In its search for a strategy for afforestation, a laudable goal in itself, the Madhya Pradesh (mp) government has once again put its foot in its mouth and buckled down unduly to commercial lobbies. Its decision to relax the land ceiling laws to permit timber companies to take up plantations on private lands, provides a totally unnecessary and wrong concession to these companies. This decision had come in the wake of the recent Supreme Court (sc) judgement prohibiting logging on forest lands, and the ministry of environment and forests' instruction to the mp government to disallow private companies access to state-owned forest lands for afforestation. Non-governmental organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment have strongly criticised the mp government for opting for this strategy, finally forcing it to give it up.
When, in the early '80s, the World Bank had launched its social forestry programmes in India, farm forestry had turned out to be its most and -- it can also be said -- only successful component. Several million hectares of private land were brought under trees by farmers as forest departments distributed free seedlings to encourage farmers to take up tree plantation. If India ever makes up its mind to bring 33 per cent of its land area under tree cover, a goal that was first officially stated in the national forest policy of 1952, trees will have to extend well beyond the state-owned forest area which is only 23 per cent of the nation's lands. Another 10 per cent of the total land area, which means about 30 million hectares (mha) (slightly more than the size of Uttar Pradesh), in addition to state-owned forest lands, will have to be planted with trees. Thus, any attempt to spread the tree cover in and beyond state-owned forest lands is a welcome development.
But it is also important to learn from the mistakes of the past. The farm forestry sector had suffered from two major shortcomings and finally collapsed in the mid-'80s because of a third lacuna in its management.
Ideally speaking, in a country like India where food production has to always remain one step ahead of population growth, good agricultural land should not be diverted away from growing food crops. But in the '80s, it was the good agricultural land owned by rich farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat which went under trees. This phenomenon made economic sense for the farmers, if not for the nation. Rich farmers have the economic capacity to withstand the six-eight year gestation period that tree crops demand, and good lands lead to faster tree growth and thus quicker and better economic returns.
But, on the contrary, many millions of poor farmers own highly degraded lands which yield poor crop outputs and very small returns. Growing unproductive crops on these lands ensures that these cultivators never break out of the poverty trap. It is these lands which should be used for growing trees, leaving the better lands under crops. India has a cultivated area of 145 mha; 15-20 mha, under private ownership, lies fallow. If 30 mha of those lands which yield little could be used for growing trees, the impact on food production would be marginal and poor farmers will be assured a better income. Thus, a major shortcoming of the 1980s farm forestry experience was that it was not directed towards poor farmers owning poor lands. West Bengal's group farm forestry -- the only exception to the rule where poor farmers benefitted from afforestation -- showed that such a strategy was possible.
The second weakness of the 1980s farm forestry programme was its choice of species. Almost every tree planted was eucalyptus, a non-browsable species, that is, a tree which does not provide fodder. Because the tree does not have a crown, it provides almost no firewood as well. Rural populations need multi-purpose species from which they can get firewood, fodder and, ultimately, timber to sell. If people still have to take their animals into forests for grazing even when millions of trees are growing outside forest lands, it defeats one of the principal purposes of afforestation. This calls for research on which species are best suited for farm forestry in India. But no such research was conducted for, or in course of, the programme. Moreover, once such species are identified, there may also be a need for paper technologists to find pulping techniques for such species or for wood technologists to find ways to use the timber of these species for making furniture and other valuable products. But no research was conducted on these aspects either.
This entire experience, thus, showed that neither the policy dimensions nor the research dimensions of farm forestry were thought through by Indian foresters or their omniscient Indian Administrative Service colleagues who oversaw the programme. In fact, not giving enough thought to the third critical dimension -- the economic dimension -- led to the collapse of farm forestry. Government officials convinced the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, that liberal imports of pulp and timber would help save Indian forests; once such a step was taken, what collapsed was India's farm forestry. Indian companies found it cheaper to import pulp from Canada than buy wood from Indian farmers and pulp it in India. With the market pulled out from under the farmers' feet, eucalyptus prices took a nosedive. Millions of farmers pulled out the young trees, not wanting to go bankrupt. Of course, the forest establishment did not lose a paisa.
The role of the mp government and its foresters should, therefore, be three-fold: develop policies that push farm forestry towards poor farmers and poor private lands without giving any opportunity to timber companies to dispossess these peasants; promote research on identification of appropriate multi-purpose species and pulping and wood-use technologies; and, understand the emerging wood markets in India and future wood prices and, thus, develop policies that ensure that half a decade later the new wood farmers get a good price. But wooden-headed bureaucrats and politicians still have no clue how to promote markets even in this era of liberalisation. Twisting land-related state regulations to appease business lobbies is the easiest response that even politicians take resort to, presumably because there is easy and quick money in such policies. But in the process they lose out on opportunities to deal with both the poverty and the resource degradation problems. Let us hope that an eminent chief minister like Digvijay Singh does not fall prey to such stupidities which go by the name of government policy.
The land-use data of mp shows that between 1970-71 and 1991-92, the cultivated area went up by 2.6 per cent (1.14 mha) of the total state area, but fallow lands also increased and the cultivable wastelands went down at the same time. This shows that people were trying to cultivate more and more cultivable wastelands, but were finding it difficult to get yields year after year. A district-wise study of agricultural productivity which presented data for the period 1980-83, showed that 11 districts of the state (Betul, Dhar, East Nimar, Guna, Jabalpur, Jhabua, Rajgarh, Ratlam, Rewa, Sidhi and West Nimar) were still struggling in the field of agricultural production. Updated studies can easily identify the areas where agricultural productivity is low and where appropriately chosen tree crops can do good both for the ecology and the society.
The government can make farm forestry remunerative by doing just two things: steadily reducing the official supply of wood from forest lands, while increasing the supply from farm forests. Then, of course, timber smuggling from forests will have to be strictly controlled. This can be done by persuading forest-based communities to get into the wood market through community management of state-owned forests and regeneration of degraded lands. They would then have a vested interest in controlling timber smuggling. It's time governments truly became managers of the country's forest estate within a 'liberalised perspective'.
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