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NTFP Policy in India: Rhetoric and Reality

Research Team: Sharachchandra Lélé, in collaboration with Manoj Pattanaik, Regional Centre for Development Cooperation, and Nitin Rai, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.

Non-timber forest products (NTFPs) constitute an important component of rural  livelihoods in many parts of India. As a part of a multi-country study coordinated by People Plants International, we drew upon existing case studies and secondary data to analyse the changes in state policy towards NTFPs in India, particularly in the central-eastern dry forest belt and the Western Ghats, and how these policies have affected the livelihoods of  NTFP-dependent tribal and non-tribal communities. Policies during the British and immediate post-independence period were focused on maximising revenues for the state and meeting demands of NTFP-based industries.

Starting in the late 1950s, the role of  NTFP collection in rural, particularly tribal, livelihoods gained attention, and a series of  legal, administrative, and fiscal initiatives were taken up in the 1960s and 1970s in several states, ostensibly to reduce the exploitation of the NTFP collectors, while ensuring supply to industry and royalties to the state. In practice, the thrust was on ‘nationalization’  (complete state ownership) of the most commercially valuable NTFPs and control of the other valuable ones and on a ‘coercive cooperativisation’ of NTFP collection and marketing, while continuing to lease NTFPs to companies in certain pockets and leaving regulation of extraction to the forest departments. The outcome of these policies was high levels of surplus extraction by the state, especially in the case of the most valuable products such as tendu (Diospyros melanoxylon) leaves, and only limited and uncertain gains for the collectors.

Where products were less valuable and less voluminous, such as in Karnataka, the surplus extraction happened locally in the guise of state control of tribal cooperatives. In Orissa, when efforts were made to return the profits from such NTFP collection to the collectors, the profits have ended up largely in the hands of non-collectors. These arrangements have remained largely intact or changed only recently in some states in spite of a major shift in national forest policy in 1988, initiation of joint forest management programmes, and efforts at political devolution in the early 1990s. Some progressive changes have occurred in Madhya Pradesh and more recently in Orissa, the livelihood impacts of which are yet to be fully realized. In all of this, little attention has been paid to resource sustainability, the complexity of which demands much greater effort.

Contact email: cised@isec.ac.in