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May 11, 2012

MP Govt Wants To Lease Forest Patches To Private Tour Operators

11 May 2012
Nitin Sethi, New Delhi:

After demanding that the core of tiger reserves be opened to tourism, the Madhya Pradesh government has mooted another controversial proposal, to lease out large tracts of reserved forest lands to private tourism operators.

The proposal to develop 'ecotourism forests' through PPP mode could stir a controversy like the earlier one to open tiger reserves to tourism, which is now being contested in the Supreme Court.

TOI accessed a draft of the proposed policy, shared by state officials with other stakeholders, lamenting the impact of UPA's Forest Rights Act which hands back forests to traditional owners claiming that would increase pressure on the green zones. It instead proposes that the forest department bid out forest patches of 50-150 sq km through competitive bidding to those interested in tourism to control the lands for a period of 10 years.

While the Forest Conservation Act of 1980 notes that no forest can be diverted for non-forest use without permission of the centre, the Madhya Pradesh government believes that tourism falls outside the purview of the regulations.

HS Pabla, head of the ecotourism board of Madhya Pradesh government, told TOI that the state law department had suggested that tourism operations did not fall foul of the act's provisions.

Similar attempts by forest departments and governments to lease out forest lands to paper, pulp and other industries has failed over the past two decades owing to pressure from communities that have traditional rights.

Laying the blame for decimation of forests squarely on the people living in proximity to forests, the MP policy paper suggests that tourism would help save the green patches and provide jobs to tribals and others living off the forests.

At a time when state and central governments are attempting to give back rights to tribals, the move is bound to raise concerns.