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The Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy and Rainmatter Foundation organised the third episode of Season 2 of THE GREEN MANDATE on ‘Forest and Biodiversity Governance in Northeast India‘ with Mr. Dev Prakash Bankhwal (IFS), Former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests & Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam at India International Centre Annexe, New Delhi on 24th August 2023. The Northeast Himalayas stand as a majestic testament to unparalleled biodiversity, boasting a unique forest and natural heritage of global significance. This region, classified as a biodiversity hotspot, shelters countless rare and endangered plant and animal species, many exclusive to this area. These forests are not only crucial for species survival but also essential for ecological balance, climate regulation, and sustaining indigenous communities. The special constitutional status of these states acknowledges their diverse ethnicity and traditions, providing provisions to preserve identities and protect cultural, social, and economic interests tied to the conservation of natural resources.

The discussion in the third episode of THE GREEN MANDATE Season 2 focused on the ecological and cultural significance of Northeast India’s forests while also addressing the diverse governance issues that impact the conservation efforts within this exceptionally biodiverse region of India. The recording of the discussion is now available on YouTube. The following is a transcript of significant discussion points from the talk.

What factors contribute to the uniqueness of forests in Northeast India in terms of the ecosystem and biodiversity?

We have around 16 classifications of forests, as per Champion and Seth, and their classification is still being followed. Northeast region is one of the biodiversity hotspots in India. Hotspots mean there are endemic species; out of these, seventy percent of the endemic species have been lost, so this area has been a cradle of flowering plants. If you see the Champion and Seth classification, wet evergreen forests, semi-evergreen forests, moist deciduous forests, dry deciduous forests, and many variations are within them. The forest types of flora and fauna are marvellous and unique in Northeast India. There are around eighty-plus bamboo species, around fourteen species of rattan, and many orchid species.

Additionally, many animals, such as pygmy hogs and hispid hares, are highly threatened and are unique to the Northeast; for example, One-horned Rhinoceros, Hoolock Gibbons, Golden Langur, Swamp Deer, and a plethora of endemic species rarely found in other parts of the country. However, gradually, we are losing this natural capital because of the weak institutions and poor implementation of law. Our governance structure needs to be updated. 

Question – Most of the Northeastern States are known for extraordinarily strong community ownership of the forests. Can you elaborate, in your experience, how the local community in these areas understands and interacts with the forest and biodiversity?

As far as Assam, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Tripura are concerned, they are under the sixth schedule of the constitution. Under the sixth schedule, they have special powers, particularly with respect to the district councils; they have the power to frame laws, and there are many subjects given to them. But there are princely states like Manipur and Nagaland under the fifth schedule, which have less power than those under the sixth schedule. So far as management is concerned, these district councils, because of the issues with capacity building, had not been formulating and executing plans that would have been compatible with biodiversity conservation. Ultimately, you should inculcate the concept of sustainable development because if there are many free riders of a resource, then it will deplete very soon. For example, there has been rampant deforestation in Assam, the three district councils, Karbi Anglong, Bodoland, and Dima Hasao. The district council members were earning money from forest and allied resources. There has been overexploitation of natural resources. On the other hand, some states like Tripura have better management in all respects.

Question – We are seeing there is a push for development everywhere in the country. The general understanding of the people, policy think tanks, and the government is that development is necessary and that is the way to prosperity. However, the big developmental infrastructures have met with strong opposition in the Northeast States, especially for hydropower, mining, and, lately, the oil palm cultivation push by the States. In your subjective experiences, what is the perspective of the local communities on such developmental activities?

What is the definition of development? It is a highly debatable subject. When GDP grows, it grows asymmetrically; for one person, it increases by fifty percent, and for another, it grows by one percent. There should have been maximum good of maximum people. Additionally, there have been reports like Brudtland, which envisage the concept of sustainable development, but sustainability itself still needs to be properly defined.

For most people, development should be a sustainable source of income and livelihood. And if suddenly something disruptive comes in, like opening an area for coal mining, the people dependent on that land are left high and dry. We say that development and nature conservation should have some balance. When we talk about landscape management, for example, if you are constructing a railroad or highway, you are fragmenting the natural habitat. The question is that you can mitigate a problem, but you can not say both are compatible. In 2018, the Wildlife Institute of India came out with a document that mitigating structures must be there in wildlife areas. For example, if you have devised a four-lane highway, how will the animals cross this four-lane highway? There must be a structure, underpass, or overpass so that animals can cross the highway.

Question – You have spent four decades in forest and wildlife conservation. What changes have you seen in how forest departments and forest officers work over the last four decades on both macro and micro levels? Also, can you shed some light on how the changing aspirations of people and government policies affect the working of the forest officers?

From my personal experience, I have seen that the forest departments of the Northeast need to grow. For example, if a Rhino is killed in Kaziranga, everybody in the forest department is on their tiptoes. Everybody is held accountable, and the senior officers have to answer the queries of the public and the media, who are very vociferous on this issue. If the citizenry is not well-sensitised, then politicians are also not well-sensitised; politicians respond to the pulse of the public, and bureaucrats respond to the pulse of the politicians. Many people in bureaucracy bend over to appease politicians; that is the bane of this country. Bureaucracy is badly fractured; some people want to do their duty rightfully, while some align themselves with bad-meaning politicians. So when we talk about yesterday or today not much has changed because the culture of any institution is essential, and the culture has stayed the same. We need fundamental structural changes in our bureaucratic system, and it cannot depend on individual officers. Additionally, we need to bring in more domain experts and increase funding for the forest departments. 

Some Selected Audience Questions

Question – There have been significant budget cuts since 2019-2020; the budget that was dispersed for Project Tiger was around 284 crores. Whereas in 2021, the budget was cut down to 194 crores. Additionally, since 2015, as the years went by, there has been a significant difference in the budget allocated and the actual expenditure. Are there any significant reasons for that? Are there any particular challenges that the administration is facing on the ground?

There are some tiger reserves where there is no ecosystem to populate the reserves with tigers. For any project to succeed, there are a number of elements that need to gel. Budget cuts happen because the government’s priorities shift; they are always dynamic. State governments need to mobilise their resources. States like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh do not need money from the central government because there is sometimes no timely release of funds. However, the Northeastern states are cash-strapped in addition to multiple other problems. However, some administrative measures do not require a plethora of funds but still need to be undertaken successfully, like patrolling and surveillance. The under-expenditure happened because they were switching to the online system, which comes with problems and delays.

Question – What is the current state of biodiversity governance for climate conservation, especially in the urban areas, particularly leaning towards the thermal environment? Especially given the rapid urbanisation and loss of biodiversity in the last four decades. What will be the impact if we integrate biodiversity with urban heat island policy?

There are a lot of laws and policies in India, but the devil lies in their implementation. There is no point in having a law which is not being implemented. For example, in Arunachal Pradesh, there is rampant poaching despite the existence of the Wildlife Protection Act. Urban areas need to have more spaces for biodiversity conservation. 

Question – Which species in the Northeast needs immediate attention but needs to get it?

Anything that is not counted is not measured, and anything that is not measured is not monitored. Subordinate officers do what is accepted, not what is expected. For example, we need to determine the status of Malayan Sun Bears, Bengal Florican, Butterflies, and Orchids. Many species need immediate protection, but that can only happen after proper documentation of their status.