Selling coal to Newcastle

  • 30/08/1997

The recent news item in the Asian Wall Street Journal that New Zealand's log industry is to receive a big boost because of the restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court of India on Indian logging, should be treated like a slap in the face of India's forest officialdom. Subsequently, the government has also reduced the tariffs on import of raw logs. These two things together, said a New Zealand forest official, have "really opened the gate." New Zealand's log volume is expected to rise by 80 per cent by 2010.

It is indeed amazing, that a tiny country like New Zealand, will now be supplying logs to a large country like India, which has vast tracts of degraded lands. And in a country where plantations are growing at the cost of natural forests ( Down to Earth , Vol 6 No 2, June 15, 1997).

If India's foresters had got out of their closed mind-set of territorial guards clothed in khaki uniforms and had developed a proper response to the growing wood demand in the country - it is inevitable that increasing wealth will generate a demand for wood for house construction and furniture - then India could have easily become a major wood exporter by now. Indeed, the most successful component of India's social forestry programmes in the early 1980s was farm forestry which had quickly brought several million hectares under eucalyptus trees. The entire experience had revealed several good things as well as several bad things.

The best thing it had revealed was that our farmers were quite prepared to go in for tree crops as long as they saw a profit in them. The government should have carefully understood the emerging wood market. But don't expect foresters to understand anything about markets. They are bureaucrats who only know how to spend taxpayer's money. And don't expect ministers or secretaries to the government of India to know any better. As a result, a glorious opportunity to meet the growing wood demand was lost. Counting the number of trees planted became a more important pastime for India's officials whereas the Indian wood grower should have been carefully nurtured and developed.

Among the bad things with the country's farm forest experience was that many of these trees were only of eucalyptus which is a non-fodder species. A better choice of species would have led to trees which not only provided fodder but were also nitrogen-fixing even while they gave marketable commodities. Secondly, efforts should have been made to reach out to poor farmers who have to eke out an existence on poor lands. These lands are ecologically far more suited to tree crops than agricultural crops. But don't expect our bureaucrats to face such a difficult challenge or for that matter even to understand the nature of the challenge. They have fixed mind-sets, fixed ways of doing things and believe that they are God's gift to India.

The worst lot in this entire exercise has proved to be India's greedy industrialists. They have one constant refrain. The government should dole out to them government-owned forest lands so that they can grow their own wood. Who will then go out to the farmers and help them develop a wood market if the government is going to distort the market by giving such a massive subsidy to India's incompetent industrialists? Of course, there has also never been a dearth of politicians to feed their irresponsible ambitions - ranging from Kamal Nath in the past to Murasoli Maran in the present. While talking about economic liberalisation, they would be quite happy to use state levers to distort the emergence of markets, especially if those markets have a potential to benefit the poor.

It is now high time that the government got down to developing a clear plan on how to meet the wood market in a way that an appropriate role is played by private and state lands and in a way that maximum benefits reach out to the poor. It can be done and it should be done now. Unless we want to become perpetually dependent on tiny nations like New Zealand.

It is not as if things are not happening on their own. For years, Saharanpur's wood carvers had used shisham (Dalbergia sissoo) to make beautiful wood products which were exported to the West and the Middle East. But with incomes going up in Haryana and Punjab, the shisham wood began to go off to these states to meet the emerging wood market there. For a time, therefore, there was an acute shortage of shisham for the wood carvers of Saharanpur. But the market has responded with its own supply over the years. All across the terai - sub-Himalayan plains from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar - farmers have begun to grow shisham trees in their fields to get an additional income. The wood market today needs to be organised in a way that millions of wood farmers can meet the country's growing wood needs. If that can happen, the Supreme Court imposed restrictions on logging in forest lands would have served a useful purpose. On the other hand, in the absence of enlightened government action, India will only be aiding the log industry of Western countries. There is still time to wake up.

Anil Agarwal .