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Retired IFS officers question forest certification scheme & NGO Modi govt chose to run it

Retired IFS officers have said the NGO chosen to execute the scheme will get undue powers and endanger the livelihood of tribals dependent on forest produce.

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New Delhi: The country’s first forest certification scheme has run into a controversy, with several senior retired officers of the Indian Forest Service (IFS) questioning the need for the scheme in the country. They have also questioned the credentials of the “foreign-funded” NGO endorsed by the government to carry out the process.

In 2019, the Network for Certification and Conservation of Forests (NCCF), a not-for-profit organisation founded in 2015 and headed by retired IAS officer and former environment secretary Vijai Sharma, developed the first forest certification scheme for India.

Forest certification refers to a conservation tool — a system under which products manufactured from forest produce are certified to be from sustainably managed forests. With certain developed countries putting restrictions on the import of non-certified timber, non-timber forest products and wood-based goods into their countries, a need was felt to mainstream the process in India, and the NCCF was established.

Several retired officers of the IFS have now flagged concerns regarding the need for the scheme in a timber-deficient country like India, and also the perils of allowing a private NGO to certify products. The move, they believe, could take away the means of livelihood of a vast number of forest-dwellers, rendering their produce as uncertified.

In a 21 July letter addressed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar and NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, the retired officers have written, “Sir, you would be shocked to know that a handful group of officers led by a former Secretary to the Environment Ministry with the support of few Rtd IFS officers have utilised their proximity to senior officers in the Ministry to impose ‘Forest Certification’ on the government forests of the country without any serious deliberations with various stakeholders like State Forest Departments and other concerned ministries in the Government of India including NITI Aayog on the need of certification and its future implication.”

The signatories to the letter, a copy of which was seen by ThePrint, include retired Indian Forest Service officers Pankaj Khullar, Sitanghu Mondol, A.N. Prasad, V.K. Bahuguna, and Ajit Sonakia, among others.

They have raised the issue of “Forest Certification of Government forests being pushed by a foreign funded NGO namely Network of Certification and Conservation of Forests (NCCF) based in Delhi under the pretext that India’s forests are not being managed sustainably”.

Sustainably managed forests are those from where produce is extracted in a way that it does not reduce the basic forest cover.

Speaking to ThePrint, Dr Pankaj Khullar, former principal chief conservator of forests, Himachal Pradesh, said, “How can the government endorse a private body to certify what forests are sustainably managed and which are not? What are their credentials?”

Asked to comment on the matter, an environment ministry spokesperson, however, told ThePrint that the government “does not endorse” the scheme.

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The forest certification scheme

Forest certification is a global movement that started in the 1990s after the Rio Earth Summit. It is designed to promote sustainable management of forests and trees outside forests through regular audits.

In India, the practice has been voluntary. However, since 2019, the Ministry of Environment and Forests has endorsed it. In a letter to states, the central government had in May 2019 recommended that some forest divisions of states popularise the practice, preferably in areas where extraction of timber, non-wood forest products (NWFP) and bamboo etc takes place.

In the letter to all state forest departments, the then director general, forests, Siddhanta Das, had underscored the importance of forest certification and suggested that states initiate the process.

According to the retired forest officers, however, Das, had in the letter indirectly “endorsed” the NCCF for the job.

“The NCCF, a non profit organisation, has informed that it has developed India specific forest management certification standard which has been internationally endorsed by PEFC (Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification) and has offered assistance in forest certification in India,” he had said in the letter, a copy of which is with ThePrint.

PEFC is an international non-profit NGO with its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.

Explaining the implications of this direction, Khullar said once forest certification becomes the norm, it would be entirely up to this private NGO to decide whether a tribal in a far-flung forest can harvest timber-based products or not.

While rich countries like the US and other European countries have for decades created trade barriers in the name of forest certification — that is importing timber only if the product is certified to be coming from a sustainably managed forest — the right response to it is bilateral discussions with the countries concerned, and dispute resolution in the World Trade Organization (WTO), the retired officers have said.

They have also urged the government to “withdraw the current authorisation of forest certification to NCCF by MoEF&CC (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change) through DG (Forests) letter under intimation to all states”.

When ThePrint approached Siddhanta Das, who is now a member of the National Green Tribunal (NGT), he refused to comment, saying it would be “inappropriate” to do so now that he is retired.

NGO under the scanner

According to its website, the NCCF was founded in January 2015 as a non-profit organisation, registered as a society, “to have a globally aligned certification program developed within India and addressing the concerns for sustainable management of forests and the plantations, while at the same time making the Indian wood and forest fiber based industry competent globally”.

While Sharma is the chairman of the group, retired IFS officers Avani Kumar Verma and Suneel Kumar Pandey are its co-chairman and secretary, respectively.

Other members of the NGO’s governing body include representatives from the central government, Rohit Tiwari of the MoEFCC, Namita Priyadarshee, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Puru Gupta of the commerce ministry.

Approached for a comment, an office-bearer of the NCCF, also a retired IFS officer, said the NGO has nothing to do with the government.

“The DG Forest never said that states should only use NCCF, he only mentioned in his letter that NCCF is one such scheme…He did not ask states to mandatorily use this scheme,” said the retired officer, who did not want to be named. “We are not aided by the government in any way.”

Asked why serving officers of the government are on the governing board of the NGO, the office-bearer said, “The NGO promotes the same objectives as the government, we support the government from outside.”

“They have alleged that we are a foreign-funded group, but that is not true…We are simply endorsed by the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), which sets the standards for forest certification,” he added.

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