The court acted methodically. First, it asked states to define forests. Interestingly, a clear definition of forests is not given in the existing legal instruments - Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980, Forest Conservation (Amendment) Act, 1988, and the Indian Forest Act, 1927. Under Section 2 of the FCA forests are defined as "reserved forest, protected forest or any area recorded as forest in the government record". The court also stated that forest should be understood according to its dictionary meaning - "a large area of land thickly covered with trees, bushes, etc". Then it ordered every state to form an expert committee, which would identify forests, irrespective of class or ownership; all wood-based industries and assess the sustainability of forests.
A more detailed verdict ensued on January 15, 1998, which gave instructions on working plans, industrial zones, disposal of felled timber, transportation (see box: Court's log). Significantly, it ordered a complete ban on the permit raj in Arunachal Pradesh, a system that was gaining notoriety (see box: Abuse). The court also ordered all wood-based industries to be shifted to industrial zones or face closure.
The Supreme Court order, in a way, has nothing radical about it. It is merely about enforcing the laws laid down by the government. Ban on tree felling without a working plan approved by the Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) already exists under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. However, hardly any state implements this provision. The ruling only reinforces the formulation of rules before any felling. Though private plantations and social forestry programmes, were excluded from the ban in the first ruling, the court brought these areas in the ambit of the ban in its next ruling.
But state governments have left no stone unturned to derail the court order. They have been painfully slow in formulating the working plan, mandatory for carrying out felling. Only 14 per cent of the plans have been completed since the last five years and some states still do not have a single working plan in place, according to Pramod Kant, regional officer-in-charge with MEF. Till October 2001, Manipur and Mizoram did not have even a single working plan in place. Similarly in Nagaland, where timber is the main source of livelihood for local people, the state formulated working plans for just 0.1 per cent of forests (see graph: Not working in the Northeast!). This is despite MEF setting up a regional centre in Shillong for easy access.
State governments are blaming the managers of community-managed forests for their failure of formulating working plans. The Meghalaya government has said that identifying forests was difficult as areas outside the reserved forests were under the control of the autonomous district councils. It also cited lack of proper forests records. However, its own track record of managing the three per cent state-controlled reserved forest is abysmally poor. In 1995, a major felling scam worth Rs 400 crore came to light, which involved several officials and politicians. The then state principal secretary termed it as a 'systematic collapse'.
Instead of addressing the issue of sustainability of forests, governments are playing up the economic losses. In an attempt to dilute the order, the Meghalaya government has urged MEF to recognise all unregistered, community or individually-owned forests as plantation forests and to exclude it from the purview of a working plan or scheme. Instead, the order could have been used to encourage local people to make their own working plans and build confidence among communities that working plans would not mean an indirect takeover of people's forest by the government.
The order is also being misinterpreted to bureaucratise forests. Since the order asks for a clear definition and identification of forest, some state governments see this as an opportunity to gain control over large areas in the Northeast that remain 'unclassed' even today. Forest officials, who want to do away with 'unclassed' forests, see this as a chance to alienate local people by claiming ownership, which is otherwise under the control of the community.
Angered by the way governments are trying to frustrate the implementation of the ban, the Supreme Court is beginning to crack the whip. On February 18, 2002, the apex court slapped a fine of Rs 5,000 on the Union government for not framing a comprehensive scheme regarding forest land approved for deforestation. Similarly, state governments too are being pulled up for misguiding the court (see box: Operation hoodwink). The axe falls
For the Northeast, the order comes at a time when the region is losing 31,700 hectares of dense forest every year. The illegal timber seized from the entire northeast region is estimated to run into several hundred crore per year. In the forests and depots, there is about 0.12 million cum of such illicit timber. Since most of the timber stock is illegal, it is impossible to prepare an inventory, a process mandatory for its disposal, which consumes time and money. In some cases, it was feared that new timber were being used to replace old stock.
The court also unmasked the rot in the forest bureaucracy, which is popularly known as the 'corrupt band'. "Forests were plundered and everyone was out to make a quick buck," says Asham Borang, a senior scientist at the State Forest Research Institute in Itanagar. The permit system, introduced to help the local people, became an instrument for siphoning huge number of trees out of the region by influential politicians and timber traders. The sawmills, mostly owned by influential politicians, used to continue operations long after their quota were over. The number of sawmills in Arunachal Pradesh increased by 400 per cent from 1983 to 1994. In some places, sawmills were located deep in the forests, making it inaccessible for forest officials.
Felling was so rampant that the HPC stated that tropical wet evergreen forest of Debang valley in Arunachal Pradesh was almost denuded. The HPC blamed the check posts located at the border of the autonomous councils for the increase in timber trade. These check posts are manned by private individuals, selected according to an auction system, whereby those agreeing to pay the more got the right to man them.
Benefiting no one
Though a majority of people depend on forest for their livelihood, it is the power brokers, politicians and government officials who benefit the most from timber trade. According to North East Sun, a fortnightly magazine published from Delhi, only one per cent of the timber from the region is utilised by local communities. The high power committee (HPC), set up by MEF to oversee the implementation of the court order in the Northeast, also endorses this view. It is the fly-by-night traders and influential politicians who plunder forests. Hillocks are reportedly leased to traders at throwaway prices. "Local people, who work for these traders, are content with meagre wages," says Borang.
Some state governments have been petitioning the court to lift the ban by using the livelihood issue to further their own interests. The truth is they want to protect their ongoing contracts with the Union government. In Meghalaya, three companies have been exempted from the purview of the ban as these had ongoing contracts with the government-run ordinance factory, currency press and the northeastern coalfields. Not surprisingly, the local people operate none of these companies.
The effort to undermine the court order and gain control over community-managed forests also underplays the role of the land ownership system that is unique to the region. Since the system has been in place for generations, local people refuse to acknowledge a different working scheme. "We will not follow the working plan scheme, but will appeal for the continuation of the United Khasi-Jaintia Hills Autonomous District (Management and Control of Forests) Act, 1958," says K K Phanbuh, chairperson of the Association. The Act classifies forest in Meghalaya into nine classes and prohibits felling and export of undersized trees whose girth is less than 1.3 metre at breast height. "Since the private land owners are aware of the good returns, they will preserve it," adds Phanbuh. This is where the solution lies: to use people-managed forests as a tool for development.