Old whine

Industry says "give us land"

 
Published: Saturday 15 April 2006

Old whine

-- The pulp and paper industry needs raw material. In the past, industry had been given 'concessions' over vast areas of forests at throwaway prices. Ecologist Madhav Gadgil documents how between the 1950s and 1980s, industry had destroyed each patch it had taken and moved on to ask for more and more. By the mid-1980s, forests were decimated. Interest in conservation peaked and it became clear that strategies had to be reworked. Industry wanted the easy way out. It wanted government to give it land for captive plantations. The plea was that land being given was 'wasteland' -- acres and acres of land lying waste across the country. Industry merely wanted to green this degraded land, it was argued.

The problem was manifold. It was evident that this subsidy given to industry for growing trees would destroy the farmer-grown market for wood in the country. It would distort prices and undercut the cost of land and labour that farmers need to recover in their pricing. It was also evident this wasteland -- degraded as it was -- was not unused. It was degraded because of intense human and animal pressure, which suppressed natural regeneration and growth of flora. And if this were the case, what would happen to those 'illegal' but 'customary' users of this state-owned common land, once the land became private plantation property? Where would they go to graze their cattle or collect their firewood? Was it not more important to involve these people in the regeneration of the forests, so that livelihoods could be protected and land -- all the acres lying waste -- could be afforested? Industry would not accept this proposition.

Industry did not give up hope. It kept the fire burning. Every new environment minister was sold the magic pill: give degraded forest land to industry, which will use its immense financial and managerial prowess to afforest India. Each time this proposition was raised, it was opposed. Each time the proposal was re-phrased to make it more palatable; with the old idea couched in new sentences and state-of-the-art euphemisms, much like the current multi-stakeholder partnership (which is the flavour of the day).

First retreat
In the mid-1980s, the Karnataka government drew up a plan to lease forest lands for eucalyptus cultivation in Davanagere district. To work around the forest laws, Karnataka Pulpwood Limited (kpl) was created as a joint-sector partnership between the state forest department and the Birlas-owned Harihar Polyfibres. kpl, with an initial outlay of Rs 30 crore, was allotted over 8,500 ha of forest lands to grow eucalyptus and other fast-growing trees for captive consumption of the pulp mill owned by Harihar Polyfibres. But this meant that local people living around the forests were to be further marginalised and their access to lands curtailed. The matter went to court. A public interest petition was filed by local ngo Samaj Parivartan Samuday with the support of noted Kannada writer, Shivram Karanth. The state government responded to public pressure and the entity was wound up.

Industry was frenzied about this proposal to get land. The National Wasteland Development Board -- which was the predecessor to the current afforestation board, was besieged with proposals from industry to be given 'wasteland'. However, when industry was offered revenue land, which was lying waste in some parts of the country, it would turn it down. These wastelands were too unproductive. It wanted forest lands.

These moves forced the government, then led by Rajiv Gandhi, to enact the first policy changes to guard against giving land to industry. The national forest policy of 1988 (which is the prevailing policy) incorporated the proposition that industry should source raw materials from farmers.

Click here to see the reports... It made it explicit that natural forests would not be made available to industries. An amendment to the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, was proposed, stipulating that only governmental agencies would be involved in planting trees on forest land.

Second try
Five years passed and industry tried a different tack. They did not want a small patch of land for just one factory, they wanted an amendment to the recent forest policy and a free run over government-owned forestlands.

In 1992, Kamal Nath, the then environment minister (and the current commerce minister) came under their spell, proposing to give 1.7 million ha of forest lands for the captive consumption of paper and pulp industries. A proposal was made to the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs to amend policies that barred government from granting land for captive plantations. The project proponents had done their homework. To stymie their detractors, they proposed creating forester-industry collaborations for the 1.7 million ha to begin with, with the following caveats:

There would be a mix of species grown with no single species having more than 50 per cent area. This would ensure a minimum level of bio-diversity and no monocultures. (This has been carried over in the current proposal; in new words)

To take care of the subsistence needs of people, 20 per cent of the project area would be planted for non-commercial use in consultation with local villagers. This would meet their 'bona fide' requirements of fuel, fodder and small timber. (Ditto in current)

Only severely degraded forest areas (less than 10 per cent density) would be given to the state forest development corporations to plant in financial and technical collaboration with private sector. (Carried forward in current plan)

There would be a management committee with equal representation of the foresters and village community and industry head for overall technical supervision. (In the current proposal, it has been refined to become the multi-stakeholder partnership)

But the proposal did not go far. It was severely criticised by environmentalists, tribal leaders and politicians. They argued that industry should be given non-forest wasteland, which would not impinge on the survival of the poorest. With elections round the corner, the proposal was buried but not killed.

Third time lucky?
After the 1995-1996 general elections, the moves began again. In 1996, the then environment minister, Saifuddin Soz (now minister for water resources), refused to succumb to pressures and openly opposed industry's proposals to privatise forest lands. But, the Madhya Pradesh government invited tenders from private entrepreneurs for grant of forest land, which would be leased out for 30 years. This was stopped under pressure. In 1998, a working group was then set up under NC Saxena, then secretary, wasteland development, to report to the Planning Commission on the issue. The group, which was mandated to examine the feasibility of leasing out or otherwise making degraded forest land available to private entrepreneurs, held wide-ranging consultations with industry and other interest groups. The report concluded that while industry should be involved in re-greening revenue wastelands, it should not be given forest land as it would impinge on both people and forests.

The report concluded:

Since most degraded forests are close to habitations, they have extreme biotic pressure and have rights of people recorded on such lands. In fact, these lands are degraded primarily because of people's pressure and are not 'unproductive'. It will be impossible to extinguish such rights or to reduce biotic pressure, without people's involvement. It noted that in many national parks and sanctuaries, the government is finding it difficult to guard against people's use. If this is tough, then giving land to private entrepreneurs who are less legitimate users of the forest land will exacerbate tensions manifold

It was not possible to find degraded forests in a contiguous patch of say 2,000 ha suitable for effecting economies of scale. Such patches are found only in reserved forests of good quality. Industry, during its enquiries, had also clarified that it required forest lands with good soil depth, so that afforestation is possible without huge costs

Industry had shown no interest in leasing in non-forest wastelands and therefore their plans to operate on equally degraded barren forestlands were highly suspect

The Saxena group supported the involvement of industry in the use of non-forest wasteland, such as the Bhal lands of Gujarat or the ravines of Madhya Pradesh. These lands added up to 20 million ha, out of industry's total requirements of 2 million ha to grow plantation crops. But industry turned down this offer. It wanted more.

The final gambit
In 2000, the first to bite the bullet was the poster boy of liberalisation, Chandrababu Naidu, then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. But times had changed and old players had learnt the language of reform. The proposal was sweetened by new terminology of partnership and involvement of stakeholders.

The state government proposed (surreptitiously as it emerged) to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Reliance group of industries for setting up plantations in government forest lands.

For the first time in the country, institutions under the joint forest management scheme -- the non-legal entities created by the forest department to involve people in planting trees -- were to be part of this scheme (see 'Seeking Reliance', Down To Earth, September 15, 2000). The company was ready to launch plantation activities on 10,000 ha of land in three districts: Visakhapatnam, Adilabad and Chitoor. But if proved successful, more land would be provided, Naidu had then promised.

But as news leaked out, opposition mounted. Groups in the state argued that the government should give the rights to local vana suraksha samitis -- village-level forest user groups that protected and regenerated degraded forests. These were tribal lands and the area fell under Schedule v of the Constitution, which debarred alienation of the lands from its inhabitants. In 2001, the state government was forced to give up this proposal.

But there is no permanent opposition in politics. In February 2006, when the cii meet was held, the current Andhra Pradesh forest minister -- now from the Congress, which had opposed the Naidu government for being anti-people -- supported the multi-stakeholder partnership with gusto. The players had come full circle.

Another round had previously been played out in 2002. But to give the then ruling National Democratic Alliance government its due, it did not succumb to the pressures. Its finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, in his 2002 budget, had provided that his government would give tax deductions for afforestation projects on degraded non-forest land. The crucial prefix was "non", because without this, Sinha would have had to capitulate to pressures of the industry lobby.

But its successor government, which came to power on the vote of common people and vowed to wipe out poverty and provide employment to all, seems to be working in reverse gear.

The question is what does industry want and why? What will the proposal end up doing?

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