Good Lord! No trees

Wood used in Jagannath’s chariot vanishing fast from Odisha’s jungles

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Thursday 30 June 2011

Good Lord! No trees

imageA month before the chariot festival of Jagannath in Odisha’s Puri town, newspapers in the state published a government advertisement: “Donate phasi timber for chariot construction.” It promised a felicitation certificate to anyone donating timber for making three gigantic chariots. The appeal soon made headlines.

With thousands of devotees set to attend the festival on July 3, the state government sought help from different sources. Forest officials found it difficult to satisfy this annual need of timber in right size and quantity. A 12-year-old programme to create dedicated forests for the temple’s use will take another 30 years to supply timber. The temple authorities increasingly depend on individual donations.

Jagannath Temple needs 1,135 logs of about 400 cubic metres to build three chariots every year. This involves felling of nearly 1,000 trees of 13 species (see ‘Trees for chariot’). Forests in Nayagarh and Khurda districts are the main source of timber for this. Under the State Chariot Festival Code the state government is legally bound to supply timber free to the temple. Used chariots are dismantled and the wood supplied as fuel to the temple’s kitchen that caters to 35,000-40,000 people every day.

“Finding the right size and quality of timber is turning out to be the toughest challenge,” says a forest official of Nayagarh. “Earlier, we could find enough phasi trees just a kilometre inside the forest. Now we spend months identifying them.” Foresters say the stock of phasi trees, used to make the chariot’s wheels, is almost exhausted. “Wheels are the most precious component of the chariot and use the toughest wood (phasi),” says Bijay Mohapatra, the chief carpenter of Jagannath Temple. Religious beliefs do not allow use of any other timber.

On the bank of the Mahanadi in Nayagarh, a community-protected forest still has phasi trees in large numbers. This forest patch is now being targeted for securing the trees, says Laxmidhar Balia, the convenor of Odisha Jungle Manch, a federation of communities involved in protecting forests in Odisha.

imageIn 2000, the state started the Jagannath Bana Prakalpa (Jagannath Forest Project) to create dedicated forests consisting of the 13 species. It has since spent Rs 65 lakh. According to P K Mohapatra, the chief administrator of Jagannath Temple, 4.5 million trees have been planted on 2,800 hectares in five districts. Government expects to harvest 0.9 million phasi, asan and dhaura trees annually from these forests. But the state of the project casts doubts over the future of timber supply. Except in Dasapalla district, the plantation is not in good shape.

The project involved communities in protecting the planted trees, most of which would take 25-30 years to mature; phasi takes 60-70 years. People in Ramgarh village of Baudh district say the government promised them two lift irrigation facilities as an incentive for protecting the forest. “They did not keep the promise. We have withdrawn from protection,” says a resident. In 2004-05, an official inquiry found rampant corruption in the project and very low survival rate of planted trees. Yet in April this year the state decided to spend another Rs 3.8 crore on creating phasi forests.

The temple’s appetite for trees is not restricted to building chariots. It consumes 8.5 tonnes of wood a day as fuel; 25 tonnes during the 10-day chariot festival. “Dismantled chariots provide enough fuelwood for nine months. For the rest three months the forest department supplies us,” says a public relations officer of the temple. Sourcing fuelwood for the world’s largest community kitchen is leading to conflicts. In April this year the forest department was forced to stop harvesting a thick patch of casuarina plantation in Astaranga area of Puri after protests. Women of eight villages along the coast had revived the plantation as protection against cyclone.

Jagannath’s footprint is beginning to impinge on people’s resources.

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