Stemming the root ?

Stemming the root ? ON DECEMBER 12, 1996, a far-reaching interim order of the Supreme Court (SC) changed the nature and extent of conservation in India at one stroke. While giving its ruling in a 1995 case filed against the Union of India by one T N Godavarman Thirumulkpad, the SC pointed out that the Forest (Conservation) Act (1980) applied to all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise. Moreover, forest land included not only forests but also any area recorded as a forest in government records. Therefore, prior approval of the Centre was mandatory for any non-forest activity within the area of any forest (see box: Specifics of an order).

A comparison of the 1995 assessment of the forest cover of the country (pertaining to the period 1991-93) put forth in the State of Forest Report (SFR) 1995 with that of 1993, shows that there has been a substantial decrease in the extent of actual forest cover. The northeast remains a region of particular concern in this regard. According to the SFR, during the period 1989-93, forest cover in northeastern states had reduced by 1,418 sq km.

The SC order banned the felling of trees in all natural forest areas, except those under state working plans and privately grown plantations which were not former'forests'. A complete ban was also imposed on movement of timber and cut trees from the seven northeastern states, except for the purposes of defence and railways. The order effectively suspended the functioning of all saw, plywood and veneer mills in the states.

In yet another related move, a division bench consisting of Justices B P leevan Reddy and Sujata Manohar upheld Rule 3 of Transit Rules under the Forest Act. The rule states that any person importing, exporting or moving forest produce shall present them to the forest officer for examination and shall pay the fees according to the Transit Rules. It also restricts the movement of timber and firewood for any purpose outside a state.

Courtly tales The court posted the matter for further hearing on February 25. In the interim period, the state governments were directed to file detailed reports within two months regarding the number of sawmills and veneer and plywood units actually operating, their ownership, licensed and actual capacities, their proximity to the nearest forest and their source of timber. They were also asked to constitute, within one month, expert committees to assess the sustainable capacity of forests, the number of existing sawmills which could be safely sustained and the optimum distance from the forest at which a sawmill should be located.

The states which impleaded, moved the court for modifications, stating that they had complied with the order in varying degrees. The Meghalaya government, for instance, sought reprieve from the verdict on the grounds that this was severely affecting the economy of not just the state, but the entire northeastern region as a whole. Arunachal Pradesh (AP) also sought relaxation of the SC ban.

On February 27, the court reserved the order. It also finalised a draft order to set up a committee headed by former AP governor T V Rajeshwara Rao to oversee the problems arising from the judgment. The committee, which will oversee the preparation of inventories of the felled timber at the time of the court order and determine their origin, will report to the court at the end of two months. The modalities for possible permission to use or sell the timber or its products through respective state corporations will be left to the committee to ascertain.

While the joint secretary of forests of Assam, P K Chakraborty refused to comment, the commissioner and secretary of forests, H Sonowal said, "Since the entire matter is sub-judice, I cannot divulge any details that have been obtained by the apex court committee that surveyed the northeast in early April." When questioned about the status of bamboo and the dependence of tribal communities on forest growth, Sonowal added, "In my opinion, bamboo is mostly grown in specific areas by forest-dependent people. And there is a need to regulate the growth of bamboo which grows very fast, by periodic harvesting. Probably, the SC can review this situation."

Assembling again on March 4, the court issued a nine-page order modifying, as an interim measure, its December 12 judgment. The agarbatti cottage industry in the country got a much-needed relief in the matter of supply of raw material. The division bench made it clear that the ban on felling of forest trees and trading of timber would not apply to minor forest produce, including bamboo.

Ordering the immediate closure of all unlicensed sawmills and veneer and plywood industries in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh (UP), the court directed that the state governments would not remove or relax the condition for grant of permission for the opening of such units, nor issue fresh licenses. The Meghalaya government was asked to file an affidavit specifying: (i) the requirement of its tribal population, and the extent and terms on which it is made available; (ii) the revenue derived by the state through royalty from forest areas, purchase tax on export of timber, sale value of timber drawn from the government forests and the extent and quantity of such sale and the manner of sales; (iii) the number of wood-based industries within the state and the number of persons employed there.

On April 22, a three-member bench comprising Chief Justice J S Verma and justices Sujata V Manohar and B N Kirpal heard pleas for more time to be allowed from various state counsels, and in light of the failure of states to submit their compliance reports, further adjourned the case for hearing on May 6, 1997.

Plywood industries and saw and veneer mills of the northeastern states immediately closed down following the SC order. Movement of forest goods from the northeast to other parts of the country came to a standstill. Concerns like the Assam Petrochemicals Limited, heavily dependent on raw material from the plywood industry, stand to lose severely.

The plywood industry of Assam producing 60 per cent of the entire requirement of the country - happens to be the second biggest in the state after tea. Munir Borah, general secretary of the Wood Workers'Union, says that majority of plywood mills stopped production on December 24, 1996, which affected about one lakh people directly involved in the industry. The ban on felling in Changlang and Tirap and the shut-down of all other plywood mills situated within 100 km of the Assam-AP border affected the industry too; plywood is generally made from holong and mekei timbers, available only in reserve forest areas of upper Assam, Nagaland and AP.

Borah admits that plywood industries have caused largescale destruction of forests in the northeast. But he also feels that alternative methods should be evolved very soon to relieve the affected people. One of the sectors which the ban has devastated is the incense manufacturing industry. From February 15, incense (agarbatti) manufacturing units all over the country downed their shutters because of non-availability of bamboo splits, following the ban on bamboo-felling and movement issued by the SC. Commenting on the plight of the Rs 800 crore-incense stick industry, the All India Agarbatti Manufacturers Association's member Aiten Vadhar said that the ban affected over a million workers in Karnataka who earned their living by rolling incense sticks.

The ban has also affected lakhs of those indirectly dependent upon forest-related consumer items' production and similar activities. Thousands of carpenters, small artisans and cane and bamboo item manufacturers are decrying the court's measure as their business has almost come to a standstill. Even more grievously hit have been the apple-growers of UP, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, besides tea producing and packaging units in Assam and West Bengal, who together require more than 40 million cubic tonnes of timber per annum.

People are the key
In the wake of the SC order seeking clarification of mining activities in forest areas, the Meghalaya government has asked coalmine owners in the state to give details of their business plans. Leading citizens of Guwahati have appealed to political leaders of northeastern states not to encourage the forest lobby to scuttle the implementation of the court's interim order.

While the Union environment and forests minister Saiffiddin Soz, addressing delegates at the International Conference on Cooperative Development and Peace in Asia in Delhi, stated that the Centre will appeal to the SC on the issue of banning moving of timber from Jammu & Kashmir and the northeastern states to other parts of the country, the feeling in several quarters about the order is that notwithstanding its absolute relevance, such a policy should be aimed at relieving the people, especially tribals and other forest-dependent communities. Possibly, the provision made in the national forest policy, 1988 (para 4.6), that "development of forest villages (will be) on par with revenue villages" meant especially for forest tribal villagers, needs urgent review. Although these forest villages are demarcated within forest blocks away from human settlements, regeneration in these areas have remained restricted due to intensive felling, timber poaching, grazing and agricultural practices using various chemical inputs. In fact, according to a recent study conducted by the Central Soil and Water Conservation Institute in Chandigarh, biotic interferences in the form of grazing and forest-felling have been the most important factor responsible for causing flash floods and heavy soil erosion, thus adversely affecting the forest ecosystem.

Although India's joint forest management (JFM) schemes represent a conceptual shift in her forest policy by balancing community and government interests, they do not really alter the well-entrenched axiom that access to forests depends ultimately on the government's largesse. It is here where the feeling comes in that problems inherent in JFM can best be solved only if the rights of the fragile forest-dependent communities are strengthened and protected.

A change for the better?
While it is far-reaching, the apex court's order raises many critical queitions: How will India meet the enormous timber shortage that would result from imposition of the ban? The Centre for Science and Environment proposes a policy for encouraging small and medium farmers to plant trees on the more than 140 million hectares (mha) of degraded private land to make up for these shortages. Industrial plantation in 0.33 mha per annum would be necessary to meet the entire requirement of the plywood industry.

In a refreshing change, people of AP's Tawang district are reportedly trying to undo the wrongs committed on their forests. Recently, the locals of this Buddhist-dominated district undertook a massive plantation programme, planting at least 10,000 saplings covering government offices, residential areas, schools, monasteries, hospitals and roadsides. Leading this effort at forest regeneration, K P Nyati of the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII), New Delhi, said, "Forest resources, being renewable resources, have not really been cared for decades. Emergency measures and crisis management should become our password now to contain the massive deforestation that we have triggered off in our quest for modernity."

Emphasising that a city-dweller always grabs the lion's share while the forest-dependent tribal does not extract more than 15 per cent of the total extracted timber, Nyati said that the CII is hoping to start a dialogue with concerned agencies for effective monitoring of leased out forest areas meant for timber cultivation as well as keeping checks on reserved forests. "The Supreme Court order should be taken in all seriousness and a review should be done by ourselves vis-a-vis forests. At the same time, attention must be focussed on the use of non-renewable resources, again with caution and retraint. In an industrialised world today, one cannot really expect the pristine state of nature to come back. But certainly, we can work towards a sustainable management of both the environment and human civilisation."

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