Unexpected relief

  • 30/05/1998

Unexpected relief The question today, therefore, is: Is the rosy picture presented by the ncaer survey of 1992-93 equally applicable to these areas? The 1991 census also shows that states with large tracts of hills and mountains like the Northeastern states and those with dry regions like Rajasthan are still heavily dependent on firewood. Whereas states with large plains are less dependent on firewood. Why have the dire predictions about severe deforestation not come true? There can be several reasons for this. One would be the government effort to promote the plantation of trees by farmers on their farms. Another would be the invasion of exotic species - an unexpected boon.

Farmers" own trees
One major factor for the transition from non-firewood biomass fuels to firewood and from inferior firewood to more superior firewood appears to be the success of the farm forestry programmes initiated in the 1980s by the various forest departments under the social forestry programme. Farmers had largely planted trees on their farms to earn a high income by selling the wood as construction poles or as pulpwood to paper mills. Eucalyptus was their choice species. Between 1980 and 1988, some 18 billion trees were estimated to have been planted of which 10 billion were planted on farmlands. Of these ten billion, some seven billion were eucalyptus trees planted forest expert N C Saxena estimated that they would have given about 25 million tonnes of wood annually compared to the 10 mt that is provided legally as firewood by all the country"s forests.

But in large parts of India this programme suffered a serious setback when the government of India reduced import duties on import of pulp and timber in order to reduce pressure on Indian forests in the mid-1980s. Meanwhile, the forest departments continued to supply wood to paper mills from forest lands. As a result, farmers found that the construction pole market, being small, quickly got saturated while the pulpwood market slipped away from them. Numerous farmers pulled out their young saplings, others who were considering going into farm forestry refrained from doing so and those who had full-grown trees sold a lot of their wood as firewood. With the urban fuelwood also shrinking because of the transition to petroleum-based fuels, it is possible that a lot of the wood that was generated through farm forestry was consumed by the farmers themselves as firewood.

The wood and the branches
Proportion of stem wood and branches in different plantation species
Species Percentage in total biomass Total dry biomas (tonnes per hectare)
Stem wood and bark Branches and twigs
(subabul) 77 23 23.0
Acacia nilotica      
(babiul) 47 53 31.6
Prosopis julifaora 30 70 32.2
Eucalyputs 81 19 17.4
Source: A K N Reddy 1987, On the loss and degradation of tropical forest, Department of Management Studies,Bamgalore, quoted in N C Saxena 1997, The Woodfule Scenario and Policy Issues in India, FAO, Bangkok

An indirect evidence of the increased supply of firewood to urban markets in the late 1980s is provided by the fact fuelwood prices began to become steady in the 1985-90 period whereas they had risen rapidly in the period between 1973-85 - a near doubling in real terms. Whereas the annual rate of growth in prices for foodgrains between 1972 and 1986 was only 7 per cent, it was nearly 13 per cent for firewood. In the five year period from 1982-83 to 1987-88, while wholesale prices rose by 41 per cent, timber prices increased by 148 per cent. By contrast, in the succeeding five year period from 1987-88 to 1992-93 wholesale prices rose by 56 per cent but timber prices increased by only 30 per cent. In other words, timber prices did not even keep pace with inflation in the latter period.

In 1986, a study of 41 towns found that the price of fuelwood was more than 60 paise per kg in cities with more than one million inhabitants and more than 90 paise per kg in cities with more than five million inhabitants. With the number of people living in slums and squatter settlements increasing rapidly, there was a ready market for firewood in urban areas. And in the absence of subsidies, the cost of a unit of useful energy delivered by firewood as compared to kerosene doubled by 1987 whereas it was the same in 1960 and 1977. (Useful energy is calculated taking into account the efficiency of the device in which the fuel is being used. While wood stoves have an efficiency of only 7-10 per cent kerosene stoves have an efficiency of 30-40 per cent.) But a later study found that in some of the major towns of India fuelwood prices remained almost constant during the period 1985-90.

The ncaer 1992-93 survey could have easily captured the developments relating to farm forestry as they mostly relate to the late 1980s and early 1990s. But it is difficult to say what is the current and future contribution of farm forestry to rural firewood supply because government efforts to promote farm forestry have declined and there is no survey available of areas in India where farm forestry is still being practised or where it is beginning to take roots.

Exotic invasion
The second factor that appears to have contributed to increased firewood supply is the increased acreage under exotic species which can be heavily lopped - a development which has little to do with government programmes. In several hill areas of the country, an exotic species called Lantana camara , and across large tracts of drylands, another exotic species called Prosopis juliflora, have spread rapidly over the last few decades. Both these species are nonbrowsable and can therefore withstand the heavy grazing pressure in the country and spread rapidly on degraded lands. P juliflora today can found in drylands all the way from Gujarat to Tamil Nadu.

P juliflora , known as mesquite and commonly found in South America ranging up to southwestern us , was first introduced into India in 1877 to check the spread of desert sands. Seeds were brought into India from the Kew Gardens in London. An attempt was made to grow it in Sholapur district of Maharashtra in 1879 but the effort reportedly failed. The first large-scale plantations were attempted in Gujarat and Punjab in 1894. In the 1950s, the Gujarat forest department took up a scheme to plant 1200 ha of P juliflora every year at the edge of the Little Rann of Kutch to prevent the desert from spreading. Today it has spread far into the vast expanse of the Rann of Kutch, a large grassland, creating P juliflora forests and affecting the ecology.

It today occurs widely even on all wastelands of the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In Ramanathapuram, where substantial saline patches occur, it is even used to reclaim fallow land. Farmers allow it to grow on farmlands for four years, then take an annual crop for two years, and allow P juliflora to invade the land again. It is also used to make charcoal. It is estimated that 15,000 tonnes of charcoal are transported annually from Ramanathapuram to Chennai. A field study in five villages of the semi-arid district of Anantpur in Andhra Pradesh found that 86 per cent of households met more than 75 per cent of their cooking needs from P juliflora alone . Prosopis juliflora is much better than eucalyptus in providing firewood because it can grow easily on degraded lands, it provides 32.2 dry tonnes of biomass per hectare (t/ha) as compared to 17.4 t/ha from eucalyptus, and 70 per cent of its total biomass is branches and twigs as compared to 19 per cent in the case of eucalyptus. Forestry expert Saxena argues that P juliflora appears to have solved the fuelwood crisis "on its own".

Thus, eucalyptus-based farm forestry which has largely taken place in relatively well-endowed agricultural plains, and an exotic like P juliflora which has invaded degraded private and public lands in the dry regions of the country, appear to have supplemented each other in easing the firewood crisis as shown by the 1992-93 ncaer survey.

Unexplained questions
But as P juliflora has largely invaded public lands and has been grown along roadsides, especially in the dry regions of the country, it is unlikely that it could have contributed much to the increased supply of firewood logs, especially from people"s own farmlands. While farm forestry could have played such a role, it is unlikely that it had a nationwide role as the success of farm forestry was restricted to a few regions of the country - almost all the districts of western Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab; select districts of south Gujarat like Kheda and Mehsana; Kolar, Bangalore and Tumkur districts of Karnataka; and, Midnapore, Bankura and Purulia districts of West Bengal.

Firewood usage in rural india
States by percentage of rural households using firewood
Percentage of rural households using firewood States
90-100 per cent Tripura, Nagaland, Kerala,Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalya, Manipur, Andhra Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Timal Nadu, Karnataka and Mizoram
80-90 per cent Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Sikkim
70-80 per cent Orissa, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa
60-70 per cent Haryana
50-60 per cent Uttar Pradesh
40-50 per cent Bihar, Punjab and West Bengal
Source: Census of India 1991

Is there, therefore, any other factor that has contributed to the increased supply of firewood logs, especially from farmers" on farms, other than the government-sponsored, eucalyptus-based farm forestry programmes? And what about those regions which have not been invaded by P juliflora or have seen the success of farm forestry - the hill and mountain regions of India, for instance, ranging from the northeastern part of India to the western Himalayan states, various districts covered by the Eastern and Western Ghats, and the plateau regions of India like the Chottanagpur plateau districts of Bihar and the Deccan plateau of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh? In many of these regions and states, the 1991 census data shows that a large number of urban households also continue to use firewood as a source of cooking energy. It is quite possible that urban and rural firewood consumption is still exerting a pressure on trees in forests and public lands, which may, therefore, demand an appropriate government programme to prevent the growing ecological crisis?.

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