Poor little rich states

  • 14/01/2001

ON THE face of it, democracy in India has won a small battle. People's aspirations have been met by the creation of the three new states - Chattisgarh, Uttaranchal and Jharkhand. The people agitated for decades against apathy and skewed development of the mother states - Madhya Pradesh (MP), Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, respectively. But statehood means only half the battle won. As Chandi Prasad Bhatt, leader of Chipko Andolan, once said, "when you break a stone, all you get is more stones," the unholy nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and business interests, a legacy of the earlier states, is still to be contended with.

All three states are blessed with great natural wealth, which the previous callous governance had exploited to the hilt. This resplendence is their only ally. Be it forests, minerals or the river systems, they have to use the natural resources for generating revenue. But the catchword is 'judiciously' - a tightrope walk that not many have been able to do even with limited success in India. Here lies an opportunity to abandon the older development model and adopt a new strategy.

The new leaders have begun with promises galore. For Uttaranchal chief minister Nityanand Swami, "my priority is building roads" to reach the most inaccessible areas (almost always through deep forests). For Babulal Marandi, his counterpart in Jharkhand, it is ensuring law and order in his state, many parts of which are virtually controlled by half a dozen ultra Leftist groups. And for Ajit Jogi, the chief minister of Chattisgarh, it is to tackle the drought, which has severely affected 45 out of the 90 tehsils in his state.

The people of the three states have never asked for much. The struggle for statehood was strung around the battle for rights over "jal, jungle, jamin" (water, forests and land) - the axis around which their life revolves. The new states have to deliver on these three issues. But the signs are ominous. Just before the birth of the states, ugly political scenes and horse-trading marred the occasion. In Chattisgarh, bitter political fights led to heckling of the MP chief minister, Digvijay Singh. In Uttaranchal, it was an open fight over the chief minister's chair. And in Jharkhand, members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) were put under house arrest. Here, too, there were closed-door meetings till the very end over the decision to name the state's chief executive officer. On the day, the state was born, president of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha Sibu Soren called a bandh to make his desire to take the CM's post known. Interestingly, in an interview with Down To Earth in 1992, he had said: "When Jharkhand comes, I do not want any position but will continue to work for the people. I will not make politics make a street dog out of me." Indeed, public memory is short and politicians surely know when to say what.

The resource base
After separation, the parent states have been literally left with nothing. Bihar, already a failed state, is likely to slip further. After losing its industrial heartland, which is compared to the mineral-rich Ruhr region of Germany, all that Bihar is left with is the fertile, but flood-prone Gangetic plains. Uttar Pradesh has been left with less than 5 per cent forest cover now.

Development for the three states is essentially to be based on the natural resources they have. The forest cover in the three states is better than that in many other states. Uttaranchal has a forest cover of 43 per cent, Chattisgarh has 42 whereas Jharkhand has 25 per cent of the states' land area (see graph: Little cover). Ministers and politicians harp about using forests to generate revenue. In the rhetoric, the real picture is lost. The cover may be greater than that in other states, but it is nebulously surviving in two states and getting depleted in the other.

According to the Forest Survey of India's State of Forest Report, in an assessment published in 1999, Jharkhand had 2.2 million ha. In the 1997 report, it had 2.6 million ha. This implies a loss of 4,800 ha of forest cover, of which 1,400 ha was dense forests. In the case of Uttaranchal and Chattisgarh, though statistics show an overall gain in forest cover, the loss of dense forests has not stopped. Chattisgarh lost 30,300 ha of dense forests, while gaining 56,100 ha of open forests. Utaranchal lost 5,100 ha of dense forests and gained 6,800 ha of open forests (see graph: Open and shut case and Balding patches).

Being hill areas, under the forest policy of 1988, Uttaranchal and Chattisgarh should strive to bring two-third of the geographical area under forest cover. For Jharkhand, it should be one-third of the geographical area. The challenge is to achieve the required minimum through afforestation and regeneration activities and to make up the shortfall (for Uttaranchal 23 per cent and for Chattisgarh 24 per cent). Jharkhand faces the toughest challenge of not only making up the shortfall, but also curbing further deforestation.

All this calls for proper leadership and a suitable management strategy. In Bihar, the government adopted joint forest management (JFM) way back in 1990, but it still languishes with an average 17 JFM community organisations being formed every year. The reason being the benefit-sharing ratio: communities get a mere 33 per cent of the usufructs. The state forest department's budgetary allocation for afforestation is even more dismal: a mere five per cent. Besides unplanned afforestation has resulted in the alienation of the community that takes care of the programme.

To turn low productive forests into 'money' trees, in the late 1970s, the Bihar's State Forest Development Corporation started large-scale exploitation of sal (Shorea robusta) and replaced it with teak (Tectona grandis) plantations. In Uttaranchal, it is monoculture species like pine (Pinus roxburghii) that is replacing broad-leaf tree species such as oak (Quercus sp). People dependent on sal products protested and uprooted the planted trees in 1978. The Bihar government ultimately stopped the programme. Now it wants to spread JFM for both afforestation and reforestation, but there are no takers.

In the case of Uttaranchal, officials portray a vigorous programme of van panchayats saving the forests hand-in-hand with the forest department. By 1993, the hill districts of Uttaranchal had 4,804 van panchayats covering more than 300,000 ha of land. JFM programmes, in one garb or the other, have been promoted in the region since 1930s. But ground reality is contrasting. Today, the revenue is divided in a 50:50 ratio - not substantial enough for the communities to take up regeneration and conservation. Despite funding from the World Bank, JFM has become a farce.

For Chattisgarh, as it inherits MP government's community-based watershed development and JFM programmes, the institutions are already there but whether they would enjoy the same political patronage as under Digvijay Singh is still debated. Jogi says that the Rajiv Gandhi Missions that implements these programmes would continue but with a 'Chattisgarh stamp'. However, he fails to explain what the 'Chattisgarh stamp' would look like.

Distribution of minor forest produce (MFP) is another crucial issue. The local people do not have absolute rights over MFP, though it is crucial for their food security. The state trade in them to earn revenue. Traditionally, the tribal people depend on forests for six months and another six months on agriculture. But for states like Chattisgarh and Jharkhand, which have negligible areas under irrigation and depend solely on monsoon for agriculture, MFP could help in maintaining the food cycle. Now with deforestation and soil degradation, the food cycle has broken and this has led to large-scale migration in Chattisgarh and Jharkhand. A survey of 100 villages done by the Ranchi-based Gramin Vikash Trust in Jharkhand shows that if the local community is given access to the MFP, migration could come down substantially.

The reality is that local people living in the forest-rich areas have traditionally protected them. This, till the government took over. One of the reasons for the strong presence of the ultra Leftist groups or Naxalites, extremist outfits who claim to be fighting for the people's traditional rights, is communities' alienation from land and forests. Chattisgarh is under the shadow of gun-totting Naxalites. So far, only six of the Chattisgarh's districts have been declared "Naxalite-affected" by the government. But the movement is present in at least a dozen districts.

One of the reasons for their presence, say many experts is the faulty Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, which curtails people's access to the forests. "Abolish the forest department and hand over the forests to the people," demands Soren. The new leadership recognises the importance of giving back the forests to the community, but their commitment is not strong. Marandi said resource management is his priority, but within a fortnight widespread industrialisation found more favour. When asked about the conflict that may arise out of mining in forest areas, one MLA in Uttaranchal, says, "We will mine mineral-rich areas in the forest land by digging tunnels. No harm will come to the environment."

Jogi does not want tribal people to be mere "showpieces" but for that development like mining cannot be stopped. In other words, mining is important for development to reach the tribal people. He is obviously unaware of the fact that it is not mining, but ecological restoration alone that can help them. In any case, mining has never done wonders for the local people. Take Jharkhand, for instance. Mines employ a mere five per cent of the local population, while displacing 30 per cent of them, besides eating away their forests. In an interview to Down To Earth, Jogi talked about allowing only Indian companies to mine. In the debate between the Indian and foreign companies, the local people are completely forgotten. In any case, are Indian mining companies any different from foreign ones? The end result has always been depletion of resources and marginalisation of the local people.

Water crisis
Water is another resource that is a problem amid plenty in all the three states. Consider the fact that all the three states receive annual rainfall of 1,326 mm (Jharkhand), 1,667 mm (Uttaranchal) and 1,338 mm (Chattisgarh). Each state gets more that what Punjab or Haryana get. Yet, irrigated land is less than 56 per cent in the case of Uttaranchal, a disappointing 16.6 per cent in Chattisgarh and a shameful seven per cent in Jharkhand.

In Jharkhand, according to the state agriculture department's statistics, 90 per cent of the rain falls during July and September, 80 per cent of which is lost in runoff. The high runoff also causes soil erosion. So the result is that 50 per cent of the agricultural land of the state is unproductive and almost all farmers sow only one crop. In Chattisgarh, according to an inter-department document, 1.136 million ha of land, most of it belonging to marginal farmers, have been severely hit by the drought. In Uttaranchal, despite its enormous water resources, 3,729 villages do not have potable water supply. It is also besieged with the question of control over its waters. Few days before statehood, it lost its revenue rights over sanctioned hydel power projects to Uttar Pradesh. Ironically, all these states have the right topography for extensive watershed activities and huge potential for water harvesting. But hardly any initiative is being taken in this direction.

In need of a balance
Like their predecessors, will the new leadership make every effort to use natural resources to generate more revenue, degrading the environment further? Or will they use them sustainably? Development plans will have to promote natural resource-based enterprises in a way that poor communities benefit the most. This will call for innovative thinking and institution building from the bottom up. But it is the state leadership, from top to bottom, which will have to show intelligence and ingenuity in dealing with the development challenge faced by these new states.

The distressing thing is that no development blueprints are ready yet, nor is there any evidence of a changed mindset of the leaders. "One has to understand that the state was born only on November 1. We couldn't formulate any action plan before that," says Jogi. Plans given voice by the new governments sound just as hollow as those of the previous regimes.

What has to be understood is that the days of excuses or tall claims are now over. The new leadership has to find answers to the apprehensions put forward by the birth of the new states. How will the new states be managed? Will the natural resources continue to get plundered? Will the people ever get a change to participate in their own development? It is time the people get their due. This one time, the governments need to do more than play their usual games.

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