Serving notice on Indian forests

AFTER dithering for 2 years, the West Bengal government has agreed to restructure its forest administration to increase people's participation in managing forests. The government decision has come under pressure from the World Bank, which in June withheld further disbursement of grants to the Bank-funded, $34-million West Bengal Forestry Project begun in 1992.

The Bank had stated in the project agreement that the "(r) estructuring of the service organisation is proposed to ensure optimal use of manpower." It had disbursed $7.3 million under the agreement following the state government's assurance to comply with the stipulation by January 1994. But when, despite reminders, the West Bengal government failed to implement the proposal even by June 1994, the World Bank issued an ultimatum -- the next instalment of the grant would be withheld till the administrative reorganisation was done. The state government quickly caved in and has now said that the restructuring would be effected by September this year.

Bank officials say that the need for reorganising forestry staff stems from the change in the bank's strategy linking social forestry -- concerned primarily with fuel and fodder -- to integrated forestry. This, besides social forestry, includes almost all aspects of forestry such as conservation of biodiversity and industrial plantations.

The Bank insists that "instead of having separate staff for territorial, soil conservation and social forestry, the district level field staff should be integrated in one service and then subdivided on geographical lines as determined by the workload in each area".

Under the new system, the protection and conservation of forests would be the responsibility mainly of the forest protection committees (FPCs) to be made up of local users of forest produce. With the growth of the FPCs, the workload in a forest division is expected to increase, requiring the reorganisation of forestry staff to "serve these FPCs". Changes above the district level and upto the level of conservator of forest would be required "to obtain full benefit of coordination".
No comment The West Bengal officials refused to comment on the imminent restructuring. But officials in the Union ministry for environment and forests (MEF) said that they doubt whether they will be able to handle the restructuring of the forestry sector as demanded by the Bank because it is likely to erode the authority of forest officials who might oppose it.

Says Prabir Guhathakurta, the forest consultant to the Bank in India, "Forest officials will have to change their rigid attitude towards their traditional custodian role in forestry and give more responsibilities to peoples' institutions to ensure better results."

A similar fate awaits the forest bureaucracy in states such as Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra where World Bank-aided projects have been finalised.

Following a review of its forestry strategy in 1993, the Bank has drawn up stringent conditionalities for its second generation of projects. The new strategy is hinged on the privatisation and liberalisation of forestry rules.

Other donor agencies such as the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA), the Japanese and the British Overseas Development Agencies (ODA), and the European Community (EC), are equally aggressive in their demand for radical changes in the "archaic" forest administration to make it more people-friendly, a task which an ODA official likened to "teaching the dinosaur to dance".

Indian officials anticipate a far-reaching impact of the revised Bank strategy on forestry as policy reform is high on its agenda. It is aiming at restructuring of the forest administration, overhauling of the technology and management system to ensure higher productivity, changes in policy on the pricing of forest produce to make private forestry more competitive, and changes in policies on forestland use to allow industrial plantations (see box: Shape of things to come).

According to sources, the Bank's Board of Directors, in a meeting held in July in Washington, have expressed their intent to seriously enforce the conditionalities in India.

People's participation
Multilateral donor support to forestry in India has undergone significant changes in the past few years. The pace of funding is now picking up after having been a little sluggish at the turn of the decade (see box: External funding).

But the donor countries now want a slackening of the official hold over forestry. Says Eric Hanley of British ODA, which is sponsoring their largest forestry project in the Western Ghats, "We are working through the mainstream forest administration but are pressing for an attitudinal change so that policemen become social workers."

The catchword for all donor agencies is "people's participation". Says Hanley, "The focus has changed completely to building social institutions by involving people. It is not enough to look for only technical solutions to forestry problems."

Toshiyuki Yasui, first secretary of the Japanese embassy, agrees and says, "In our ongoing Aravalli project in Rajasthan, we have found joint forest management the most suitable and effective model of environment management."

The current emphasis on involving people in forest protection is crucial to the cost-effective strategy of the Bank and other donor agencies.

Even in the past, the Bank had arrived at the conclusion that the best possible way of keeping the project costs low is to have "initiatives outside public forestry". An evaluation of the Bank-aided Kerala Social Forestry project showed that the cost of the project shot up by almost 50 per cent when the share of the low-cost farm forestry plantation was reduced.

The Bank now wants the MEF to revise the rules on the use of forest land for industrial plantations, and slacken the ban on clear-felling of natural vegetation under the Forest Policy of 1988 and the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980. While plantations can "replace poor natural forests with highly productive plantations," the clear-felling of natural vegetation in degraded forests and replanting can help in improving productivity, according to Bank officials. To encourage private forestry, the Bank has asked for more liberal transit rules for timber.

The Bank wants to put a stop to free grazing and has even asked the Andhra Pradesh government to "analyse the impact of applying grazing charges" for the Bank-aided forestry project there.

Eager to push these changes, the Bank has made the review of the FCA and the Forest Policy of 1988 conditional to its Andhra project. The Andhra government has been asked to explore "form of partnership with large private industrial enterprises". The state government will also have to "clarify operational procedures for limited clear-felling of natural forests especially in degraded areas".

After initial resistance, the Andhra government has consented to take up industrial plantation on degraded forest land with equity money from the World Bank.

What the MEF says
Meanwhile, countering the allegations that the Bank is calling the shots, MEF officials claim that they had suggested most of the policy reforms to streamline their own system. They say that they had approached the Bank to change its strategy to "integrated forestry" to include all aspects of forestry.

This was done to set right an anomaly in the funding mechanism of the aided projects -- almost the entire fund allocated to state forestry got diverted to aided components at the cost of other aspects of forestry. Sector-wide comprehensive forestry funding was likely to ensure more a equitable distribution of funds.

Says inspector general of forests A K Mukherji, "We have thought about these changes and have even initiated them from time to time. We are not acting under pressure. Many aided projects have been modelled according to our domestic programmes which have shown remarkable flexibility even in allowing non-forestry components to win people over." He cites the example of the Bank-aided Kandi Watershed and Area Development Project in the Shivaliks of Haryana, which, he says, adopted minor irrigation component from the Himachal Pradesh government's Dhauladhar Social Forestry Project.

But what came out sharply in the evaluation of all earlier projects is the inefficiency of the Indian departments concerned in the execution of the projects. This even led to the withdrawal of support by donors.

Unsatisfactory performance forced SIDA to withdraw support to a social forestry project in Bihar in 1992. MEF officials attribute this to a recession in the North and a consequent cutback in financial assistance. But a review of the project found that the number of beneficiaries as well as the number of villages covered under the project were well below the target. SIDA also withdrew aid to the Bhopal-based Indian Institute of Forest Management after the former's recommendations on administrative and structural changes in the institute went unheeded.

A tight corner
Indian officials now find themselves in a tight corner as donors demand more effective support for better execution of the projects that they are funding. For instance, SIDA says that it would consider extending the Tamil Nadu Forestry Project beyond its expiry in 1995-96 only if the state government rectifies past mistakes.

MEF officials have always welcomed aid because the ministry's own funding is inadequate. But they scoff at criticism about increasing dependence on external aid. "Let the plan allocation to forestry (a mere 1 per cent at present) be stepped up substantially if aid is so repugnant to the critics," says a MEF official. "Aid is coming to all sectors. Why is forestry being listed for special censure?" says another official.

Officials decry that they will become subservient to the donors. They cite how effectively they were able to resist the Bank from arm-twisting them into accepting the taungayya system of forestry (a traditional system of intercropping of agricultural crops along with forest plantation) in the West Bengal forestry project since the FCA did not permit it.

But the official euphoria might be short-lived: the Bank is still insisting that taungayya be recognised. According to Bank officials, Indian officials are simply trying to gloss over a popular practice in Bengal by carefully avoiding acknowledging agricultural crops under taungayya and mentioning only intercropping of legumes for essential oils and medicinal plants in the agreement. But exhaustive evaluation of the project area by the Bank shows that the practice of taungayya with agricultural crops has considerable economic benefit accruing from it.

There is not much evidence, feel critics, to show that the MEF can resist the aggressive demand of the donors. Even the so-called acceptable changes such as slackening of rules on transit of timber and felling of certain species by private growers, reforms to promote local participation, and the introduction of the benefit-sharing system were initiated by the Bank-aided projects such as the National Social Forestry Project.

Says Madhu Sarin, an environmental activist from Chandigarh, "Some of the changes suggested by the Bank might seem alright -- and even desirous in principle -- but the implication of the Bank pushing for these is worrying. The initiative should have come from the government here."

The reason behind the loss of confidence in the MEF is its latest attempt in allowing industrial plantations on forest land. Sarin demands transparency in the ongoing attempts at the reforms by the MEF such as the amendment of the Indian Forest Act of 1927 and the preparation of National Forestry Action Plan. Says Sarin, "That is the only way we can ensure that the strings are not being pulled by the external forces the wrong way."

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