Insights into Editorial: Unable to see the bamboo for the trees

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Insights into Editorial: Unable to see the bamboo for the trees


Context:

Centre promulgated Indian Forest (Amendment) Ordinance to encourage bamboo cultivation in non-forest areas.  Centre to “de-regulate” bamboo production by amending the definition of “trees” under the Indian Forest Act (IFA), 1927.

The ordinance exempts bamboo grown in non-forest areas from the definition of tree, thereby dispensing with the requirement of felling and transit permit for its economic use.

Bamboo grown in the forest areas shall continue to be governed by the provisions of Indian Forest Act.

Why was the amendment promulgated?

Bamboo, though, taxonomically a grass, was legally defined as a tree under the Indian Forest Act, 1927.  

Before this amendment, the felling and transit of bamboo grown on forest as well as non-forest land attracted the provisions of the Indian Forest Act and was a major impediment for bamboo cultivation by farmers on non-forest land.  

In November 2017, the Central government issued an ordinance whereby “bamboo” was deleted from the clause that defines “trees” in the IFA.

Indian Forest Act, 1927

The Indian Forest Act, 1927 was largely based on previous Indian Forest Acts implemented under the British. The most famous one was the Indian Forest Act of 1878.

  • Both the 1878 act and the 1927 one sought to consolidate and reserve the areas having forest cover, or significant wildlife, to regulate movement and transit of forest produce, and duty leviable on timberand other forest produce.
  • It also defines the procedure to be followed for declaring an area to be a Reserved Forest, a Protected Forest or a Village Forest.
  • It defines what a forest offence is, what are the acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on violation of the provisions of the Act.

The British mis-definition was a blatant appropriation of people’s resources. By including bamboo under trees (Section 2(7)), and felled trees under timber (Section 2(6)), and timber in forest produce (Section 2(4)(a)) regardless of its origin, the British established state control on all tree and bamboo growth.

Felling, sale and transport of any of these species then required state permission. Post-independence India continued this policy.

Removing bamboo from “trees” amounts to removing it from state control, and should be a huge step in favour of restoring people’s rights.

The Impediments

  1. Multiple laws and caveats

Most States have passed their own forest Acts and Rules.

  • Many have also passed other Acts that, for instance, regulate tree felling outside forest areas, such as the Karnataka Preservation of Trees Act, 1976, or regulate the movement of forest produce, such as the Madhya Pradesh Van Upaj (Vyapar Viniyaman) Adhiniyam 1969.
  • Each of these Acts and Rules defines forest produce and trees, and includes bamboo in them.

Amending the IFA does not affect these State laws and, therefore, changes little on the ground.

 

  1. Point of ownership

The bulk of bamboo in the country today is on forest lands. But “forest lands” is an umbrella term that includes, for instance, community forest lands in Northeast India. Following the Supreme Court’s Godavarman judgment, tree harvest in all these lands is regulated by the forest department.

The question is whether the amendment also covers bamboo grown on these lands.

 

  • Bamboo forestry on private lands may not be remunerative enough for farmers or desirable from a food production perspective.

 

  1. Problems for guards at forest check posts to know where a particular truckload of bamboo is coming from. Trucks from private lands will need transit passes, which means that forest officials will have to monitor the felling

The Need of the Hour

Deregulating bamboo production does not address the issue of building a transparently governed forest sector.

“Forest lands” also includes community forest resources to which title has been granted under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006. Tens of thousands of gram sabhas have now received such titles. The FRA explicitly grants rights over bamboo and other non-timber forest products such as tendu patta to forest dwellers. Nevertheless, forest officials have constantly (illegally) denied bamboo harvesting and transport rights to communities, citing the IFA.

In Maharashtra, Governor unequivocally amended the IFA as well as other State Acts to exclude bamboo and tendu patta from State control, facilitating a mini-revolution in forest-based livelihoods in eastern Maharashtra in the past few years.

The need of the hour is to follow in Maharashtra’s footsteps and remove any caveats accompanying the amendment of the IFA, and amend all other State-level Acts and Rules to remove any contradictions with the FRA.

The removal of obstacles to the exercise of community rights will open up an alternative form of forestry, managed and regulated by communities. The government would do well to address the real challenge of building a productive, bottom-up managed and transparently governed forest sector.

Conclusion

The amendment was cleared as an ordinance and is therefore yet to get parliamentary backing. However experts welcomed it saying that it removed ambiguity on the status of bamboo and also brought it in harmony with the related Forest Rights Act.

The measure will go a long way in enhancing the agricultural income of farmers and tribal, especially in North-East and Central India.