New Delhi: In July 2017, then Union minister for environment, forests and climate change Dr. Harsh Vardhan assured Parliament a new forest policy was being drafted and would be ready soon, 29 years after the last. The policy aims to yoke together all three central forest laws, which are currently working at cross-purposes because of changes in rules and regulations that tend to undermine forest conservation in favour of industries.

To date, the Modi government has yet to deliver on the promise of a forest policy. Records reviewed by The Reporters’ Collective reveal the Parliamentary Committee on Assurances – an accountability watchdog - reprimanded the ministry for repeatedly trying to backtrack on the assurance made in Parliament after twice having had to roll back forest policy drafts. The policy drafts, which were put up for scrutiny in 2016 and 2018, had come under fire for ignoring the rights of tribal people and forest dwellers and facilitating corporate entry into forests.

While the Centre abandoned its responsibility to create a policy for governing the nation's forest resource, it instead made several dilutions to green laws through tweaks to rules and executive orders, making it easier for project developers to extract from forests. Executive orders do not require prior Parliamentary approval.

The government finally amended the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 in August 2023 to bring the changes it had tried to bring in through the 2016 and 2018 drafts.

“The National Forest Policy is important because it lays down the overall vision of the state on how forests should be governed and the legal mechanisms that need to be established to ensure participatory forest management and the recognition of rights of communities. The 1988 policy shifted the focus from colonial extraction and revenue-oriented policy to forest dwellers’ rights and their participation in forest management,” said Tushar Dash, an independent researcher working on community forest rights.  

“The 2018 draft policy nullified the progress of the 1988 policy when it came to tribal rights and people’s participation. But the Centre still moved forward and brought the changes it wanted through executive orders and through amendments to the Forest Conservation Act. These go back to an extraction-oriented framework that favours private businesses,” he said.

Two U-Turns in Three Years

In 2016, the Union Ministry for Environment made public a draft of the new forest policy. However, the government later disowned the draft after it received strong criticism for disregarding the rights of tribals and forest dwellers, which had already been legalised in 2006 by the Forest Rights Act. Additionally, the draft was criticised for making corporates’ entry into forests easier.

Amid the cloud of uncertainty and policy vacuum, Lallu Singh, a parliamentarian from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, asked the ministry in 2017 if they had decided to have a new forest policy and when it was planning to do so. Without giving any time frame, then environment minister Vardhan informed Parliament that his ministry had tasked the Indian Institute of Forest Management in Bhopal to prepare a draft of the National Forest Policy. The institute had submitted it but the ministry was yet to finalise it. The Centre assured Parliament that it was in the process of finalising the new forest policy. 

 The environment minister told the Parliament in 2017 that the government was drafting the National Forest Policy.

Unlike elsewhere, ministers are held to their words given on the floor of the House. An assurance given to Parliament has to be implemented within three months, according to the Manual of Parliamentary Procedures in the Government of India. If the ministry or government department is unable to complete its job in time, it has to seek an extension. In cases where the government fails to implement its assurance, it has to request the Committee on Government Assurances to drop it.

This 15-member committee scrutinises ministerial promises, assurances and undertakings in Parliament and reports to Lok Sabha on their implementation within the stipulated time.

The Union government drew up another draft national forest policy in 2018. This too, repeated the transgressions of the previous one and prioritised the interests of the private sector over the rights of tribal and other forest-dependent communities. The government later went quiet on this draft policy as well.

Faced with setbacks twice, the government tried to wriggle out of the commitment. In 2019, the government asked the Parliamentary committee it not be held to its assurance to have a new National Forest Policy. The committee did not agree.

The Modi government set out, for the third time, to see through a forest policy. In May 2020, the Union Environment Ministry prepared a cabinet note, a formal document outlining the policy proposal for which it is seeking approval, on a new forest policy and submitted it to the cabinet secretary, the senior most bureaucrat of the Union government reporting to the Prime Minister. But the Cabinet Secretariat, for reasons unknown, returned the note in September 2021, asking the environment ministry to revise it. The environment ministry did not bother to revise.

Instead, it again asked the committee on assurances in 2021 that it be relieved of its commitment. The committee, once again, rejected the ministry’s request and “emphasised the need to safeguard ecological balance and livelihood (sic) security of people and future generations based on preservation, expansion and sustainable management of forests and recommended that the assurance be brought to its logical end”.

The Committee on Government Assurances rejected, twice, the environment ministry’s requests to drop the assurance on implementing National Forest Policy.

The Committee, in its report tabled in the Lok Sabha in December 2022, reprimanded the Centre for not fulfilling its assurance to bring in a forest policy even after a lapse of five years. It said that after directing the ministry to “pursue the matter vigorously”, it “could have made concerted and coordinated efforts at least from 2020 onwards to expedite implementation of this Assurance, which has not taken place unfortunately”.

The observations of the Committee on Government Assurances (2022-23) regarding implementation of forest policy.

Pending Assurances, a watered-down regime

The ministry of environment has against its name a long list of assurances that it broke or dragged on inordinately. The Committee on Government Assurances (2022-23) noted that there were 49 such assurances from the ministry that were pending implementation. Of these, 40 assurances were made in the current Lok Sabha, six in the 16th Lok Sabha elected in 2014 and the remaining three were given to the House elected after the 2009 elections.

Since the delay ranged from three to 11 years for 9 assurances given by the 15th and 16th Lok Sabha, the committee had sought clarity on how the ministry planned to fulfil the promises it made.

While the ministry said that it prioritised its assurances, it informed the committee that there was no fixed timeframe and frequency of meetings to review pending assurances. They also said that they had been “trying to conduct regular reviews since last one or two months”.

The environment ministry told the Committee that there was no fixed timeframe for reviewing assurances given in the Parliament.

The Committee looked at 21 of the 49 pending assurances. These were on forest policy, amendments to environment and biodiversity laws, river zone regulation, coastal management, regulation on hunting, and conservation of Western Ghats among others. Though the government implemented 14 of the 21 pending assurances, the promise of a new national forest policy continued to be on the back burner.

But the government hadn’t exactly given up. They over the years began deconstructing the contentious elements of the policy draft and patching them on to the fabric of existing laws – without a policy in place to be held accountable to. As part of the manoeuvre, by August 2023, the government brought in wholesale changes to a key forest law. The amended Forest Conservation law aligns with disputed provisions in the 2016 and 2018 draft National Forest Policy.

 The Centre’s communiques show that it relies in principle on the 2018 draft policy even though it wasn’t officially finalised. A Press Information Bureau press release from July 2023 reads: “Ministry has formulated draft National Forest Policy after wide consultations with various stakeholders, including inter-ministerial consultations, and placed in public domain in 2018. The draft Policy recommends to integrate climate change mitigation and adaptation measures in forest management including resilience to climate change by forest-dependent communities”.

(Part two: How the controversial, business-friendly elements of the shelved draft forest policies were weaved into forest laws.Read the second and concluding parts here.)