People do not grow what they cannot use

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Preservation laws have made trees a problem for people

STATE monopolies are not exclusive to modern times. Mining was the preserve of the state in ancient and medieval times. The Mughal state exercised an iron hand over opium production and trade. Once the Mughal empire declined, satraps asserted their independence by establishing monopolies over various commodities including tobacco and salt. But there is a crucial difference between state monopolies then and now. Modern states claim custodianship of resources on behalf of the people. But it rarely translates into practice. State monopolies, like all other monopolies, are almost always self-serving.

Take the case of sandalwood that was first brought under state control by Tipu Sultan in the 18th century. Till 2001, trade in sandalwood was a monopoly of the government of Karnataka. A nexus of the bureaucrat-smuggler-law enforcer flourished giving fillip to illegal trade in sandalwood. The best known, and perhaps the biggest trader, was the forest brigand Veerappan, who went on to become the stuff of folklore. Since then, although individuals were allowed to take up sandalwood plantation, the state government retains rights of extraction and trade. The 2001 deregulation is not applicable to standing trees, in both the forest and private lands. Since forest laws related to sandalwood remain stringent, anybody interested in decent business in it can do so only by bypassing these laws. Illegal trade in sandalwood continues to flourish.

It's not just sandalwood. Many states have iron laws on cutting trees. These laws have defeated the very purpose which they were meant to serve tree preservation. Cutting down a tree requires a number of documents and the sanction of a number of officials. People therefore think twice before they let a tree come up on their land. Why have a tree that cannot be cut and used in the time of need?

This magazine has criticized such bureaucratic control over resources. Now a forest officer, who was amongst those responsible for framing Karnataka's tree preservation law which became a model for other states, is calling attention to the act's limitations (see An axe that went awry). A Supreme Court judgement of 1996 has had similar results. It declared areas of over five hectares under trees as forests, regardless of land ownership, bringing them under regulation. The judgement might have secured the forests, but it's unlikely that any tree cover over five ha would come up on private lands now.

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