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Joint Management of Forests: Small Gains

The joint forest management programme in place for the last 10 years was a response to a crisis situation - evident in the rapid deforestation and the state's inability to police the forests on its own. The need now is for a pro-active stance that would lead to a genuine devolution. This calls for an enhanced focus on skill development and capacity building for all the stakeholders involved - forest officials, NGOs and the local community that would facilitate a forward-looking and anticipatory approach, to forest management.

Joint forest management (JFM) as a part of the National Forest Policy in India was introduced in the form of guidelines issued by ministry of environment and forests (MoEF), on June 1, 1990. This was preceded by success stories of participatory forest management in West Bengal (Arabari area), Haryana (Sukhmejan Project) and Gujarat (south Gujarat initiatives by AKRSP and others). The guidelines envisaged the involvement of NGOs, village communities and state governments in management, protection and regeneration of (degraded) forests. After 10 years the quantitative achievements include: 22 state governments having adopted JFM; 10.24 million hectare of forest land managed by 36,075 JFM committees. JFM has led to increased forest cover in many areas as indicated by remote sensing imageries. It has helped in improving livelihood conditions of the forest communities specially in Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. In the latter it is said to have weaned away some of the tribals from the Naxalites.

While assessing such claims, it was pointed out that the often reported aggregate quantitative (and even qualitative) changes conceal the significant uneveness in the progress and performance of JFM in different areas. These differences are largely a consequence of disregarding the biophysical as well as socio-cultural diversities (including administrative capacities, depth and spread of rent-seeking culture, the degree of administrative flexibility and political will) characterising different states, while conceiving and implementing JFM programmes. The latter under the central government order, i e, guidelines (supported by donor funds in many cases) have uniform norms and procedures, which do not fit diverse local realities. The cases such as shifting cultivation areas in the north-east involving forest-crop rotation as against permanent forests may call for different approach (e g, lengthening the fellow period); sal forest areas in West Bengal and Orrisa benefiting from high regenerative capacities of nature require different management and incentive structures than say arid parts of Gujarat and Rajasthan where grass and shrubs are key products; mountain areas as well as tribal areas in plains where ‘traditional social capital’ (e g, culture of group action) still survives to facilitate community mobilisation for JFM in contrast to the more market-oriented and ‘subsidy-spoiled’ areas like the Punjab, where communities want share of products from the forest department without contributing any input to JFM, etc, amply demonstrate me potential constraints amending the uniform applicability of common procedures and norms of JFM designed to cover the whole country. In some areas where due to domination of market forces or for a variety of socio-political processes the communities are highly differentiated, JFM (essentially an institutional programme) may have a very limited scope. The not very encouraging experience of JFM in Punjab or in the north as compared to the southern parts of the West Bengal, or in parts of Kangra district of Himachal bordering Punjab (called new Himachal) compared to old Himachal, would illustrate this point. Thus the broad guidelines with sufficient area specific flexibility needs to be the part of future direction of JFM movement.

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