Missing the woods for the trees

Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

The pampered paper industry in India is being given another sop. It has consistently lobbied for captive plantations in the country's forest tracts. Success, it seems, is at hand because the Indian government is actively considering such a scheme, ignoring the gross injustice explicit in this demand.

On the face of it, the proposal, which was discussed in the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs, is about to give permission to industry to use degraded forest lands for plantations for sourcing their raw material requirements. The Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) has defended the scheme by some abjectly indefensible arguments: it has posited that the land will not be actually leased out to the paper firms, but that the latter will only be invited to undertake plantations on what will continue to be government land.

Official notes circulated by the MEF stressed that the said plantations will enable the regeneration of degraded forest land as well as generate every bit of the wood-based raw material needed by paper manufacturers; the 2nd benefit comes with a commercial halo circling it -- paper plantations will, apparently, obviate the need for pulp imports, which already total Rs 1,600 crore annually. And no less than Kamal Nath, the Union environment minister, supported the proposed scheme, on the -- fallacious -- grounds that it would prevent the human encroachment of forests.

Each is a wrong claim. The key provisions of the MEF's proposal explicitly establish that the plantations will be conceived and run overwhelmingly in the interests of industry. The explanation that forest land will not be actually leased out to industry merely cloaks the simple fact that the latter will get it free. Significantly, the entire plan for land use-choice of species -- pattern of plantation, rotation periods, technology inputs -- are to be prepared entirely by industry. All indications point to the twisted commitment of the paper industry to a monoculture-based approach, of short-term and quick-growing tree species. This is contrary to all principles of ecological regeneration, which requires a multiplicity of genetically diverse species.

The "evident" concern for encroachment on degraded forest land is just a clumsy attempt to paper over another harsh ecological truth: that the degraded forest land, notwithstanding its depleted cover, is never actually unused. It is used as a commons by the millions of poor, who depend on it to meet their basic needs of fuel, fodder and small timber. The surrendering of such fecund land to profiteering captive plantations for industry will further impoverish these people and destroy their livelihoods. Whenever the non-forest desert lands of Rajasthan, the bitterly saline lands of Gujarat, or the ravines of Madhya Pradesh were put on offer, the paper industry has balked, arguing that these areas were too comprehensively degraded for afforestation. This track record lends credence to the suspicion of many environmentalists, NGOs and activists that any scheme to offer degraded areas to industry will always be manipulated by industry to pinch and wheedle much better forest lands. It is not as if environmentalists are blind to the often genuine requirements of the Indian paper industry. They only argued that all forest-based industries, particularly paper, must assess and plan for their raw material requirements within the bounds of local social, economic and ecological realities.

Motivated by such considerations, environmentalists hold that forest-based industries must meet their raw material requirements by encouraging farmers to grow wood, especially on marginal and degraded farmlands available with them. The current demand for pulpwood and bamboo by the paper industry is a whopping 4.4 million tonnes annually.

It can be argued with some justification that this is entirely a case of missing the woods for the trees. The entire demand, and much more, can be met entirely from the non-forest wastelands of the country. Even if one assumes a very low productivity -- and this would by no means be uniformly valid -- of 3 tonnes per ha annually, the paper industry's overall requirement can be met from 2 million hectare (mha) of land. Farmers own more than 35 mha of uncultivated wasteland. Even if efforts are made to utilise a portion for tree-crops, the result would be higher rural incomes and better environment, along with a satiated industry.

Farm-forestry received a vigorous push in the '80s. By the 2nd half of the decade, however, the Indian government, ostensibly more concerned about the depletion of Indian forests, allowed the cheap imports of pulpwood. The bottom promptly fell out of the tree-market. Farmers plucked out billions of plants, literally. There has been little attempt to revive the tree-crop market since then.

Indeed, the remaining gutsy pockets of farm-forestry were burdened further with unfair competition from the government itself, which has taken to offering subsidised forest produce to a gleeful paper industry. These moves were backed by long-term commitments to continue supplies at permanently fixed prices. Ironically, a few manufacturers have seriously experimented with dealing with farmers for pulpwood supplies. Being novel projects, the overloaded system collapsed, forcing the owners to run for it.

These lapses can be easily understood. Pampered by soft subsidies and sustained supplies, the paper industry has never had to really think about the economic or ecological costs of its way of existence. It will be spoilt beyond redemption by captive plantations in Indian forests.

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