Saviours turn killers

  • 30/01/1997

madhya Pradesh's (mp) government and its forest bureaucracy have found an innovative way of earning notoriety: destroy whatever tree cover exists in the biodiversity-rich state. Unable to mow down the state-owned natural forests following the Supreme Court's ban on any kind of commercial activity in these forest areas, and the Central government's cold shouldering of its plans to give state forest lands as captive plantations to industry, the forest bureaucracy is now eyeing the private plantations in the state as a source of easy money. Under the garb of regulating the activities of companies seeking to grow timber plantations on private lands, the mp government plans to introduce a bill that will allow the state government to take over the management of private forests. If the track record of the forest department is any indication, such a move, instead of fulfilling its avowed function, will obviously hit the smaller farmers by introducing corruption and eating into their hard-earned incomes. The bell is tolling for the state's farm forestry sector; the latest act will be another nail in its coffin.

The main beneficiaries of the regulations covering tree-felling have been the forest department and the middlemen who have a vested interest in perpetuating this system. These regulations have only acted as disincentives to farmers who are keen to take up farm forestry. Statistics indicate that liberal procedures have encouraged farmers to grow trees on their private lands, as has been observed in the state of Haryana. Today, 3.9 per cent of the Haryana state revenue lands (private and panchayat ) - equivalent to 3.8 per cent of its state forest lands - have tree cover.

Over the years, farmers are taking an interest in cultivating plantations on their private lands. These plantations have come up as a response to market needs. Rampant exploitation by the wood-based industry has exhausted the state's forest resources over the years and the industry is being forced to look for other sources to meet its raw material needs. This has led to a rise in demand for wood and in wood prices and has propelled the farmers to grow trees on their lands.

Today, the main challenge faced by Indian planners in promoting farm forestry is that of involving the poorer farmers in growing trees on their degraded lands. Most poor farmers need an income to sustain them through the gestation period till the trees get ready for harvesting. It is here that the government needs to apply its mind. The other question is that of ensuring that farmers get a fair price for their trees. Instead of taking over the regulatory and management functions of private plantations, the forest bureaucracy should be working in areas where their services are needed more. Forest farmers' cooperatives can go a long way in giving farmers remunerative prices. The forest bureaucracy could work towards creating such cooperatives so that wood prices are determined by the farmers themselves. It could also perform market surveys and advise farmers on the wood market and on which trees are in demand. To involve poorer farmers in farm forestry, cooperative efforts built on accountable and transparent structures of governance will have to be encouraged and provided with adequate incentives. They could become the farmers' main bargaining power in the present market-led economy.

The forest bureaucracy could also offer its services in another grossly neglected area: research. Today, several tree species which are of high fodder value cannot be transformed into pulp, and therefore, are not preferred by the paper and pulp industry, a major player in the wood market. India's village economy, which is largely agriculture-based, needs tree species which can serve diverse purposes such as fuel, fodder and nourishment, as well as be of commercial value. The forest bureaucracy could work towards developing a technology that could pulp a wider range of multipurpose trees species.

Instead of adopting the above agenda, this blatant move of the mp government to regularise corruption once again reveals the sinister power that India's forest bureaucracy wields over its policy-makers and politicians. That this bureaucracy has been able to mislead even an intelligent chief minister like Digvijay Singh with apparent ease, is symptomatic of the deep malaise which has set into our forest governance system. India's forest bureaucrats, with their terrible talent for mismanaging state-owned forests, have brought our state forest cover to the present sorry state. Extensive patches of degraded state-owned forest lands and lost biodiversity and natural heritage stand silent witnesses to this long-drawn dance of death. The forest bureaucracy has effectively forfeited its legitimacy to govern our forests, including state-owned forests. Its intentions and efforts in governing and regulating private forests and plantations should not be allowed to see the light of the day. Digvijay Singh would do well to use his mind as a politician who wants to work in the public interest, and not let bureaucratic skullduggery brainwash the people.