on the draft policy is being considered. We will incorporate suggestions where feasible."
The draft forest policy ignores existing laws that give tribal people and forest dwellers rights over the resources, said the letter signed by Leena Nair, former secretary in the tribal ministry, who has since retired.
It ignores the "intrinsic and symbiotic link" between forests and the communities living there, and instead allows "increased privatisation, industrialisation and diversion of forest resources for commercialisation", the letter said.
India has pledged to keep a third of its total land area under forest and tree cover, but a growing population and increasing demand for industrial projects are placing greater stress on these lands.
Under the 2006 Forest Rights Act (FRA), at least 150 million people could have their rights recognised to about 40 million hectares (154,400 sq miles) of forest land.
But progress has been slow, and campaigners say many states have rejected the recognition of community rights.
The new policy seeks to amend the 1988 forest law "by incorporating elements of ecosystem security, climate change mitigation, participatory forest management (and) robust monitoring," according to the draft.
But campaigners say it would undermine a 1996 law, which gives indigenous people the right to govern their lands, as well as the FRA, which gives them the right to inhabit and live off forests.
In its letter, the Tribal Affairs Ministry has "unequivocally reminded" the forest ministry that it must be consulted on policies affecting indigenous people, said Geetanjoy Sahu, who has researched forest rights.
"This is a speed-breaker for the policy, but it is unclear if it can change the direction of the policy," said Sahu, who works with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai.