The beetle and the bureaucrat

  • 14/02/1998

Slow stinks of incompetence. But is the rapid tree felling by the forest department in Madhya Pradesh (mp) the answer to sal borer crisis gripping the state? The forest administration, has long been accused of incompetence by environmentalists and ngos alike. One of the measures forest bureaucrats espouse is policing the locals and curbing their right to use the forests even for their survival needs. Revenue oriented logging since independence, a major policy plank of the department, has led to much of India's forests being destroyed.

Today, the time has come for the forest bureaucracy to walk the plank in the face of its inability to handle the crisis created by the epidemic caused by pests such as the sal borer in mp , which has put lakhs of sal trees at risk. This epidemic has also put the last nail in the coffin of the forest department's claim to be the scientific manager of India's forests.

The Indian Forest Service, a legacy of the British Raj, has largely drawn its legitimacy from its claim of using scientific methods to manage forests, or what the British perceived as scientific. The defunct working style and plans of the service are an example of this. New induction into the forest bureaucracy is also made on the basis of this premise.

But in the battle between the beetle and the bureaucrat, the forest bureaucracy is finding itself completely out of depth.

In the absence of a scientific solution, politicians and the forest department in mp have resorted to the mindless axing down of the infected trees in epidemic stricken areas.

Surprisingly, the problem of pest infestation is not new in India. However, what is not surprising is that the forest department has reacted in so destructive a manner. The sal borer is reported to have been around in the 1920s in mp and has recurred at regular intervals. Noticed in the Mandla division of mp in 1995, it soon spread to the surrounding divisions to acquire epidemic proportions in 1996-97.

Similarly, the deodar defoliator, a forest pest has presently affected over one lakh trees valued at Rs 70 crore in the Shimla district of Himachal Pradesh.

The only method used by the forest department to deal with the sal borer problem is the trap-tree method, wherein the beetle is trapped alive and decapitated. But this is proving to be completely inadequate.

To make matters worse, the scientists-cum-bureaucrats of the Indian Council of Forest Research and Education (icfre) and the premier Forest Research Institute (fri) do not have anything better to offer. Therefore the trees have to go. A quick and easy way to put an end to an embarrassing episode.

More than four lakh sal trees were cut down in less than two months in mp costing the nation Rs 250 crore, which even foresters privately admit is a gross underestimate. The forest minister of the state, Shiv Netam, and the top officials of the forest department have said that removing the infected trees is the only way out.

An uproar from the green lobby and ngos helped to curb further destruction by the mp government. It was only after the intervention of the Union environment and forest minister Saifuddin Soz, that the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh gave orders not to proceed with the clearing operation.

The ministry of environment and forests has approached the crisis in a typical way: by appointing a high-level committee of experts which includes foresters, environmentalists and scientists, to look into the pest problem. But will the formation of a committee solve the larger problem of forest management in India?

Monoculture plantations are on the rise and are changing the entire character of previously rich and multi-layered forests.

The forest bureaucracy is good in bypassing such uncomfortable issues by simply turning a blind eye to them. But someone has to ensure that appropriate research takes place in the key technical and scientific issues involved.

Otherwise we will only further the process of waging a losing war and pay a heavy price in terms of the destruction of our forests and our biodiversity. The problems faced by India's forest managers are not limited to lack of scientific research. The few laboratory solutions that do exist never reach the field.

The solutions undertaken by the mp government viz, tree trapping operations and logging were on the basis of the working plans created for those divisions, these have remained unchanged since the time of the British.

A committee for sal borer affected areas of mp led by B N Gupta, director general icfre along with entomologists from the Forest Research Institute (fri), Dehradun stated in their report the "Madhya Pradesh forest department was already implementing the known control measures."

According to J K Rawat, director of the fri."Tree trapping and the logging of the infected trees are the only practical measures available". The committee has gone on record to say "It is reiterated that if the trees are not removed from the forests before the monsoon, these will (lead to further) damage."

The committee did , however, recommend that "further research on the causes of the sal borer epidemic and control measures should be carried out" - an admission that neither present research nor available solutions were adequate.

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