Liberalization of Forest Conservation Act & Regulations
Dr Ramesh Chand
Forestry is part of agriculture and allied sectors which comprise four segments namely, crops, livestock, fishery and forestry. Out of these, first three segments have witnessed sort of revolution like green revolution, white revolution, and blue revolution etc. This resulted in more than 3.05 per cent annual growth in their output during in the last 50 years. However, output of forestry increased by mere 0.54 per year which is not even one third of growth rate in population. This has very serious economic and ecological implications. Per capita availability of wood and wood products produced in the country followed a steep decline and India had to meet large part of domestic demand for wood and products from imports. Insignificant growth in forestry also mean little growth in environment and ecology friendly production. This has far reaching implications for carbon sequestration, water balance and health of natural eco system. Output of forestry comes from three sources viz. public forest, privately owned land and other land types owned by Centre and states, panchayats, communities etc. Due to various reasons extraction of wood and wood based products and setting up of wood based industry is strictly regulated by Forest Conservation Acts and various regulations. The total land area under forest in India is 23.4 million hectare. There is rationale toban or check commercial extraction of forest produce especially wood and wood products in such areas. However, there is huge possibility of raising forestry and trees outside this forest area to meet goals related to economic growth, environment, ecology and sustainability. The biggest scope is on agricultural land by adopting agro forestry. Out of total cultivable land, 26 million hectare remains fallow. This is more than total area under forests in the country. India also has 12 million hectare of culturable waste lands. There are huge possibilities of raising trees on fallow land, culturable waste and on field boundaries. At present, forestry plantations on private non forest land covers very small area and most of tree species grow only naturally. They are not sufficient to meet domestic demand for wood. As a result India has been importing large quantity of wood and wood products which has shown rising trend till 2018-19 when imports reached $6126 million or Rs. 42841 crore. The reasons for very low interest in tree plantations and agro-forestry needs closer examination. There is no demand side constraint as the prices and import of wood and wood based products follow rising trend in the country. Till a few years back there were strict restrictions on felling of trees grown on non forest private land and their inter-state movement required Transit permit. This even discouraged naturally growing trees on private lands as landowners had to follow cumbersome procedures to get permission for selling such trees. In the meantime country came with National Forest Policy 1988 and National Agro-forestry Policy 2014 to encourage tree plantation in the country. In the wake of all this MoEFCC issued fresh guidelines to States and UTs for “Felling and Transit Regulations for Tree Species Grown on Non Forest Private Lands” on 18 Nov. 2014. These guidelines clearly specified list of tree species exempted from any restrictions for felling and liberalised transit rules for tree species grown on private land. Subsequently, this matter was taken up by the NITI Aayog with States/UTs as a part of Reforms related to Agriculture and Allied Sectors. Some states issued their own notifications to comply with the guidelines issued by the central government. However, the matter was not very actively followed in most of the states.
Even the limited follow up of liberalization of restrictions on felling and transit of trees raised on private land showed large impact on growth of output of forestry and reduction in import of wood and wood based products. A year after the notification on relaxation of restrictions on felling of Tree Species grown on Private Land, output of forestry sector show more than 5 per cent annual growth for three consecutive years. This never happened before (since 1950-51). Similarly, import of wood and wood based products declined by 5% in two years after 2014-15 and fluctuated thereafter rather than moving on rising trend. Field reports indicate that area under agro-forestry species, like poplar, has seen large increase in some pockets in the country. However, the information about removal of restrictions on felling of trees has not percolated down in large parts of the country. There is a need to take this information to village level. There is also a need for complete liberalization of felling and free transport of tree material in the country to encourage greening of India. In the present day of technology there are ways to ascertain source of supply i.e., whether the produce is from forest land or private land. Technological options are now available for faster and better quality production of various tree species. However, due to various kind of regulatory restrictions markets for tree species remain highly underdeveloped. If these constraints are removed, forestry sector has the potential for “brown revolution” like other three sub sectors of agriculture and allied sectors.
(The author is Member, NITI Aayog).