A pampered paper industry cries wolf

Published: Friday 30 April 1993

THIS IS the scam of all scams. The fat and pampered paper industry, which has thrived because it gets forest resources at throwaway prices, is crying out hoarsely for yet another subsidy: cheap forest land for plantations. The industry proposal must be denounced as extremely anti-poor, anti-environment and a blatant reversal of the government's economic policy of cutting subsidies. The industry must be told in the clearest terms that it is both incompetent and uncompetitive and so it will no longer be given concessions that are, in effect, a kick at the poor.

The pressure from the paper industry is not new. Till the mid-1980s, it used every trick in the book to beat down the prices of state-supplied raw material. The result: Until recently, the industry paid just 37 paise a tonne in Madhya Pradesh and Rs 15 a tonne in Karnataka for raw material, when bamboo cost Rs 1,200 per tonne in the open market -- the price paid by poor basket-weavers. This enormous subsidy is perhaps more than anything else the key cause of deforestation in the country. But as raw material supply dwindled because the forests were vanishing, the paper industry set out on a new tack -- posing itself as green and asking for degraded forest land for plantations. For eight years now, this pernicious proposal has surfaced regularly. In March, for example, there was extensive lobbying at a national seminar on raw material supply to paper industry, sponsored jointly by the Indian Institute of Forest Management and the Union ministry of environment and forests. Industry representatives argued they have the know-how to green vast areas of unused and degraded land.

But why would such an ostensibly laudable scheme be opposed by environmentalists who urge afforestation in the country? It's because the scheme cleverly covers up the disastrous fate it implies for forests and the poor who depend upon them. The industry proposal presumes that wastelands and degraded forests are vast barren and unused tracts. Nothing could be further from the truth. Because of the monsoon, no piece of land in India can lie barren and degraded for long unless it is overused. This means wastelands and degraded forests are the result of intense use almost invariably by the poor, who would thus be the worst affected if these lands were privatised.

The proposal also glosses over the fact that degraded forest lands under government control are the main grazing and forest lands available as a common resource to rural communities, for whom the land now available to them is little and clearly insufficient. Of the country's more than 266 million ha capable of producing biomass, well over half is under private control and farmed. Revenue lands amount to just 6 per cent -- the bulk of which is either under encroachment or located mainly in Gujarat and Rajasthan states. As a result, despite laws and restrictions, use of government-controlled forest land continues.

Rural communities and especially tribals depend heavily on common lands for their fuel, fodder, building material and medicinal needs. Studies clearly indicate these lands are crucial for the economic survival of these communities and privatising these lands or depriving the poor of access or control, would truly be kicking them in the stomach. Nor would the proposed measures lead to "sustainable" afforestation, as the poor would have no other recourse than use stealth, bribes and ultimately violence to get past the barbed wire forest barrier.

What is amazing is that privatisation of forests is being proposed at a time when everybody is preaching the free-market doctrine, which requires industrial firms to become competitive. Hence, if captive plantations are believed to be the best solution to help the paper industry, which may be raw material-starved but is capital- and expertise-surplus, then why limit it to just this industry? The government should allow captive plantations for all biomass-based industries, including cotton, textiles, sugar cane, jute and oilseeds, on the theory that the most efficient way to produce biomass is to apportion vast tracts of government and private land to large industrial houses to meet their raw material needs.

Obviously, there are no easy options to the problem. Trees must be planted, but without dispossessing the poor of the lands on which they depend. Other alternatives should be considered for the production of industrial raw material. Industry could assist small and marginal farmers to grow wood for its needs. But even here, despite the "managerial efficiency" of which the paper industry boasts, its spokespersons complain that "coordinating thousands of farmers is quite onerous".

The fact is that in the late 1980s, there was so much eucalyptus wood being produced on private farms, prices in Haryana and Gujarat dropped so low that many a desperate farmer literally plucked out saplings. Even now, Haryana foresters are frantically searching for new uses for eucalyptus wood to prop up prices. They are persuading Himachal Pradesh officials to buy eucalyptus wood to make apple crates. So, if there is glut in softwood, is the wood industry crying wolf?

Afforestation does pose a major challenge to socially conscious industrialists, requiring them to identify softwood species that are less harmful than eucalyptus, develop an extension system that helps farmers to grow trees efficiently and then buy these trees from the farmers at remunerative prices. The industry could thus meet its needs and everyone would pay the true price of paper, factoring in the ecological costs of the wood industry including the full cost of land for producing wood.

The present situation calls for a paraphrase of the old Hindi saying Sau chuhe kha kar billi haj ko chali (The cat goes on a pilgrimage after eating a hundred rats) to Paper mill malik sau ped kat kar ab jungle lagane chale (After cutting down a hundred trees, paper mill owners want to plant a forest).

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