A ‘Singapore-based multinational company’ has shown interest in making investments worth Rs 1,000 crore in Himachal Pradesh in the afforestation sector by creating ‘world-class’ plantation fields and forest produce processing units. Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal stated that the state was concerned about preservation of environment and would welcome any project which could supplement the endeavour of the government in carrying out massive plantation drive which could not only increase the green cover but also generate income to the local people. However, the government seems to be in a hurry in its enthusiasm to attract investment in the state and may again make the mistakes successive governments have been making over the decades. Besides, there appear some grey areas regarding the company itself, which the government should clarify to avert embarrassment of Jhangi-Thopan hydro-power project involving Brakel Corporation.
There are some basic questions that pop up in contest to the proposal. Firstly, would these plantations come up on land under forest whereby the firm goes on to clear forested lands for these plantations and whether these plantations would be dominated by tress of single species as has been the case with large-scale pine plantation in the state. Besides, there are doubts whether the investors would ensure that no foreign weed (remember the Lantana America example) enters forest area of Himachal Pradesh in case some newer species of trees or shrubs are introduced from other country.
Though the details of the project are not yet known, there are genuine concerns that stem from the fact that even if the proposal envisages to create plantations of indigenous species of trees (excluding pines/teak etc.) and not harvest the standing trees (regarding which there is a ban imposed from the Supreme Court above the height of 1000m), there is no space left in the state on which the local people do not have a stake or dependence. Assuming that the project wants to operate in a manner that ignores the control and benefit of the local forest dependent people, the people of the state would ultimately be the losers in case such a proposition comes to pass. However, getting this proposal through would not be easy in the light of the dependence of local villagers on forests lands of all sorts, especially grasslands, which are the only plausible plantable areas. Such people can get a foothold only by bribing our decision makers and the powerful within the villages, legally or illegally. But then it is an open secret that profiteers can stoop down to any level. Before taking any decision, the government should remember that the only recipe for protecting our forests for the future generations is to strengthen community institutions and mechanisms for their sustainable management.
The proposal needs to be watched very carefully and opposed at first signs of danger. Interestingly, a web search with keywords ‘MG International, Singapore’, the company that has made the proposal, did not lead to any results for forestry related firm with operations in more than a ‘dozen countries’. By the way, the people who met CM Dhumal all looked very much Indians.
There are examples where companies working under the garb of forestry, community participation, environment friendly economic development, etc, have changed the entire ecology of the local natural system by planting only those trees which are commercially beneficial. The long or mid-term term disasters can’t be generally foreseen easily by people from non-scientific backgrounds but little research on the ‘plantation fields’ in Indonesia and Malaysia will show how the entire biodiversity of the land has been altered. Under the circumstances, considering the delicate balance of the Himalayan ecosystems, which is already threatened by climate change, there are doubts about such ‘foreign-based’ companies operating in Himachal.
Handing over of forest land to third-party interest groups may harm many endemic species that provide richness and diversity to the forest. It would amount to going back to the Raj days when miles upon miles of plantations ended up destroying many other species of trees. Besides, the attitude of the forest department, despite complaints, remains lackadaisical. The state needs to work out its own forest policy involving locals to upgrade the existing forests and exploit them watchfully for their livelihood.
It is also surprising that the government of Himachal Pradesh is getting profit-making enterprises to directly take over forest operations. This is the same state government that is one-and-a-half years behind in initiating the implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, which recognises the communities as the primary right holders and gives them the responsibility and the right to conserve forest lands apart from user rights over the same lands.
The case of government’s own initiative (though it had its origins during the British Raj) called Kangra Forest Cooperative Societies may also be highlighted here. These societies raised successful productive forests for more than thirty years but when the assets were really consolidated, the forest department took away from them their lands, the incentives to conserve, the resources that they had developed and also the powers to manage them. Some of the KFCS have been struggling against these actions and have taken the matter to the court but it would be pity if the government chooses to give weightage to a proposal from people from ‘God-knows-where’ rather than a successful homegrown model of participatory forestry that has already worked in these conditions – just because there is an ‘investment plan’ worth crores that ordinary folks cannot offer.