As the demand-supply gap for timber widens in India, it is time to exploit the potential of private plantations and government-managed forests in a sustainable manner
For the past five years, Rambharos Kamedia, a farmer in Madhya Pradesh, has been receiving a lot of attention. A dense teak forest he raised on his farm near Satwas village in Devas district is visited by the who’s who of the forestry circle. The state government projects it as one of the success stories of its much acclaimed Lok Vaniki scheme. Kamedia, however, is no more amused. Rather, he feels cheated.
Like several other farmers in the state, Kamedia has inherited the patches of natural teak forest. However, until a few years ago, he did not benefit from them. There were restrictions on felling and transit of trees on private land. This led to widespread resentment among private forest owners in the state. Towards the late 1990s, they staged protests, demanding that they should be allowed to harvest timber from their forests. They threatened to clear fell the forests and shift to agriculture if the government did not heed their demand. In 1999, the government introduced Lok Vaniki and allowed people to harvest their forests, though as per government-approved plan.
The scheme held double benefits: it motivated private forest owners to plan long-term forest management instead of shifting to agriculture and boosted sustainable production of timber.
In 2001, the government enacted the Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Act and laid down procedures for the scheme. It also created an advisory body of chartered foresters, mostly comprising retired foresters, to help private forest owners prepare working plans for harvesting forest sustainably. The scheme was an instant hit. By 2005, the government had approved 613 working plans.
There were 135 and 60 teak trees on Kamedia’s two forest patches. As per the working plans, he was allowed to harvest 35-40 trees from the bigger patch every ninth year starting from 2004 and two to three trees from the smaller patch every two years starting from 2006. Within four years, Kamedia harvested three crops and earned Rs 2.4 lakh. “As per the working plan, I had to plant two trees for every tree I cut down. But excited by the returns, I planted an additional 250 teak trees on a farm lying unused. Now they have grown into a dense teak forest,” says Kamedia.
The party did not last long. Between 2008 and 2011, the government introduced various amendments to the Lok Vaniki rules, which, analysts say, have made the process of getting felling approval cumbersome.
For instance, says Prem Patel, secretary of Lok Vaniki Kisan Samiti in Devas, the amended rules call for a joint survey of the forest patch by at least six officials from forest and revenue departments before approving the working plan. The rules also require the forest owners to provide GPS maps for their patches along with the revenue map while submitting working plans. “It is almost impossible to get six officials of two departments at one place at one time. Besides, there is always some discrepancy between the measurement of the area in old revenue records and when done through GPS,” says Patel. He informs that the forest department has rejected hundreds of working plans only because of this discrepancy. “It has approved only 50 working plans since the amendment of the rules,” says Patel.
Though Kamedia had working plans for his forest patches, in 2010 when he approached the forest department for felling permission, officials asked him to revise the plans as per new rules. He had no one to go to. The government did away with chartered foresters in 2005, citing that the experts were charging unreasonable fee. “The chartered foresters did not just prepare working plans for our forests, they also made sure that the plans get approved,” says Bhujram Patel, a resident of Burud village in Devas. “We still have to consult a forestry expert and pay him to get our plans drafted. But, after that there is nobody to guide us through the process,” Patel adds. Though Patel has managed to get the working plan for his teak forest prepared, he is struggling to get it approved.
Several people who were planning to join the scheme have changed their mind. “So far, 1,500 ha of private forests in Devas are under Lok Vaniki. Had the process been simple, the area would have been double,” says Prem Patel.
K K Singh, former Member of Legislative Assembly of the state and the president of Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Kisan Samiti, says the unreasonable conditions on approval of working plans has defeated the purpose of the scheme. “In fact, it is easier now to get a permission of felling under the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code.” The law, which guided felling of trees on private land prior to the enactment of the Lok Vaniki Act, required district collector’s permission, which was difficult to secure. In 2007, the rules were amended to replace collector’s permission with tehsildar’s permission.
In villages this correspondent visited in Devas, several farmers said they have either applied to the tehsildar for felling teak or are going ahead with felling without seeking permission. Due to restrictions on selling, they are selling it in the black market or using the timber for personal consumption. “The pressure for agricultural land is increasing. I cannot leave my land unused like this,” says a forest owner in Devas.
Only two years ago, the Madhya Pradesh forest department had received the international Green Globe Foundation Award for “outstanding work in environment sector”, which includes implementation of Lok Vaniki.
Forest officials say the Lok Vaniki rules were amended to prevent abuse of the scheme. In 2008, cases of illegal felling in government forests in the guise of Lok Vaniki were reported from Betul district, which prompted the government to ban felling under the scheme for a year. It was resumed only after protests but with restrictions.
Singh, however, blames the forest department for making the scheme unviable. “The department was not comfortable with the idea that people were managing forests well. It seems, forest officials were insecure about losing control over timber. They are interested in getting awards for the scheme but are hardly concerned about its implementation,” he says.
No takers for private forestry
Private forestry across the country faces the same fate as Lok Vaniki. In 1988, the Centre revised the National Forest Policy to discourage sourcing of timber from government-managed forests and directed wood-based industries to raise their raw material on private land in cooperation with farmers. This gave impetus to agroforestry. But it did not sustain for long.
Most farmers in central and western India took to growing short-rotation non-native trees like eucalyptus and poplar with gusto. But due to lack of scientific management and in the absence of market linkages, the plantations failed to give farmers the expected yield or price. The market of low-value timber crashed in the early 1990s. It later picked up in a few states like Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh with the introduction of the plywood industry. Farmers still complain of receiving low price for their produce.
For instance, Haryana introduced minimum support price (MSP) for short-rotation timber following complaints that the plywood industry had formed syndicates with timber agents to keep the price low. The MSP, however, remains equal to or below the market rate.
During the Ninth Five Year Plan, the Centre planned to bring an additional 28 million ha under agroforestry. But even after the completion of 11th Five Year Plan, the area under agroforestry is estimated to be about 8 million ha.
Though long-rotation timber trees like teak ensure assured profits, farmers are reluctant to grow the trees due to complex regulations. Delhi-based forestry analyst Chetan Agarwal explains this. While most of the states have deregulated felling and transport of short-rotation timber species, long-rotation timber tree requires permission for its harvesting, commercial use, personal use and transporting. The regulations aim to prevent illegal logging in nearby forests. But people in need end up selling their trees to agents at a distress price, Agarwal says. This discourages farmers from growing timber species and puts extra regulatory burden on authorities, he adds.
In 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) constituted a committee to study the felling and transit regulations for trees grown on private land. The draft report recommends short-rotation timber species be exempted from felling and transit permits across the country, and suggests regulations for felling long-rotation timber by gram sabha under supervision of the forest department. The draft report notes that there is a need for a simple, uniform mechanism to regulate or deregulate transit rules of forest produce within states and in a region.
The need for such reforms had led to the enactment of the Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Act, says Agarwal. In fact, one of the terms of references of the committee was to review the Act and explore the possibility of replicating the model in other states. But it failed to suggest measures to revive the scheme and expand its scope at national level. An analysis by M Dixit, retired principal chief conservator of forests of Madhya Pradesh, in 2007 shows if the 100,000 ha of private forests lying unutilised in the state were brought under Lok Vaniki, the state’s timber production would double. Dixit’s report was published in Indian Forester.
Exploiting this potential of private forestry to the fullest becomes essential considering that the country has been grappling with huge demand and supply gap in timber (see graphs). Besides, though 85 per cent of forests are under government control, they are considered out of bounds to commercial production of timber or hardly utilised to their sustainable production potential.
No timber in government forest
The government owns more than 58 million ha of the 68.4 million ha forest cover in the country. Yet, according to the Forest Sector Report 2010 by Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education (ICFRE), Dehradun, it produces just 2.38 million cubic metres (cum) of timber a year. The remaining 18.7 million ha of private forests, plantations as well as tree cover yield 44.3 million cum of timber annually. This is 20 times the government production.
Forest officials attribute such low production of timber to the poor productivity of Indian forests and to the policy of “managing forests for ecological values and not for commercial gains”. “Most of our forests have long gestation periods, and there are anthropogenic pressures of grazing and fuel wood collection. All this affect productivity. Moreover, the forest department looks at forests from the point of view of conservation. The production aspect is hardly considered,” says an official with the Forest Survey of India (FSI). According to FSI, productivity of Indian forest is 0.7 cum/ha/year compared to the world average of 2.1 cum/ha/year.
Even at this productivity and going by a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report that 17.1 million ha of the government-managed forest in India is assigned for timber production, the forests can produce over 11 million cum timber. But this does not happen.
“It is a misrepresentation of facts to say that the productivity of Indian forests is low,” says an analyst working on timber trade and policy. “We are a tropical country and our forests are as productive as any other tropical forest.” He blames the low productivity on unsustainable management and failure to check illegal trade. “At least 20-30 per cent of the timber in the open market comes from illegal sources. This is never reported because of vested interests.”
A 2006 report of International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO) estimated about 25 million cum of wood was produced from unrecorded sources in India.
Sustainable production, on the other hand, does not seem to be on the agenda of forest officials. A 2010 report of ITTO shows less than 10 million ha of forest managed by the government for timber production was under working plans, some as old as 30 years. This is despite a Supreme Court ruling that forests cannot be harvested without working plans. Analysts say forest departments have started taking working plans seriously only in the last three-four years after the 13th Finance Commission made it a must for states to avail forestry grants.
S S Panse, a forestry auditor based in Delhi, says the purpose of restrictions on timber production was to arrest degradation of forest, but even that does not seem to be happening. The National Forest Policy of 1988 aimed to increase the forest and tree cover to 33 per cent of the country’s geographical area by 2012. It is still at about 23 per cent. Most of the forests are being degraded and the mean annual increment in the growing stock is minimal. This is despite the fact that timber harvest in government-managed forests is nowhere close to the annual allowable cut, Panse says.
Import booms, just for now
As the country fails to meet the demand for timber from its forest, it has relied heavily on import from other tropical countries. Despite economic slowdown, Gujarat’s Kandla port, which receives 70 per cent of timber imported into the country, has registered a double digit growth. Last year the port received 4.13 million cum of logs as against 3.73 million cum the year before. The imports are expected to exceed 5 million cum this year. For India, the figure can reach up to 8 million cum.
In the 1990s the government reduced import duty on timber to compliment its policy of discouraging commercial harvest of domestic forests. Between 1994 and 2006, timber import went up by 16 times, and India became a major log market in Asia. Malaysia, which used to send most of its log shipments to China and Japan till five years ago, now targets India as its main market. Myanmar sends more than 80 per cent of its exported timber to India.
Analysts are concerned about this growing dependence on timber import. Over 90 per cent of imported timber is tropical hardwood, whose availability is declining at an alarming rate due to deforestation, says Brian Leslie of Forestry Innovation Investment, an agency of the British Columbia government. “While Malaysia is under pressure to curb illegal felling, Myanmar has decided to ban timber exports from next year. With import demand doubling by 2020 and tripling by 2030, India will have to produce more timber domestically.”
There is mounting pressure from international conservation groups on countries in critical forest zones to certify their forest for sustainable management. Forestry trade analysts say this will increase prices of imported wood phenomenally, making the trade unviable. The country must strike a balance between production and import to meet its demand and at the same time ensuring growth of its forests.