PALAMAU, a district in south Bihar, is the archetype of an unfair and increasingly common socioeconomic paradox: rich land, dirt poor people.
Despite its vast natural resources, forest cover, rainfall and low population density, Palamau has a dismally low development index, further lowered each passing year under the double trouble of both drought and flood alternating without respite.
On the surface, nothing seems to go right here. But the engine of change is coughing to life: the district is now fighting back with its self-made "Palamau way" with an area-specific self-made definition of "sustainable development".
What precisely is wrong with Palamau? Its development index is scraping bottom at 27, compared to Bihar at 43 and India at 100. It was declared a drought prone district in 1970. The per capita consumption in the district is Rs 1,600 per annum, against Bihar's average of Rs 2,352 and the national average of Rs 2,964 (National Sample Survey for 1992).
There was not much of an answer to this bleak development-related conundrum at a seminar on ecology-economic interaction at the regional level -- with the Palamau district as a case study -- held recently at the Institute of Economic Growth (IEG) in Delhi.
Palamau is a district with over 45 per cent of its land supposedly under forest cover. It has a paper thin population density which would gladden any demographer's heart -- 192 per sq km as against 496 per sq km for the state of Bihar and 273 per sq km for India (1991). The district has an average rainfall of 1,200-1,300 mm, way above the national average; and it is filthy rich in minerals and soil types.
Even with all this, about 80 per cent of its basic needs consumption comes from Non-Timber Forest Production (NTFP) and subsistence agriculture. The sorry Palamau situation can be even better understood when its ecological base, economic pressures and livelihoods are examined. The scrutiny comes up with worms.
The district slopes in a long northward descent, from an elevation as high as 3,500 feet in the extreme south to about 1,000 feet where it borders the Sone basin. Unfortunately, it loses more water than it gets -- the district receives about 211,000 hectare-metres of water through river flows every year, and relinquishes about 397,000 ha-metres. So, the first thing that has to be controlled -- sustained, with any luck -- is the unruly water cycle -- a difficult task given that soil erosion and forest degradation are bound to push more and more water out of the region in the near future.
An IEG study found that unless appropriate ecological measures are urgently undertaken, the related issue of sustaining agriculture will remain unfulfilled -- all of it compounded by politico-economic issues such as land distribution and lack of technology. With proper soil, forest and water management practices and institutional changes, water availability within the region can be raised and still have enough left over to allow sufficient water to flow into the Sone basin. Soil and moisture retension programmes will have to include the construction of traditional water harvesting systems like tanks, bunding, trenching and terracing, and tapping of groundwater.
The 2nd finding of the study is that the rate of extraction of materials from forests is, at the moment, almost unsustainably high, and is neither linked to the demand pattern within the district nor based on any logic of forest sustainability. As recently as the '60s, superbly wellstocked forests covered about 92 per cent of the district's forest area; it plummeted to 41 per cent in the '90s. Now, the annual forest depletion rate averages about 5-7 per cent.
Fortunately, the opportunity to reverse this unnatural and forced entropy is within grasp. Being a major natural forest region, Palamau should be given priority in protecting these forests for the benefit of the local people first, and the world next. Emphasis on natural regeneration, social fencing, and community management in protection should be the primary development mode, not afforestation alone.
The IEG study shows that if 103,000 ha of protected forests were to be brought under such an ecodevelopment scheme, along with another 10,000-15,000 ha of revenue and forest lands under community management (of the Chakriya Vikas Pranali type, which means a "cyclical system of development"), it is entirely possible to reverse the depletion trend in forest biomass, raise the level of basic need NTFP consumption and add to the soil conservation, water retention and carbon sequestration processes in the long run.
An ecology-oriented (as distinct from economy-oriented) forest policy can revive the biomass respectively to 3,803,000 cu m, 7,134,000 cu m, and 5,255,000 cu m by AD 2023. Additional afforestation programmes and the intensification of the Chakriya Vikas Pranali (CVP) can raise the non-sal biomass substantially. Naturally, then, the increased availability of water for agriculture and improved soil retention will enhance agricultural output and provide more drinking water for human and animal consumption.
The main objective of the CVP -- the cyclical system of development -- is to promote sustainable development at the village level, starting with pooled local natural resources and community participation. Under this model of socioecological engineering, private lands are pooled together; depending on availability and necessity, even government revenue and forest lands are pooled and a 3-tier agroforestry programme developed with the entire village community working as a student group.
This model is unique in many respects. The weakest of all economic models, namely, the distribution system, is tackled smoothly by the Chakriya Vikas Pranali. There is a system to share the gains from this community-based land, water and soil management programme.
The sharing formula, attributed to P R Mishra, the developer of this method, is 30:30:30:10 -- the "students" (who have provided the labour) get 30 per cent, the landowners (who have given the land for pooling) get 30 per cent, the village fund (for further investments) gets 30 per cent; and the Kalyan Kosh (for village welfare activities) gets 10 per cent.
The programme is like a wake-up alarm. It has worked so well that more villages are asking for the implementation of the programme in their territory. Such an institutional change is a major break: among other things, it tightens the ecological and economic linkages in any region. Available information indicates that the average return on land from such programmes would be as high as Rs 11,000 per ha per year, as against the current average yield of Rs 5,000-6,000 per ha per year (without the CVP).
The surefire and most visible indication of the success of a sustainable development programme is the equitable fulfilling of basic needs, which invariably leads to stabilising and harmonising socioeconomic life systems for further development. Using ecological resources sustainably would also render the economic model of growth extremely stable. The programme demands a certain rigour often absent in other development programmes: only after a demanding threshold level in ecological sustainability and basic needs is reached will it be time to add other levels of sustainable development.
There is a practical problem here, however. The Palamau study shows that although linking ecological resources with economic livelihood makes income distribution quite equitable and resource use sustainable, there is no visible economic growth. The IEG study found that the per capita consumption of different classes of people would rise marginally; but the gaps between them would reduce. Forest biomass and water resource availability would improve substantially and soil erosion would go down.
To bring about economic growth, it is important to know whether there are any additional programmes that can be tagged on to ecology-oriented ones. The IEG study shows that if conventional rural development programmes are oriented towards natural resource regeneration and preservation, and livelihood sustenance activities, there would a considerable increase in primary and secondary employment. The latter, however, would require private and public investments and new technologies, for which there are sufficient market-oriented approaches available.
Among the alternative policies that are currently doing the rounds, pricing policies and supply of technologies for non-farm and natural resource-based productive activities can bring about economic growth without adversely affecting income distributions.
It is this concept of "stage-specific development" that is the most important lesson from Palamau.
This new type of people's programme is a muscular and inherently fair alternative to most other government-run or "democratic" natural resource management programmes, or employment-oriented public works programmes. From the experience of the CVP, it is obvious that employment, income and net saving rates at household and village levels are much higher than those attainable under any other alternative development programmes. Further, the corresponding capital:land ratio is minimal. Both these indicators imply a very high rate of growth at the village level.
The cyclical system of development was started in the Palamau district in 1987. Initially, only 5 villages were covered, now increased to 30. An NGO, the Society for Hill Resources Management School, headed by P R Mishra, has been active in initiating, supervising, monitoring and spreading the CVP programme in the villages in Bihar's Chhotanagpur region. By last year, a realistic and reliable picture of the potential of the CVP process emerged in several villages. The IEG study shows that "CVP villages" have a potential growth rate of 3.45 per cent, with an average investment of Rs 3,750 per acre (ha?) as a one-off investment.
By now, 1,762 households are involved in the programme, which covers 2,730 acres (ha?). The programme's dissemination to other villages -- 3,266 at last count -- is hampered solely by a paucity of funds for the initial investment. Going by remote sensing data, the total wasteland, other than notified forest lands, is approximately 45,000 ha. Even if 50 per cent of this land were to come under the CVP, the initial investment would be about RsIf one makes a realistic assumption of about 50% of this land to come under CVP, the total estimated required investment cost is about Rs 21 crore. At present, the district authorities are spending a bit more than half this amount -- Rs 12 crore -- on various rural development and poverty alleviation programmes.
Exploit and be damned
The Palamau experience is a glaring example of how natural resources are exploited without any return flow of incomes, investments or resources to the region. For all practical purposes, the quantity of agricultural and livestock items produced in the district are just about enough for the subsistence of the local people. The land productivity is about 2.2 tonnes per ha (t/ha) in respect of wheat and potato, 0.55 t/ha for the rice, ragi and barley group, and about 1.67 t/ha for all other crops taken together. This productivity, or lack of it, are low compared to any other state or national average. The per capita annual wheat and potato consumption averages 17-18 kg; it is less than 11 kg among the poorest 25 per cent of households. The average consumption of rice, maize, ragi and barley is about 80 kg per year; the poorest of the poor get 60 kg. Except for a desultory Public Distribution System (PDS), there are no external flows of any cereal goods. Milk availability per capita sloshes about at a low of about 77 kg per year -- or just about 200 grams per day. And fuelwood, another major basic need, is somehow met through backbreaking labour.
All sal, non-sal and bamboo forest produce which are commercially extracted every year -- 37,247 cu m, 73,278 cu m and 27,899 cu m respectively -- are exported out of the region. The non-commercial extractions level off at approximately 20-30 per cent of commercial extractions. Illegal extractions are said to be almost 5-8 times higher than commercial and non-commercial extractions. Using national all-India prices of timber, poles, fuelwood and NTFP, the estimated resource flow from the district is in the range of Rs 60-100 crore per annum.
Further, minerals such as mica, coal and limestone are being quarried frenetically for industries located outside the district. Compounding the region's impoverishment is the fact that investments are stuck at a dismal low of Rs 12-20 crore per year, inclusive of the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP), the National Rural Employment Programme (NREP), the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) scheme and other public investments; almost none of them are focused on the preservation of natural resources.
No precise estimate of private investment is possible, but the sorry fact is that no major industry exists in the district and smallscale industries are dying out. Private investments seem to be restricted mainly to housing, since returns are almost risk-free and guaranteed.
With the population growing at 2.47 per cent per year, and stocks of natural resources depleting at a fast clip of 5-7 per cent a year, the realtime growth of investments is lower than the rate of population growth.
Against this backdrop, one can think of various policy alternatives aimed at ensuring the sustainability of livelihood in the region. These alternatives ought to be soil-, water-, forest- and livestock-related. But the existing nature of the socioeconomic structure, centuries of suppression, and chronic subsistence lifestyles call for major institutional changes.