India's forests endangered by city-dwelling officials' determination to make them 'pay'

The city dweller's concept of the forest is clouded either by fear or by a certain romanticism that has no basis in fact. Yet it is townsfolk who make and unmake rules on how best to manage the dwindling forest wealth of India.

Forest Department officials, in particular, have seen the forest dweller as the main culprit in the destruction of both flora and fauna. Yet it is the officials' determination to make the forests ''pay'' that has brought about deforestation at an alarming rate.

Today , barely 7 to 9 percent of the total land mass in India is covered by forests. Besides officially sanctioned tree felling - a business that is sometimes given to private contractors - there is much clandestine felling. The latter is widely believed to go on with the connivance of Forest Department officials.

As a result, the 48 million hectares of land declared as ''forest'' in 1951, and still classified as such, contain farmland, tea plantations, and plantings of rubber, cardamom, and other lucrative crops. There also are vast stretches of barren earth that are being eroded further by wind and rain.

In the vulnerable lower reaches of the Himalayas, where forests would naturally cover some 66 percent of the terrain, the hills are bare up to a height of 2,000 meters. Less than 2 percent of the Kumaun Range, for instance, is real forest.

In spite of its enormous powers, the Forest Department apparently has been unable to conserve existing forests, let alone plant new ones. Thus those who are concerned about India's forests wonder if the even greater powers to be given to the Forest Department in proposed new legislation would really help.

The forest bill was to have been introduced in the Indian Parliament during its last session, but it met with organized resistance from rural groups active among aboriginal tribes and from others who live in and around forests. It was not presented before Parliament during that session.

Perhaps the government has had second thoughts about this bill. Its drafting was begun while the Janata Party government was in power between 1977 and 1979. It was completed by the Congress-I government now in power.

It was the British who promulgated the first such legislation - the Government Forest Act - in 1865. This gave the government the right to declare any forest as ''government forest,'' although it stipulated that there would be no infringement of the existing ''rights of any communities.'' These rights, however, were curbed in the interest of ''public benefit'' in the subsequent acts of 1878 and 1894.

The Indian Forest Act of 1927, which is still in force, refers not to the rights of communities, but to that of ''persons.'' A modification, introduced after India's freedom in 1952, refers to the ''rights and concessions'' given to individuals.

This steady attempt to curb the rights of communities is reflected in the new bill, which empowers the government to declare ''any land whatsoever'' as forest. It defines even leaves of grass and wild mushrooms as ''forest produce'' which the villagers will not be allowed to gather.

What is more, an official ''acting in good faith'' will not be liable to prosecution - no matter what his crime vis-a-vis the local community. In the absence of any provision for local participation in the task of conservation and reforestation, Forest Department officials will be free to allow city traders to decimate the woods while they look the other way.

There is the instance of a forest guard in the Kumaun hills catching a truckload of illicit timber only to find that it was being secreted out with the connivance of a divisional forest officer. His perseverance almost cost him his job. But the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini, a local organization working partly in conservation, fought on his behalf and ensured his reinstatement.

The symbiotic relationship between forest-dwelling communities and the forest is rarely appreciated in government offices. The tribal people living in the forests of the western state of Maharashtra, for instance, use karvi reeds plucked from the forest to make huts. Those too poor to buy thatching use broad teak leaves from the jungle for roofing.

In seasons of drought and starvation, tribal people survive on fruits, roots, leaves, and seeds from the forest. In areas not serviced by doctors and paramedical workers, they use herbs from the woods for a variety of medicines.

The slash-and-burn system of agriculture practiced in some parts of the country is often cited as proof that tribal people have destructive habits. Yet village elders supervise the allotment of parts of the jungle to members of the community. A family receives no more land than it can farm. The rotation system also ensures that the land recoups its fertility before the forest cover over it is slashed and burned again.

What is more, while the poor tribal person in search of birds, rabbits, or leaves and roots for his pot is caught and fined, traders who tempt him go free. A tribesman who illegally chops wood from the forest at great personal risk may be paid only 500 rupees (some $50, which is enormous amount for him). The timber merchant, on the other hand, may pay another 5,000 rupees ($526) to the truck owner and 5,000 to 7,000 rupees ($526 to $736) to the Forest Department officials to ensure their complicity. The merchant can still make a profit of 10 ,000 or 20,000 rupees ($1,050 to $2,100), depending on the size of the truckload.

In terms of wood burned as fuel, the poor use a small fraction of the amount consumed by the rich in the rural areas and smaller towns. Much more wood goes into the making of furniture for a city home than the poor tribal person can use in his or her lifetime.

Love for their forests and the knowledge that the woodlands are their saviors and friends in need have prompted villagers throughout India to launch movements to protect their woodlands. The Chipko (cling to the trees) Movement in the state of Uttar Pradesh, provides an example of action taken at the grass-roots level. This has been done mostly by women who clung to the trees and defied lumbermen to chop them down.

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