India's lost woodlands

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Each year, when the monsoon rains hit parts of India, there are massive floods throughout the country. This year has been no exception. Rivers in most parts of northern and eastern India have inundated crops, submerged homesteads, and washed away cattle and people in a series of flash floods.

At the same time, there is a drought in the state of Rajasthan, where the Thar Desert stretches up to the border with Pakistan. The drought is particularly severe this year, because there has been little or no rain in the area for the past four years. Even the camels are finding it difficult to survive, and cattle and humans have started migrating to less arid parts of the state and even to the neighboring states.

Neither the floods nor the drought need have been so severe if there had not been random destruction of forests everywhere over the past 40 years. But, despite campaigns in the Indian press against deforestation, felling of trees goes on -- seemingly without any check.

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Largely, it is the result of policies of forest departments in the states, which encourage large-scale replacement of centuries-old mixed forests by monocultures of eucalyptus or teak. These have greater commercial value than indigenous trees but do not hold the soil or the moisture as well. In some places, especially in the hills of the south, forest departments have even cleared large areas in order to start their own rubber, tea, and cardamom plantations.

Yet, the current drought in Rajasthan has shown how helpless the forest officials may feel at such times of distress. For, with crop prospects bleak, the cattle emaciated, water sources such as ponds and wells dry for miles around them, and the little relief that the government can sanction not reaching the remote villages in time, the local people can survive only by chopping wood in the forests. They sell it in the nearby towns, where there is a demand for both timber and firewood. In the face of the acute hardships faced by the villagers, the forest department officials pretend not to notice what is going on.

The Rajasthan example is not the only one of its kind. The destruction of forests everywhere seems to have been brought about by similar compulsions. Consider, for example, the river valley projects, so essential not only for irrigation and power generation, but also for flood control. Between 1951 and 1973, 401,480 hectares of forests were submerged as a result of such projects. (A hectare is about 2.47 acres.)

During the same period, 2.4 million hectares of forests were converted to agricultural farms; construction of transmission lines and roads ate into 54,770 hectares; new townships accounted for the loss of 124,630 hectares; and 387,700 hectares were lost due to other miscellaneous reasons. Thus, in 22 years, a total of 3.4 million hectares of forests in various parts of the country were destroyed for what superficially seems to be progress and prosperity.

Though 33 percent of the country ought to be under forest cover for optimum ecological balance, in actual fact forests are to be found today in only 11 percent of the total land area. Moreover, this statistic is going down by one percentage point every year.

Particularly harmful has been the destruction of forests in the Himalayas -- the northern mountain range where many rivers have their sources. Denuded of forest cover, the topsoil from the barren slopes is washed down by the rains, leading to a silting of both riverbeds and man-made reservoirs. This, in turn, leads to unexpected floods during the monsoon season of incessant, torrential rains.

Landslides are also on the increase today and are of magnitudes unheard of in the past. The extent of silting can be gauged from the fact that the Bhakra reservoir, one of the largest in the country, situated in the northern state of Punjab, was earlier expected to last 88 years, but now is expected to become unusuable after barely 44 years. Similarly, the life span of the Hirakud reservoir, in Orissa, has been cut down from 110 years to 35 years by rapid silting.

A project recently started in the Bastar District of Madhya Pradesh, a state in central India, is a pine plantation-cum-paper mill, with the World Bank providing 80 percent of total funds for the enterprise. About 1,000 hectares have already been covered by pine. But now there is stiff resistance from the local tribal people to any further clearing of sal tree forests.

A fierce war to save the tree has also been waged in the Singbhum District of southern Bihar since 1977, when the State Forest Development Corporation decided to "upgrade" sal forests by replacing them with teak. The tribal population not only regards the sal sacred, it also uses its leaf for making platters and cups, prepares a kind of sweet paste from the soft kernel of its fruit, and uses the oil from its seed for cooking. Sal forests, furthermore, support a wide range of birds and animals that will not adapt themselves to a teak or a pine forest.

In the sub-Himalayan Uttarakhand region of Uttar Pradesh, the Chipko movement , started in April 1973, is still going strong. Chipko literally means "cling" -- and it was by clinging to the trees earmarked for felling that the local women saved much of the surrounding forests. Their struggle is by no means over. Currently they are rallying around the slogan "Without provision of fodder, fuel, and water, all planning is blind." They have started planting fodder and fuel trees in the midst of the conifers they consider harmful to the soil.

Though the state government has banned future felling of trees in the area, the order apparently does not apply to the trees already auctioned to private timber contractors. And there are thousands of marked trees, enough to keep the lumbermen busy for years to come. But the Chipko movement is also breaking new ground. It has sponsored a march from Kashmir in the west to the eastern hills, all the way through the lower, inhabited reaches of the Himalayas, to spread the message of conservation among the local people all along the route.

The Silent Valley Scheme, a hydroelectric project in the southern state of Kerala, for which a large portion of one of the few surviving rain forests in India would have had to be inundated, also generated intense controversy. Finally, the central government had to intervene and declare it a national park in the teeth of opposition from the state government, after promising it an alternative power project.

This is a hopeful sign, as is the recent setting up of a National Committee on Environmental Planning. Though the Union government has yet to formulate a national forest policy, it is gradually realizing the need for social or community forestry of the type visualized by the Chipko leaders, as opposed to the commercial forestry still in vogue. Nevertheless, it will take much persuasion before the state governments realize the importance of forests, particularly in the catchment areas of streams and rivers, in preventing floods not only locally but also in the plains downstream. Perhaps local pressure groups will be able to ensure this better than government officials operating within a highly bureaucratized system.

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