The Union government’s plan to promote greater partnership of tribal communities and other local communities in joint forest management is a welcome move that could be a game-changer in Naxalite-affected areas. Alienation of tribal communities, especially from common forest property resources, has been an important factor pushing tribals into the arms of extremist Maoist groups. It is, therefore, no coincidence that Maoist activity is most pronounced in tribal areas. Though in many of the Naxalite-affected areas forest management is even today in the hands of joint forest management (JFM) committees, in reality there is a total disconnect between the tribals subsisting on forest produce and the forest department staff, who virtually control these committees. In fact, both view each other with suspicion due to a lack of trust. The Centre’s move to bring the JFM bodies under the Panchayati Raj institutions, such as gram sabhas or gram panchayats, instead of forest departments, and route forest development funds through these institutions may, therefore, help mitigate the alienation of the tribals. This route for the flow of development funding is now legally mandated in the scheduled areas of nine states — under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996. This statute actually goes even beyond funding as it confers the ownership of the minor produce of the forests to the Panchayati Raj institutions. This apart, the JFM concept, stipulating greater role for local stakeholders, rather than government officials, in managing the forests is neither new nor untested.
The Indian Forest Policy of 1988 had laid considerable emphasis on the need for people’s participation in natural forest management. Significantly, the adoption of this policy was followed by a formal government resolution in 1990 on participatory forest management. Both these documents emphasised the role of local communities in the development, maintenance and protection of forest resources. The communities inhabiting forests and fringe areas all over the country rely heavily on the woodlands for fodder, fuel and non-timber forest produce. They have traditionally been accessing this produce under various conventions and legal rights. It is, indeed, in areas where the forest-dwellers are denied legitimate access to the forest produce that they tend to indulge in clandestine (dubbed by the forest officials as illicit) extraction of such produce to meet their genuine needs. But in situations where village communities themselves are vested with the responsibility of managing and safeguarding the forests, they make sure that their basic needs are met in a sustainable manner without impairing the overall production capacity of the forests. Village forest management committees often ensure forest protection through social fencing and regular voluntary patrolling by the villagers themselves. There have also been instances where JFM has actually improved the economic health of the forests which forest departments rarely manage to achieve. Of course, it is equally true that there have been cases where the JFM concept has not worked well, but the successes far outnumber the failures. This should inspire confidence in the outcome of the government’s move to use participatory development in the forested areas as a tool for countering Maoist influence.