The urgency to deal with the climate emergency at a global level has resulted in countries adopting a target driven approach to reduce carbon emissions through Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs). As widely reported, India’s position as the third largest CO2 emitter has brought it under pressure to undertake ambitious emissions reduction. This has drawn India’s vast and diverse forest ecosystems to the centre of India’s future developmental scenarios.
Forests provide a service of absorbing and storing CO2. So, maintaining and adding to the forest cover, may be seen as an easier and cheaper form of dealing with CO2 emissions than procuring and deploying expensive technology at scale to reduce or remove emissions in the industrial sector, urban constructions and agriculture. Due to India’s stated goals to achieve higher levels of economic growth and service, the developmental needs of a large population within the context of the climate emergency, forests are seen as a crucial balancing factor. But growing and maintaining India’s forest cover is easier said than done.
Forest governance in India is a highly contested and conflict-ridden subject. The management and use of forests as a resource since colonial times has created legacies of dispossession and disenfranchisement. The state forest departments are empowered (with arms) to execute policies and projects over nearly one-fourth of India’s total land mass and this has commercialised forest resources and marginalised Adivasi and Dalit communities who are dependent on forests and forest lands. Today, when participation has become a threshold condition for environmental planning and decision-making, forest management and conservation related policies have little input, leave alone consent, of forest dwelling communities. Instead of accepting forest dependent communities as partners in conservation, the twin pressures of climate change and economic growth are making forest governance more unscientific, discriminatory and top-down. Huge budgets are spent on afforestation and replanting projects that are populist but ineffective because forest ecologies cannot be reproduced just anywhere. The replanting logic is used to justify poorly designed, wasteful infrastructure and development projects even when they involve substantial forest loss. As forest removals grow, judicial interventions in favour of forest conservation result in sweeping directions that expand the scope and reach of the forest bureaucracy even further generating greater conflict and confusion.
For a country like India that is staring at huge climate and environmental impacts and growing socio-economic inequality, climate mitigation and adaptation measures have to address the systemic causes of environmental malgovernance and not just the symptoms. Climate and environmental justice advocates must jointly press for a new regime of forest governance that recognises and builds on the central role of forest dwelling communities to conserve and manage India’s forest cover.
(The views expressed in the article are of the author. Let Me Breathe neither endorses nor is responsible for them)