Whenever the Supreme Court pulls the trigger, why does it miss the target? Because governments like those of the seven Northeast states work hard to defeat every good intention. The apex court imposed an interim ban on felling in forests on December 12, 1996. Being the owner of India's one-fourth of forests, the seven states are worst affected: a large chunk of their population earn their livelihood from forests. The order has come at a time when the region was losing 31,700 hectares every year, mostly due to the government and timber traders' nexus. The court wanted the golden goose - forests in the Northeast - not to be killed. It also made the ban conditional: to put in place a sustainable way of using the forests. This proposal makes sense for a region, where traditional village institutions control and manage 80 per cent of forests. But state governments are working overtime to derail the order. Instead of using the court order to build a vibrant and sustainable economy of forests, they interpreted the ruling to gain government control over community forests. As governments play their dirty tricks with the court, the people continue to suffer. The result: another round of public anger against the court and its green intentions. LIAN CHAWII reports from the Northeast

Published: Friday 15 March 2002


-- (Credit: Photographs: Anil Agarwal / CS)Unquiet woods

With the ban and without access to forest revenue, Northeast economy is in doldrums

THERE is an unusual quietness in the forests of India's northeast, arguably the country's best timberlands and one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. Brought about by the Supreme Court's blanket ban on tree felling on December 12, 1996, the silence has gained serious undertones over the last few years. For a region that largely depends on forests for economic and livelihood survival, the ban has come short of a death sentence. The economic loss is unimaginable, particularly for poor forest dwellers who form a majority in the seven states - Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram, Nagaland, Assam, Tripura, Manipur and Meghalaya.

Ask Phok Wang, a 45-year-old farmer from Mopaya Village of Arunachal Pradesh's Tirap district. In October 1996, he was gearing up for his annual logging operation when the apex court gave its ruling. It is five years now and he is still trying to redefine his life. He has switched over to tea cultivation to fill the economic void. But S K Rathore, a timber merchant from Punjab, hasn't been so lucky. He invested Rs 25 lakh in an entire hillock in Tinsukia district of Assam. Now he runs a dhaba near Kaziranga National Park in Assam. The forest in the silhouette has become a distant economic dream.

Financial losses
The economic impact of the ban has been quick and telling. In Arunachal Pradesh, the ban resulted in an almost 84 per cent drop in the state's revenue - from Rs 49 crore in 1995-96 to Rs 7.9 crore in 2000-01. The total contribution of the forest sector to the state domestic product declined from 12.2 per cent in 1994-1995 to 3.9 per cent in 1999-2000 (see graph: Cut to size). "The ban has severely affected us as we are largely dependent on forests," says Mukut Mithi, Arunachal Pradesh's chief minister. "There is no alternative to make up for this economic loss," adds Lalit Sharma, the chief secretary of Arunachal Pradesh. Similarly in Manipur, the revenue from forest products declined from Rs 2.9 crore in 1996-97 to Rs 0.06 crore in 1999-2000. And more than the loss to the state exchequer, it is the loss of employment that is alarming.

In Meghalaya, more than 200,000 people (about 11 per cent of the state's population) are affected, either directly or indirectly, says H S Lyngdoh, the state's former forest minister. The Nocte Timber Corporation in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh once employed around 1,500 people. Now the premise serves as a camp base for the Central Reserved Police Force (CRPF). A few metres away is Narottam Udyog, which is now occupied by the Gorkha Rifles. The displaced workers no longer get their salaries, though the judgement ordered the employers to continue paying the workforce even after the ban. "I have not received my salary since July 1997," says N Rai, an accountant with the Narottam Cooperative Industries Limited (NCIL). In Assam's Tinsukia and Dibrugarh districts, mill owners have terminated the services of their employees, leaving the future of more than 1 million people at stake.

For the Arunachal Pradesh Forest Corporation Limited (APFCL), once a much-envied corporation, the financial losses have been staggering. Its cash reserve declined from Rs 28 crore in 1997 to just Rs 8 crore in 2001 and the future of its 400 employees is now at stake. In a report submitted to the Supreme Court in May 1997, the Meghalaya government stated that 5,396 people employed in wood-based industries were directly affected by the ban.

Forest insurgency
While the forest bureaucracy supports the ban, the political leadership is opposing it. Arunachal Pradesh chief minister, Gegong Apang, warned that unemployment would lead to insurgency in the state. In fact, most states have petitioned the Supreme Court linking unemployment with insurgency. "It is easy for the unemployed to get involved in kidnapping and extortion," says Zoramthanga, Mizoram's chief minister.

The ban may have put an end to timber felling, but the displaced youth are taking to anti-social activities. Timber logging was an easy way of making fast money and many youngsters were involved in this trade given the huge volume of illegal timber trade in this region. Says S R Mehta, Arunachal Pradesh's principal chief conservator of forests, "Incidents of illegal felling in the area has increased." Local people allege that timber is being smuggled to neighbouring Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The ban has also had a major impact on timber trade, as the Northeast accounts for one-fourth of the country's forests and half the domestic timber trade. Over 90 per cent of the production units have been shut down. Now the price of wood materials in Delhi has increased by 20-30 per cent on account of the shortage.

As a result, companies from Malaysia, Myanmar and Nigeria are entering the Indian market. Earlier, imported timber accounted for only 10 per cent of the timber supply in Delhi. "Now it is almost 90 per cent," says Narendra Gupta, president of Paharganj Timber and Plywood Association. In Nangloi and Kirti Nagar, Delhi's biggest timber market, around 50,000 workers engaged in the business have been affected. Public anger seems directed towards the courts. But the real culprits, few realise, are the Northeast governments.

The accused

Governments clinically interpret the ban to make space for the forest bureaucracy, alienating people from their own habitats

AS PUBLIC anger mounts against the court order, what comes out clearly is that state governments are pulling all stops to derail a well-intentioned ruling. The relentless tirade of the state governments against the Supreme Court for robbing away people's livelihood is just another ruse to hide its own incompetence - both in recognising the importance of forest livelihood and also in acknowledging the community's role in managing forests. This is more true in the case of the Northeast region, which has an effective traditional system of forest management through autonomous institutions.

The ruling is an interim one and the ban on felling is conditional to certain rules the court has asked from state governments. This means if the conditions are met, felling can start. The apex court's conditions are as simple as just making a few corrections in the official books. The government's cry for people's livelihood is more to do with its own ineptness than anything else.

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