Timber travails

After completing two years as the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh Mukut Mithi is proud to relate his government's achievements while acknowledging the enormous task ahead. In an interview, he speaks to Lian Chawii on the measures undertaken to tackle the hardships encountered by the state due to the restrictions on timber felling by the Supreme Court five years ago

 
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:57:02 AM

If Arunachal Pradesh has over 80 per cent forest cover, one of the highest in India, what sort of appreciation does it get?
The Supreme Court's ruling of 1996, which places restriction on felling of trees, says that the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, has to be implemented in order to check deforestation. But the act interprets the word 'forest' strictly in terms of its dictionary meaning. In the context of Arunachal Pradesh, it would imply that if you take a few steps outside the house you are in a forest. Therefore, without compromising the forest to a certain extent, it is difficult to develop the state. For any developmental activity like construction of roads, water supplies and electrical lines, we need to obtain clearance from the Union ministry and the whole process is very time consuming. According to the National Forest Policy 1988, the target for a forest cover in the hilly areas should be at least 66 per cent and we are much above that. Similarly while the national 'protected area' requirement is just about four per cent, we have 12.50 per cent in our state, which is again much above the target. Just as Mizoram gets a peace bonus for being a peaceful state, Arunachal Pradesh should also get an incentive for retaining such a large forest tract.

What has been the impact of restriction on tree felling on your state?
From the conservation point of view, it was a great move, but one that should have come about gradually. The restriction came at a time when Arunachal Pradesh was not prepared to earn from sources other than its forest. Therefore, it had a great impact on the resources of the government. This in turn hampered the overall development of the state. There were many people dependent on timber, directly or indirectly, for their livelihood and they were thrown out of employment as a result of this move . Since the Supreme Court has not completely banned felling, but has asked for regulations for harnessing timber, we are in the process of formulating plans towards this end.

What is at stake for the Arunachal Pradesh State Forest Corporation which generated such an enormous revenue from timber earlier?
Arunachal Pradesh State Forest Corporation's business has suffered a great deal as a result of Supreme Court order. Prior to the restriction, the revenue from the timber operation to the state kitty was around Rs 40-50 crore annually. Now it has come down to just Rs 5-10 crore. As a request to the centre is not expected to yield any positive result, we plan to restructure the public sector, most of which is currently in a bad shape: doing little and eating away the resources. We have now constituted a committee of ministers who will give their recommendations to the cabinet for the restructuring this sector for a more economic utilisation of work force.

Have you considered any alternative source of revenue?
We have plenty of medicinal plants and non-timber forest produce like bamboo and cane. We are slowly taking initiatives towards promoting these products. For instance, we have banned the export of cane in its raw form so that the local industries can benefit. On the agricultural front, we are trying to enhance the productivity by giving incentives to the farmers. For this new policies have already been formulated. We are also doing well in horticulture production through apple, orange and pineapples -- all of which are in abundance here. To this chestnut and kiwi plantations have been added recently. But all this will take some time to generate substantial returns.

Are there any initiatives in developing ecotourism in Arunachal Pradesh?
Ecology and adventure are two important aspects of tourism development. At the moment, we do not have the proper infrastructure for it.We have submitted a proposal for ecotourism development to the planning commission. A campaign to promote Arunachal Pradesh's rich culture and exotic location in the form of festivals is already underway. There are many places of interest, such as the Tawang monastery -- the second largest in Asia -- and the tributaries of Brahmaputra like the Siang River and the Dibang River. Places like these need to be highlighted as tourist spots.

What are your most significant achievements in the last two years as the chief minister of Arunachal Pradesh?
We have been able to regulate and control the state's finances and, compared to other northeastern states, we are in a better condition. We have strengthened our positions and established ourselves by controlling our productive expenditure. By regulating our non-plan expenditure, we have automatically ensured sufficient funds for planned development. Currently, most of the resources come from the Union government as grants or loans. Since we cannot depend on the centre for very long, we have to develop our own resources. As far as generation and expenditure are concerned, we have received great appreciation for our efforts from the Union finance ministry. Compared to states like Manipur and Assam, which run into over-draft every second day, we have no such problem here.

How do you intend to develop and generate your resources?
We have introduced a sales tax and are trying to educate the people by informing them that this is crucial for the development of the state. Besides, there is a mega hydropower potential of about 45,000-50,000 Megawatt (mw) which we are trying to harness.

What are the developmental activities you envisage for Arunachal Pradesh in the coming years?
Road communication is our priority for the next five years, provided we have adequate infrastructure. Since farmers account for 90 per cent of the population in the state, we also plan to enhance the agriculture sector. Apart from this, there are plans to take up tourism and non-timber forest produce in a big way. We have several varieties of bamboo plantations. What we now require is the industry and a market for these products. For this we have already tied up with the United Nations Development Programme (undp) and International Bamboo and Rattan Organisation (inbar).

What steps have been taken to control largescale jhum cultivation (shifting agriculture) in the state?
Jhum is a process where a site is selected for cultivation and then the area is cleared for sowing crops. After utilising the land for two-three years, it is abandoned till the next cycle. Since the present day jhum cycle in the state is relatively short as compared to the olden days, there is greater disturbance to the ecology and environment and this needs to be addressed. Our agricultural policy tries to deal with this problem by either abandoning jhum cultivation or trying to introduce forest plantations and cash crops in this practice is prevalent.

What are the measures you have taken to tackle insurgency?
In Arunachal Pradesh, which covers about 84,000 square kilometres (sq kms), insurgency takes place in a relatively small area spanning barely two districts of around 6,000 sq kms. These districts share borders with Nagaland and Assam. The insurgency problem, therefore, is borne out of the spillover effect of what is happening in these two states. The main responsibility of containing this problem lies with the Union government , though the state also has to take steps to tackle the situation. Once the problem in Nagaland is checked, then the tension here will be automatically reduced. We have interacted with the Union government to help us settle the issue. We have also constituted a security coordination committee comprising personnel from the army, paramilitary force, police and central intelligence to resolve the problem.

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