The invitation was innocuous. The Confederation of Indian Industry (cii) -- the grouping of the large and most powerful industries -- was convening a meet on forests. The purpose, said the invitation (which reached us by chance), was to discuss how the country would achieve the national target of 33 per cent forest and tree cover by 2012. The minister for environment was the key speaker and the ministry of environment and forests was the co-organiser. The question was: what was industry's interest in planting trees? Why was the ministry associated with this meeting? What was being cooked in this broth?
The fact is that industry's interest in land (not just forests) dates back to the mid-1980s. The proposal is delicious because it is so simple. India has large tracts of lands without tree cover. These are lands classified as forests but lying degraded. The country needs to plant trees. But the government says it lacks funds. Industry says that it needs raw material from forests. It has the capital to pay for planting trees and the technology and managerial ability to do massive afforestation. If trees are planted, the poor will get jobs. This is a win-win option.
But we, who have been tracking the story for the past 20 years, know that the proposal has been on the table for years. It has been pushed, each time with some changes in the detail of the scheme, each time with bigger and bigger players in the fray. The last was in early 2000, when Reliance Industries almost secured rights over forests of Andhra Pradesh. But still, each time the proposal has been rejected because it is understood that it will do nothing for poor people who depend on the forests and nothing even for the forests it aims to protect.
But if this is known, why the renewed interest? What does the newest look of the old proposal promise? What position does this government, with its common minimum programme, take on this idea, which has been the bugbear of tribal activists and environmentalists for many years? Nitin Sethi investigates history and current affairs to uncover the newest deal.
The meet was called the National Conference on Forestry. Its venue was the luxury Maurya Sheraton hotel in Delhi. It was organised by cii in association with the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) in February 2006. The announcement said Indian industry was organising the event because it was willing to take the lead to "devise effective management perspectives for sustainable forest management in an integrated manner". Industry was most competent to undertake this work because "Indian industry has contributed to transforming the nation into a rapid developing economy". Its effort now was "for a trinity for re-greening India -- strong bondage of partnership across community, state and private sector, which would go a long way in opening up the space for a fruitful partnership in re-greening the country by putting into practice the private-public partnership".
The minister of state in the ministry, N N Meena, was the chief guest. The participants were industry leaders, forest officials and a sprinkling of civil society. The minister's message was that India needed to afforest its lands -- it needed to reach the target of bringing 33 per cent of geographical area under forests. His ministry he said was working on a framework for public-private partnership for attracting private investments for afforestation of degraded forest lands. The secretary to the ministry, Prodipto Ghosh, led the way with a presentation on the proposal.
The proposal is called a multi-stakeholder partnership for forestation, Ghosh said. The first document detailing the scheme was prepared by the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, for the National Afforestation and Ecodevelopment Board in November 2005. The proposal has since been cleared by the board and presented to the state forest ministers' meet, which was also held in February 2005. The secretary promised that the proposal would be presented to the Union cabinet shortly.
The scheme, which is detailed below, has been worked in close consultation with industry, in particular the wood-consuming pulp and paper sector. The sunshine biodiesel industry is also a big player -- its demand for forest land has been incessant. In 2003, cii had commissioned a study on public-private partnership to re-green degraded revenue/private/forest land. But for the moment, industry is voicing its problems with the draft, presumably to get more out of the deal. Sandeep Shrivastava, counsellor (environment) at the cii environment management division told Down To Earth that in the formal submission to the ministry, industry has asked for the rules to be relaxed further.
For instance, it wants the criterion that the maximum parcel of land that can be bid on be limited to 50 hectares (ha) be removed. This view is endorsed by representatives of the world's largest forest and paper industry consultants, who are prowling the ministry these days. "Economics of scale demand that industry should be given large parcels of land -- 6,000-10,000 ha of contiguous lands," says David Gardner of Jaakko Poyry Consulting. The draft stipulates that when the multi-stakeholder partnership contract ends, the land should have a minimum of 40 per cent canopy cover. cii has asked for the removal of this clause. In addition, it wants a tax exemption as it is re-greening the country and bringing development. It forgets that it is getting the mother of all subsidies -- free land -- to underwrite its development.
In all this, the ministry has chosen to ignore the conclusions of a working group set up by the Planning Commission on leasing out degraded forest lands to industry. This group had rejected such a scheme and endorsed a forest policy that requires industry to source its raw materials from farmers. Though this group was constituted by the last government, it was chaired by N C Saxena, then secretary, department of wasteland development, and now member of the National Advisory Council (nac), until recently chaired by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi.
The ministry wants to move fast. Meena has admitted in the Rajya Sabha that the state is pursuing the multi-stakeholder programme. With this done, the ministry hopes to see trees planted and green bucks for its activities. The question is whether this scheme is workable, and in particular, will it work for the forests and the people. It's important then to look at the past avatars of privatisation schemes and to seek a set of realistic analyses of what's happening now.
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