Too cut & dried

Does the style of conserving forests currently dominant in India require an overhaul? Yes, say state governments and affected people. ruksan bose examines an alternative -- a notion and a practice -- slowly gaining ground in the country: the proper evaluation of forests

Published: Sunday 31 July 2005

Too cut & dried

-- (Credit: Amit shanker / CSE) "States like Madhya Pradesh (mp) must be compensated at least in proportion to the forest cover that it has protected, which is far more than the national average", said Digvijay Singh, ex-chief minister, at a National Development Council meeting in 2002. The question was raised again in November 2004, when the Planning Commission held consultations with state governments as part of its mid-term appraisal of the Tenth Five-Year Plan.

Conserving forests has been India's key priority for some time now. In colonial times and after, the State appropriated resources from local communities. Over years, logging or mining led to rampant degradation. If the British stripped the forests of Ratnagiri in coastal Maharashtra to make ships and railway lines, independent India sold its forests for a pittance to the pulp and paper industry. This was the extractive phase.

Then the country changed tack. It passed the Forest Conservation Act, 1980; this act centralised decision-making over forests, only the central government could now sanction the diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes (making roads or power stations or dams). The hitherto rampant 'diversion of land' stopped, but deforestation couldn't be adequately controlled. So, in the 1990s, the Supreme Court stepped in, imposing checks on how forests were to be 'worked' (see box: Fell blow). But most states did not really understand what conservation-oriented forestry was all about. Consequently, revenue generation from forests has virtually dried up.

Consider India's export and import of forest products. In 2000-2001, India exported wood and forest-based products worth Rs 4,459 crore; major export earners were rubber and its products, paper, paperboards and printed books. In that year, imports stood at Rs 12,177 crore, including Rs 2,000 crore spent on importing raw wood. In other words, imports were 3 times higher than exports; the country spent precious foreign exchange on buying wood and other forest-based products from other countries. The trend is revealing (see graph: Peculiar process). Till the early 1990s, the exports and imports of forest produce were steadily increasing, but since 1998-1999 the gap between imports and exports has increased exponentially.

This skew is but one aspect of a many-layered crisis forest-rich states are today facing (see infographic: Hydra-headed crisis). The urgency is such that the 12 th Finance Commission -- set up to look into the allocation of resources between states and the Centre -- has taken cognisance of the need to compensate forest-rich states. It has set aside Rs 1,000 crore as grants-in-aid, to be given to states over five years in proportion to the forest cover they possess. According to B D Suyal, conservator of forests (policy and law), Himachal Pradesh, the grants-in-aid are a nominal amount compared to what forest-rich states are actually asking as compensation.

Nevertheless, the commission has accorded recognition to an important fact: someone is bearing the costs of keeping forests intact. Also, for the first time in India, a tangible -- economic -- value has been put on the many, intangible, benefits a forest provides.

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