Requiem for wasteland development

Published: Wednesday 30 September 1992

THINGS could not have turned out more badly in the fight over the fate of the wastelands board. Last fortnight's cabinet notification lays to rest the uncertainty over where the new minister for wasteland will sit. The notification certainly also does another thing: It dug a grave for the entire wasteland programme in India.

The notification converts the former National Wasteland Development Board into the National Afforestation and Eco-development Board and gave it charge of greening forest lands and responsibility for ecologically fragile areas like the Western Himalaya, Aravallis and Western Ghats. The newly founded Department for Wasteland Development, with Ram Singh at the helm, will afforest the non-forest wastelands, primarily for producing fuel and fodder for the people. With work, money, officials, chairs and tables bifurcated with true bureaucratic efficiency, the Ministry of Environment and Forests is going to transfer Rs 26 crore of its Rs 180 crore budget and 34 of its officials to the Ministry of Rural Development. In sum, it has become another employment generation programme for ministers and bureaucrats.

When we wrote in this very column barely two months ago, we were expectant and enthusiastic that this move could have turned the sorry state of degraded lands around. We were enthusiatic because a full department meant an upgrading for such a crucial issue. And we were expectant because the Prime Minister's initiative put the programme directly under his charge, which could have meant greater coordination between the Centre and the states and between the revenue and forest departments.

It is our strong belief, borne out of years of research in this area, that wasteland development needs a holistic perspective. There is nothing sillier than perpetuating the artificial, British-determined boundaries in types of land. For village communities, in their desperate search for survival, there is nothing as irrelevant as saying that the degraded land surrounding their village is divided between two faraway departments, each with its own rules and inclinations. Degraded land is degraded land. And, it needs urgent attention that only the village communities can give. It is equally ridiculous to tell a Himalayan woman that the fodder that she needs to feed her animals, which, in turn, gives her the manure to fertilise her fields, cannot be grown on forest land as it is so preordained by the demigods in Delhi or Lucknow. And that an invisible boundary permits this only on revenue or panchayat land.

The new game plan, on the one hand, will get fences around forest land to keep people out and, on the other, will get blocks of eucalyptus plantations and other similar commercial species on private land. Areas where private forestry -- Ram Singh's department -- will take off will be in the plains where more than 90 per cent of the land is privately owned. In the hills where little land is privatised -- Kamal Nath's territory -- the proposed strategy will mean that large areas are fenced off for regeneration.

Just consider the following: In the Dangs district of Gujarat, the forest area is 98.5 per cent of the total geographical area; in Uttarkashi and Uttar Kannara, it is 80-90 per cent. Ranm Singh will have no role to play here.

Today, degraded forest lands play a major role in meeting the fuel and fodder needs of people. Of the total land available for biomass production, only about 36 per cent is common land. Of this, 5 per cent is panchayat land -- roughly the same area is available for wildlife animals -- 6 per cent is revenue land and 25 per cent is forest land, half of which is degraded according to the forest department. Not only are common lands other than forest lands miniscule but 40 per cent of these are located in just two states -- Gujarat and Rajasthan.

What was been worse in this debate has been the complete wasteland of ideas. The entire squabble has been over Kamal Nath's hurt pride and Ram Singh's new turf. Clearly the former wasteland board needed more than a push but after 10 years of vacillation and planting dead trees, the country surely deserved better.

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