National Forest Policy, 1988: An overview of how Indian forestry became conservation-centric

In the 35 years after India’s National Forest Policy 1952, the world changed.

Governments became more sensitive to environmental exploitation, ecological degradation, and our responsibility towards life on Earth. And so, we had the Ramsar Convention (1972), the UN Conference on Human Development (1972), the MARPOL convention (1973) and CITES (1973).

Within India, a slew of legislation focused on improving environmental quality. The Indian Parliament passed the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, Water Act in 1974, Air Act in 1981, the Forest Conservation Act in 1980 and the Environment Protection Act in 1986.

The steady shift towards conservation, preservation, and protection translated itself into the forest management policy as well. Thus, the National Forest Policy was revised in 1988 with several changes in how forest management was to be approached.

The preamble of the National Forest Policy 1988 captures this shift in priorities. It recognizes that forest resources have severely depleted because of “relentless pressures arising from ever-increasing demand for fuelwood, fodder and timber; inadequacy of protection measures; diversion of forest lands to non-forest uses without ensuring compensatory afforestation and essential environmental safeguards; and the tendency to look upon forests as revenue-earning resource.”

Key highlights of the National Forest Policy 1988

  1. Shift towards conservation based forestry
  2. Renewed focus on increasing forest cover, encouraging social and farm forestry
  3. Greater recognition for the rights of forest communities and their role in forest conservation
  4. Stress on finding alternatives to wood for various industries
  5. Stringent measures to prevent forest exploitation and land conversation by industries
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The principal aim and basic objectives of the National Forest Policy 1988

The principal aim of the policy is to encourage environmental sustainability and ecological balance. Deriving economic benefits from nature must be subordinated to this aim.

The principal aim is supported by several objectives:

  1. Maintenance and restoration of ecological balance
  2. Conserving the natural heritage of the country by preserving the remaining natural forests with the vast variety of flora and fauna
  3. Soil and water conservation to mitigate floods, droughts and reduce siltation in reservoirs (the last was turning out to be a problem because India had built several dams in the first 30 years of independence)
  4. Checking extension of sand dunes
  5. Increase forest cover
  6. Increasing productivity and efficiency of resource utilization, to meet both local population needs and national needs

Essentials of forest management

The National Forest Policy 1988 outlines the essential ingredients for good forest management under the new priorities.

forest in central India
A forest in Central India

First, it stresses that forest management should protect and enhance forest and forest lands. This includes the conservation of biodiversity by strengthening protected areas.

Second, it recognizes that forest fringe areas and forest communities depend on the forests for fuelwood, food, fodder and other minor forest produce for their livelihoods. Therefore, forest management should look to address these forest services as a priority, so that the forest resources are not overexploited by the dependent communities.

Finally, it stresses that while increasing forest resources and protecting existing forest lands is the primary aim of forest management, it should not be done by converting productive agricultural land into forests.

Afforestation, social forestry and farm forestry

Rapidly depleting forest resources put a renewed focus on increasing forest cover. The policy reiterated the earlier target over covering 1/3 of the total land mass with forests and identified several avenues for afforestation.

Afforestation was encouraged along roadsides, railway lines and canals and other unutilized land by both private and public entities. The policy encouraged social forestry on unused community land. The government was to provide the technical assistance and initial financial assistance to set up such programmes, and the benefits generated from social forestry were to go to the community through the panchayats. The policy also speaks about farm forestry. Individual farmers were encouraged to grow tree crops for industrial and fodder use. Degraded, unused and unowned land were to be allocated to landless individuals through “tree-pattas”.

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Greater recognition for tribal rights

The policy recognizes that the rights of tribal groups and other poor living in and around the forests should be protected. These groups must be given preferential and convenient access to the forest produce (food, fodder, minor produce).

However, it maintains that such access to forest resources must be within the defined carrying capacity of forests. It encourages two approaches when the carrying capacity is too low to meet the local demands:

  1. increasing the carrying capacity through investment and silvicultural research and
  2. introducing social forestry outside the forests.

This is a wonderful and sustainable approach, except that it’s unclear how to define and measure the carrying capacity. With this left arbitrary, it has left many loopholes in applying this policy recommendation.

As a marked deviation from the earlier policy, the National Forest Policy 1988 encouraged involving tribal groups in the protection, regeneration and development of forests through tribal cooperatives and other government institutions. Tribal groups know the forest intimately, and their knowledge would not only enhance the forests quickly but also provide employment opportunities for these groups.

This recognition allowed forest villages to gain a better foothold in the country, and their development became as important as revenue villages.

Finding alternatives to forest produce

While the 1952 policy placed economic and national interests above all, permitting the use of forest products to these ends, the 1988 policy recognized that this led to overexploitation of forest resources.

Therefore, it highlights that to relieve pressure on forest resources for railway sleepers, construction industry (particularly in the public-sector), furniture and panelling, mine-pit props, paper and paper board etc., “substitution of wood needs to be taken recourse to”. In the same vein, it draws attention to fuelwood use by exploring substitutes like LPG and solar energy. Fuel-efficient chulhas are also encouraged as a way to conserve forest resources.

The policy also takes a stance on relieving pressures from shifting cultivation, a widespread practice in the North-East. It strictly discourages this form of cultivation, as it is believed to accelerate land degradation. This is, in fact, a view perpetuated from colonial times. The latest research suggests that it may not be the case.

Forests and industries: A new relationship

The National Forest Policy 1988 takes a stringent approach to the forest-industry relationship.

Diversion of forest land “should be subjected to the most careful examination by specialists from the standpoint of social and environmental costs and benefits”, it reads. When diversion is considered absolutely critical, the policy stresses that projects acquiring and converting forest lands must provide for regeneration and compensatory afforestation “in their investment budget”.

The policy singles out mining and quarrying activities. These projects must include restoration plan, or a clearly defined mine management plan appraised from an environmental angle. No mining lease is to be granted without an approved plan.

However, the policy does not highlight any mechanism to ensure enforcement or compliance. Only in the case of mining activities, it mentions that the mine management plan must be “enforced by adequate machinery”.

Several new clauses were added also added to how forest-based industries (industries that use depend on forests for raw materials) function.

The policy revoked their easy access to existing forest resources, stating that “the practice of supply of forest produce to industry at concessional rates should cease”. Such industries should explore alternative raw materials or should raise forest-based raw materials for their activities themselves, either by directly acquiring land or by establishing a partnership with local communities/individuals who can grow the raw materials. These industries must also provide employment to local people.

This had grim consequences in the next two years. My professor, while explaining this move, reminisces of a time when paper and books became scarce. “I remember my parents telling me to use as little paper to write as possible,” he said. “They told me to avoid writing, if I could. Or to write with a pencil so I could erase the text and reuse the paper.”

Forest-based industries, except at the cottage/community level, will be heavily scrutinized before approval, the policy reads. No forest-based industry must sacrifice the local needs. Both these statements gave greater recognition to forest-dependent people.

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Key research areas

With new priorities, forest managers needed new ways to maintain/improve forest productivity while conserving it. The National Forest Policy 1988 highlights some key research areas: increasing productivity of forest produce per unit area per unit time; restoration of wastelands, marshlands and minespoils; social forestry practices; forest products substitutes; and wildlife management.

Encouragingly, the policy also recognized that the country has a very poor database for forest resources. Therefore, it mandated periodic surveying through modern techniques to better understand the status of forests and the progress of forest management activities.


This policy has been the guiding document for forest management for the last 32 years. In this time, the world has, again, changed. Several experts are calling for a revision of the policy, and we may have a new version of the Forest Policy soon.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

6 thoughts

  1. Dear Saurab, although we have a new forest policy with the introduction of data base, I still think more changes are required. This policy requires a review. In the case of old and falling trees, they should be replaced with new trees. There are trees that are more than 100 years and ready to fall but our policy does not permit changes.
    We can plant 3 trees and let the old one go. Even human beings have a life. Why not trees?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, these changes are being considered in the latest revision of the policy. We expect the revision to happen this year or next year. A draft came out in 2018.

      As far as felling old trees goes, it’s a nuanced subject. Different species have different lifespans, and we need to let that be completed before we fell them. 100 years is very arbitrary.

      Liked by 1 person

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