An axe that went awry

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

-- A legislation that has deterred people from planting trees

In May this year, this magazine ran a story about a person in Orissa who was hard put to cut down trees in his patch of land. He faced bureaucratic hurdles galore. There are many like him in the country. A lot of their problems can be blamed on tree preservation acts in various states of the country.

The origins of these acts lie in Karnataka. I was among those responsible for framing it. Let me describe the context. In mid-1970s, there was rampant tree felling in rural and urban Karnataka. The Land Reforms Act had left the issue of ownership of trees vague and both landlords and tenants were keen on appropriating trees before the matter got settled. In Kodagu, large blocks of forests left untouched by the district's coffee farmers had found new takers plywood units.Revenue-department-controlled forests, meant to cater to local fuel and fodder needs, were distributed among the landless. The tree cover was falling in Karnataka. Regulations had become necessary.

About that time, Mari Gowda, the director of Karnataka's Horticulture Department, brought to the government's notice a provision in the Bombay Municipal Act regulating tree felling on the Mumbai beach. He proposed similar measures for Karnataka. But the proposal was sketchy and left the subject of staff requirement vague. Karnataka's horticulture department was then stretched for manpower and the matter was referred to the forest department.

The tree preservation act framed by the forest department in 1976 sought to regulate tree felling in almost all categories of land. It did not, however, cover coffee, tea and rubber plantations. The legislation made no distinction between natural tree growth and plantations. From hindsight, I think we erred in not making this distinction. For example, it put restrictions on cutting down trees for firewood in Karnataka. Of course, the act does say the permission cannot be refused for felling stipulated quantities of trees to meet timber and firewood needs. The tree officer--a forest officer who supervises the working of the act--cannot refuse permission to fell diseased, damaged and over-aged trees. People can appeal against the decision of this officer to the Tree Authority, which includes officers of the Revenue, Public Works and Horticulture department.

Down to Earth Several states followed Karnataka's example in enacting tree preservation acts. But the well-intentioned pieces of legislation have increasingly become rigid and cumbersome. This has promoted corruption. The acts have become a disincentive to tree planting. Initially, the tree officer had to respond to applications within a month. This time limit has now been increased to three months. Earlier seeking permission to fell a tree was a mere matter of writing a letter to the tree officer. Now this application has to be accompanied with many documents including certified copies of extracts of revenue records, survey sketches, certified by the superintendent of land records and a certificate from the tahsildar regarding land tenure. All this is to ensure that the tree officer is not implicated in a dispute over the title of the land or trees.

A 1996 judgment of the Supreme Court has also deterred people from planting trees. It declared areas of over five hectare (ha) under trees as 'forests', bringing these tracts under regulations. The judgment might save these 'forests' but in future no tree cover of over five ha will ever come up in private lands.

In 1981 we did try to improve the Karnataka tree preservation act. We laid down the number of trees that had to be raised in a tract in five years. But the numbers were small, never more than 25 per ha--even when the site was barren. There was also a hitch. The then chief minister of Karnataka, Gundu Rao, and his successor Ramakrishna Hegde insisted that the change should come through inducements, not legal assertions. So, the amendments remained mostly on paper.

S Shyam Sunder is a retired Indian Forest Service officer

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