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Millennium Post

Missing timber for wood

For the past five years, Rambharos Kamedia, a farmer in Madhya Pradesh, has been receiving a lot of attention. A dense teak forest he raised on his farm near Satwas village in Devas district is visited by the who’s who of the forestry circle. The state government projects it as one of the success stories of its much acclaimed Lok Vaniki scheme. Kamedia, however, is no more amused. Rather, he feels cheated.

Like several other farmers in the state, Kamedia has inherited the patches of natural teak forest. However, until a few years ago, he did not benefit from them. There were restrictions on felling and transit of trees on private land. This led to widespread resentment among private forest owners in the state. Towards the late 1990s, they staged protests, demanding that they should be allowed to harvest timber from their forests. They threatened to clear fell the forests and shift to agriculture if the government did not heed their demand. In 1999, the government introduced Lok Vaniki and allowed people to harvest their forests, though as per government-approved plan.

The scheme held double benefits: it motivated private forest owners to plan long-term forest management instead of shifting to agriculture and boosted sustainable production of timber.

In 2001, the government enacted the Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Act and laid down procedures for the scheme. It also created an advisory body of chartered foresters, mostly comprising retired foresters, to help private forest owners prepare working plans for harvesting forest sustainably. The scheme was an instant hit. By 2005, the government had approved 613 working plans. There were 135 and 60 teak trees on Kamedia’s two forest patches. As per the working plans, he was allowed to harvest 35-40 trees from the bigger patch every 9th year starting from 2004 and two to three trees from the smaller patch every two years starting from 2006. Within four years, Kamedia harvested three crops and earned Rs 2.4 lakh. ‘As per the working plan, I had to plant two trees for every tree I cut down. But excited by the returns, I planted an additional 250 teak trees on a farm lying unused. Now they have grown into a dense teak forest,’ says Kamedia.

The party did not last long. Between 2008 and 2011, the government introduced various amendments to the Lok Vaniki rules, which, analysts say, have made the process of getting felling approval cumbersome.

For instance, says Prem Patel, secretary of Lok Vaniki Kisan Samiti in Devas, the amended rules call for a joint survey of the forest patch by at least six officials from forest and revenue departments before approving the working plan. The rules also require the forest owners to provide GPS maps for their patches along with the revenue map while submitting working plans. ‘It is almost impossible to get six officials of two departments at one place at one time. Besides, there is always some discrepancy between the measurement of the area in old revenue records and when done through GPS,’ says Patel. He informs that the forest department has rejected hundreds of working plans only because of this discrepancy. ‘It has approved only 50 working plans since the amendment of the rules,’ says Patel.

Though Kamedia had working plans for his forest patches, in 2010 when he approached the forest department for felling permission, officials asked him to revise the plans as per new rules. He had no one to go to. The government did away with chartered foresters in 2005, citing that the experts were charging unreasonable fee. ‘The chartered foresters did not just prepare working plans for our forests, they also made sure that the plans get approved,’ says Bhujram Patel, a resident of Burud village in Devas. ‘We still have to consult a forestry expert and pay him to get our plans drafted. But, after that there is nobody to guide us through the process,’ Patel adds. Though Patel has managed to get the working plan for his teak forest prepared, he is struggling to get it approved.

Several people who were planning to join the scheme have changed their mind. ‘So far, 1,500 ha of private forests in Devas are under Lok Vaniki. Had the process been simple, the area would have been double,’ says Prem Patel.

K K Singh, former Member of Legislative Assembly of the state and the president of Madhya Pradesh Lok Vaniki Kisan Samiti, says the unreasonable conditions on approval of working plans has defeated the purpose of the scheme. ‘In fact, it is easier now to get a permission of felling under the Madhya Pradesh Land Revenue Code.’ The law, which guided felling of trees on private land prior to the enactment of the Lok Vaniki Act, required district collector’s permission, which was difficult to secure. In 2007, the rules were amended to replace collector’s permission with tehsildar’s permission.

In villages this correspondent visited in Devas, several farmers said they have either applied to the tehsildar for felling teak or are going ahead with felling without seeking permission. Due to restrictions on selling, they are selling it in the black market or using the timber for personal consumption. ‘The pressure for agricultural land is increasing. I cannot leave my land unused like this,’ says a forest owner in Devas. Only two years ago, the Madhya Pradesh forest department had received the international Green Globe Foundation Award for ‘outstanding work in environment sector’, which includes implementation of Lok Vaniki.

Forest officials say the Lok Vaniki rules were amended to prevent abuse of the scheme. In 2008, cases of illegal felling in government forests in the guise of Lok Vaniki were reported from Betul district, which prompted the government to ban felling under the scheme for a year. It was resumed only after protests but with restrictions. Singh, however, blames the forest department for making the scheme unviable. ‘The department was not comfortable with the idea that people were managing forests well. It seems, forest officials were insecure about losing control over timber. They are interested in getting awards for the scheme but are hardly concerned about its implementation,’ he says. Private forestry across the country faces the same fate as Lok Vaniki.

In 1988, the Centre revised the National Forest Policy to discourage sourcing of timber from government-managed forests and directed wood-based industries to raise their raw material on private land in cooperation with farmers. This gave impetus to agroforestry. But it did not sustain for long. As the country fails to meet the demand for timber from its forest, it has relied heavily on import from other tropical countries.

Despite economic slowdown, Gujarat’s Kandla port, which receives 70 per  cent of timber imported into the country, has registered a double digit growth.

In the 1990s the government reduced import duty on timber to compliment its policy of discouraging commercial harvest of domestic forests. Between 1994 and 2006, timber import went up by 16 times, and India became a major log market in Asia.

On arrangement with Down to Earth magazine
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