FORESTS: KEY TO HUMAN SURVIVAL
Man has proved to be the worst enemy of not only mankind but of the animal and plant kingdom also. The entire history is a mute witness to what man can do to the ecosystem that supports him: He has been chopping off the very branch he has been costly sitting on. Man made disasters like wars and ecological disasters have been as destructive as natural calamities. Hundreds upon thousands of different specimens of animals and plants are now in no danger in our midst and those just surviving are on the run; while animals and birds are being poached to near extinction, the forest or green cover is shrinking. Can man ever hope to survive on the debris and ashes of his wanton destruction? He has realized it too late that he cannot still survive if he goes on the rampage to indulge in ‘ecocide’ to secure short term ends.
Many of us do not know that the floods that ravage the country side almost every year are caused mainly by the destruction of vegetation in the catchment areas. This is especially so in regard to such rivers as the Brahmaputra, the Narmada and the Sabarmati. We also forget mat dean water supply to the cities and towns hinges on the maintenance of forests in the regions where rivers originate. Forest soil, with its microbes and vegetative cover, serves as a natural filter. Forests are thus protective, productive and aesthetic. The vital impact of forests on the climate, soil erosion and floods is well known. Forests are a natural screen against wind, storms and torrential rain. They take the sting out of winds of high velocity and reduce the damaging element in heavy downpours. Where forests abound, rain are plentiful. The humus built up by large quantities of decomposed leaves improves the quality of the soil and checks the runoff of water by increasing the permeability of the soil.
Policies, including a National Forest Policy, easily formulated, but seldom implemented in the spirit such policies are often couched. India is one of the few countries, which have had a series of forest policies. We have had a forest policy right from 1894 and it was revised in 1952 and again in 1988. Our national forest policy, 1952 laid down that at least 33 percent of the total land area should be under the forests for maintaining our ecological balance, preventing floods and drought and providing the life support to the tribal’s whose home is sprawling forests.
It has been a far cry from 1952 (when the policy was revised first) to 1988 (when the policy was revised last). The forest cover has been disappearing slowly, but steadily and today India has just an area of
633.4 lakhs hectares notified as forests which represents a negligible 19.27 percent of its geographic area. What happened to the laudable goal set in the 1952 policy that lay down that at least 33 percent the total land area should be under forests?
Out of the forest cover of 19.27 percent, dense forest (crown density more than 40 percent) accounts for 11 percent open forests (crown density 10.40 percent) represents eight percent, while mangrove forests occupy 0.15 percent.
The main plans of the forest policy of 1988 are protection, conservation and development of forests. The aims of the policy are: (a) maintenance of environmental stability through preservation and restoration of ecological balance, (b) Conservation of natural heritage; (c) check on soil erosion and denudation in catchment area of rivers, lakes and reservoirs; (d) check on extension of sand dunes in desert areas of Rajas than and along coastal belts, (e) substantial increase in forest tree cover through massive afforestation and social forestry programmes; (f) steps to meet requirements of fuel wood, fodder, rninor forest produce and soil timber of rural and tribal population; (g) increase in productivity of forests to meet the national needs; (h) encouragement of efficient utilization of forest produce and optimum substitution of wood and (i) steps to generate maximum and massive people’s movement with women’s involvement, to achieve the objectives and minimize pressure on existing forests. The entire gamut of forest activities are being given a new orientation in the light of the National Forest Policy of1988 for operationalisation of which, a national forestry action programme has been prepared.
Under the provisions of the forest (conservation) act, 1980, prior approval of the central government is required for diversion of forest lands for non-forest purposes. Since the enactment of the Act, the rate of diversion of forest land has come down to around 25,000 hectare per annum from 1.42 lakhs hectares per annum before 1980.
The forest policy 1988 permits diversion of natural forests if sufficient “compensatory afforestation is undertaken. The clause stipulates that the “diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes” should be subject to the most careful examination by specialists from the standpoint of social and environmental costs and benefits. Yet another cardinal feature of the new policy is to deny forest produce to industries at concessional rates. It may be recalled that in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, it is just this policy that encouraged the packing crate industry for horticultural produce to clear large tracts of forests which are now practically irreplaceable in Karnataka too, the demands of the pulp and paper industry laid waste thousands of hectares of precious tropical forests. The 1988 policy forbids the leasing of forest land to industry. Hence forward, no forest based enterprises will be permitted except at the village and the cottage levels.
The forest policy 1988 also recognizes the role of the forests in tribal economy. The tribal’s collect a variety of flowers, fruits, barks, leaves and medicinal plants which are known as minor forest produce. In fact, the tribal people are ecologically and economically part and parcel of the forest environment A scheme entitled “Association of scheduled tribe and rural poor in regeneration of degraded forests on useful sharing basis” is being implemented in nine states of the country. Besides improving the forest cover, the scheme also aims at providing wage employment to tribal people. Joint forest management (JFM) is being practiced in 21 states; about 7 million hectares of degraded forests in the country being managed and protected through around 35,000 village forts protection committees.
With all our claims to conservation of forests, are always threatened with slow sacrilege. Some of the powerful lobbies of the environmentalists have tried to spare our forest wealth from the deadly strokes of lumberjack here we must commend the pioneering role of the protagonists of the Chipko movement like Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandiprasad Bhatt The movement attracted worldwide attention and had its echo in different parts of India. The timely protest of ecologists also saved the famous silent valley in Kerala, one of the few surviving rain forests in the world. All the same, forests are still being pillaged by mafia groups and private contractors with official connivance.
None can estimate how many tones of precious sandal wood have been smuggled out of the forests in the Western Ghats by the notorious forest brigand Veerappan and transported to different big cities in India. Veerappan has had a well-knit network comprising officials, contractors, buyers and sellers, all of whom helped in bleeding white a precious species of our flora and the state governments of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu offered crore of rupees for release of Veerappan’s imprisoned accomplices, etc. in exchange for Dr. Raj Kumar’s release. Many Veerapans will be born to demand hefty ransom amounts for the release of abducted citizens and continue to destroy our precious forest wealth. Such kinds of nexus on a smaller scale are still operating in the heart of our forests. Ten years ago there was a movement called, “save the Western Ghats”, that focused on the degradation of the Western Ghats. Uncontrolled felling of trees has reduced the forest cover in the Western Ghats to an alarming low degree.
In the northeast, the elephants have little elbow room in the shrinking forests, Driven out of their cribbed habitat, many of these elephants turn out to be ‘rough elephants’. Elephants are being shot dead as they stray into human habitations. It is not that the elephant population has risen overnight. It is just the other way; the forest cover is fast disappearing and the wildlife habitat is being threatened everywhere.
Having failed to achieve the national target of bringing 33 per cent of land under forest cover, the ministry of environment and forests has worked out an action plan entailing an expenditure of Rs. 5,3000 crore a year for the next 20 years to bridge the gap between the existing forest cover of 19.27 per cent and the national target set decades ago. At a parliamentary consultative committee meeting held in May 2000, thé Union Minister Mr. T.R. Balu made a candid confession that in spite of substantial investment over the last two decades (the present level of investment is at Rs. 1,600 crore a year); The forest cover actually decreased the forest satellite assessment was conducted and it was found that forest cover declined to 10.27 per cent in 1995.
The action plan on the anvil adopts a two-fold strategy. One is to improve the forest cover by rehabilitating about 31 million hectares of degraded forest land which would require an investment of Rs. 1860 crore a year. The second one is to raise plantations on non-forests and farm lands extending over 29 million hectares which would require Rs. 3,425 crore a year.
The Plan for rehabilitating degraded forest land includes two measures (a) to bring about 153 million hectares of degraded forest land which has the natural rootstock and may regenerate if given proper protection and the gaps replenished, under the joint forest management system, (b) Technology based plantation with substantial investment in about 15.5 million hectares, of which 9.5 million hectares is partially degraded with depleted rootstock and 6 million hectares totally degraded and treeless.
As far as brining non forest land under tree cover is concerned, the plan envisages planting trees on 1.25 million hectares of degraded non forest land with quality seedling and raising tree plantations under agro-forestry on 0.2 million hectares every year. To meet the additional requirements (Rs. 3700 crore a year), the minister intends to divert funds from plan and non-plan expenses of state governments as well as the central government (the subject is on the concurrent list), solid funds from foreign agencies and take the help of financial institutions, private and industry sources.
“Any fine morning a powerful saw can fell a tree that took a thousand years to grow”, says a great writer. At one stroke our trees are gone and we are struggling now with our afforestation drive. Even now it is not too late if we mean business and if we match our promises by performance by at least maintaining intact the present forest cover while building a new one. Let us make no mistake about it; a forest cannot be built overnight. While stepping up afforestation, we have to see to it that our tribal community, who is the custodian of our forest heritage, is given all help and not exploited any more.
Let us remember that preservation of forests is in our own self interest and if we still go about behaving in an irresponsible manner destroy the very ecosystem that supports the mankind, as also the flora and fauna, we will be bringing about our own self destruction.