The poor? They are the government's problem

 
By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Thursday 11 June 2015

Everybody knows one hand of the government does not know what the other is up to. But it does make a difference when a proposed programme of the government contradicts and, perhaps, even fatally undermines a flagship initiative. This is the case with the proposed programme of the Union ministry of environment and forests -- euphemistically called the multi-stakeholder partnership on forests -- and its impact on the prime minister's pet projects of employment generation like the Bharat Nirman project. If this is the case, then surely it is not acceptable that government continues to bludgeon on, irrespective of the implications. Surely, the priorities of the government as a whole must become the priorities and purposes of its ministries.

But let me clarify these riddles. In a nutshell, the multi-stakeholder partnership is a programme to involve sponsors (corporate houses) in planting trees on forest lands. It caters to an old and incessant demand of the pulp and paper industry that wants captive plantations to grow wood for its products. On the face of it, there seems to be nothing wrong with the idea. After all, we need to plant trees. The country has set itself a target of 33 per cent of forest area. It is another matter that nobody is clear how, when and why this target was set. But only 22 per cent of our land area is classified as forest. The plantation challenge is enormous. On the one hand, we need to plant and afforest degraded forest lands, which are massive. And on the other hand, we need to plant trees on lands outside these classified forest lands. The government says it needs help in this job. It has a fund crunch. Industry says it has money. It also needs raw material. Here is a partnership made in heaven.

These are the 'wastelands' that industry will do us a big favour to plant and protect. The only problem is with the English language. It defines wasteland as land which is degraded and lying waste and unused.

The term wasteland is a misnomer. These lands are degraded not because they are unused, but because they are overused. In other words, these degraded lands are intensely used and if these lands are allocated to industry, its users -- illegal but de facto -- will be affected. Their key source of livelihood and sustenance would be taken away. This will further marginalise the poor, and all the prime minister's men with their poverty packages will be able to do little.

But let me make one thing clear. I am in favour of growing trees on these lands (and outside) for industrial use. I do strongly endorse the agenda of increasing raw material supply to industries like paper and pulp, and even to make biodiesel from plants. The question is not whether we should make money from trees. The question is who will make the money. There is a right way, which will lead to massive employment and put money directly in the hands of large numbers of poor rural communities. Then there is a wrong way, which will lead to limited employment and wealth for some.

The facts are clear. Industry wants forest land because when it grows trees on its captive plantations, it can bring down the cost of production and increase its profits. As against the Rs 2,800 per tonne it will have to pay to farmers or tribals when they sell it wood, it can grow it at Rs 1,000 per tonne. The land it gets then is the biggest subsidy, ironically given at a time when this government is talking about reform and removal of freebies from poor farmers and others.

But leave the moral issues aside. The concerns are economic. The fact also is that this grant of land for captive plantations, will seriously impair the market for privately and community-grown wood in the country. It is not a coincidence that in the 1990s India has seen the most outstanding work by some industries to source raw material from farmers. This work has happened because the industry did not get access to free and cheap land -- or easy options. It had to make the hard option work. And it did.

By 2002, almost one million tonnes of wood were grown by farmers and tribals for the industry. No small figure that. It is 30 per cent of industry's annual wood and bamboo consumption. In addition, another 30 per cent is sourced from the market -- this, too, is mainly grown by farmers. To do this, industry has actively encouraged the development of high quality saplings and extension work. It is downward integration with suppliers, which directly links it to the poorest in the country. It annually pays over Rs 500 crore to the rural economy to grow trees, more money than what is invested in the national afforestation scheme. More importantly, this money goes directly to people, without all the leakages and losses in government delivery systems. The employment potential is phenomenal.

But can't both survive? Industry can grow some wood, farmers can supplement. Unfortunately not. The economics are such that the cheap and discounted wood grown by industry in captive plantations will destroy this farmer-grown wood market completely. It has happened before. It will happen again.

Let us be clear. The cost of raw material for this industry is roughly 11 per cent to 15 per cent of the turnover if it grows its wood on captive plantations. It is 18 per cent of its turnover if farmers sell it wood. In other words, in one case it will maximise its profits and in the other it will share its profits -- not too much -- with farmers and tribals. But the choice is not small. It will make or break India. The government has to make a choice.

There is one small problem: people live on these lands. They are de facto users of the land.

-- Sunita Narain

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