How development loses meaning

The abstract noun 'development' is firmly a part of the public relations language governments use today. But after a recent ordinance passed by the Orissa government, that levies a 'forest development tax' on minor forest produce, its meaning assumes a distinctly monstrous sense

 
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

-- the abstract noun 'development' is firmly a part of the public relations language governments use today. But after a recent ordinance passed by the Orissa government, that levies a 'forest development tax' on minor forest produce (MFP), its meaning assumes a distinctly monstrous sense (see: In the tax bracket again). The new tax, the state justifies, will regenerate forests. An abstract argument, for about 60 per cent of the revenue will become salary for state employees. Coffers empty, government wants more revenue. It picks out MFPs as the source. In so doing it also picks on Orissa's tribal population, 80 per cent of which depend on MFPs for survival.

Of late, state governments have happily looked to taxing forest produce to compensate for gross financial mismanagement. For tribal forest dwellers, it becomes a double-edged sword. One, states hardly fund development works in sectors like forest. Two, tribal MFP gatherers don't earn much from MFPs -- a major chunk goes to middlemen and state forest corporations; the new tax will reduce their earnings further.

Also, ever since the Supreme Court banned felling of trees (earlier the main source of revenue from forests) in 1996, state governments have eyed MFPs as the next source of monopolistic income. Using officialese at its concrete best, many lucrative forest produces have been nationalised so that the states can retain control over MFP trade. The biggest example is bamboo; forest department officialese calls it timber -- whereas it is a grass -- thus justifying its monopoly.

Financial mess cannot be an excuse to increase the survival burden of poor forest dwellers. The people-forest equation in India goes far beyond fiscal calculus. The natural resource economy in the country is the largest contributor to the national income. About 500 million people depend on forests. Such an extra-ordinary and vibrant ecology should not be further strained -- and drained -- by such blatant impositions. If government really wishes to develop forests, this population should be left alone to manage the forest, the economy. MFPs are an incentive for local people to protect the forest. So why can't the sector be liberalised? Why can't government let go?

Perhaps then, this economy will not be bled dry. Certainly then, 'development' will be less abstract, and make more proper sense.

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