By: Rahul Saxena
For the past two years, the people of the state of Himachal Pradesh have been facing a crisis of sorts – since the Timber Distribution (TD) rights were suspended by the orders of the Honourable High court, people have had immense difficulties in finding wood for construction and repair of their houses, religious ceremonies and even burning their dead. The court’s decision came as a response to a PIL alleging major malpractices in the system of timber distribution, which were leading to decimating the forest wealth while the timber sanctioned for utilization by right holders was being siphoned off to the market by profiteers. The PIL had a strong logic to it and to a large extent reflected the ground situation. Now, after more than two years of consideration, the Himachal Pradesh Forest Department (HPFD) has come up with a prescription that has been approved by the state cabinet and submitted to the court for its verdict.
As a compensation for the inconvenience that the people had to go through while the rights remained under suspension, one had hopes that the resultant policy would pave the way for democratizing the decision-making process around timber distribution that could have been a precursor to the people of this state existing symbiotically with its forests. Sadly, the news of what has been proposed does not raise much expectation on this count. At this point it is important to envisage the scenario that might emerge if the proposed prescriptions are adopted in toto.
The Himachali people are amongst the very few in the country whose rights over the use of forest resources were elaborately documented through the forest settlement processes of the pre-independence era. Timber rights entitled a person to a tree of particular specie for his genuine need of constructing or repairing his house, almost free of cost. These rights have been in place for more than a hundred years and have a taken-for-granted existence in the peoples’ mindsets. Modifying these rights is seen as a politically sensitive matter by the politicians – the reason why, despite discrepancies having crept into the system long back and despite proposals by HPFD, no one in the establishment dared to make any major modification. It is in the light of these conditions that we have to realize the importance of the current situation when the court’s intervention has presented us with a rare opportunity to create a win-win situation. At this juncture, it would be fruitful to understand how the timber distribution system was supposed to work and how it degenerated.
Once in five years, a right holder could make an application to HPFD for the sanction of a tree by paying a nominal fee, explicitly for the purpose of house construction or repair. This request was for the grant of one tree, regardless of the quantity of timber actually required. The eligibility and the need of the applicant was certified by the Patwari, the Forest Guard and the Pradhan of the village. The Forest Block Officer also confirmed the silvicultural availability of trees in the designated forest for the village. The application moved from the Guard to the Forest Ranger onto the Divisional Forest Officer’s (DFO) table. In the absence of any transparent and democratic processes on the ground, the number of applications with the DFOs invariably much exceeded the number of allotable trees for any given forest. As a result, the sanction of trees depended upon the DFO’s discretion and how well connected the applicant was. Once sanctioned, the forest officials used to mark a tree and the beneficiary used to have it felled and converted into sleepers through contracted labour. Due to lack of cash, the poorer beneficiaries generally used to pay the labourers in terms of a certain number of sleepers from the converted timber. Often more trees were felled for each one sanctioned legally and not without the knowledge of the ground staff. HPFD used to sanction timber worth about Rs. 100 crores annually in return for miniscule revenue.
Through the PIL in the High Court, it was contended that the system of Timber Distribution was being abused, and owing to corruption and in total disregard of the technical principles of forestry, the forests had been stripped of their erstwhile wealth by the powerful interest groups siphoning the timber illegally into the market while the genuine applicants were left empty handed. It was pleaded that foolproof mechanisms are put in place while sanctioning timber to right holders.
The Proposed Policy
The proposed policy approved by the government recommends that the practice of sanctioning whole trees be replaced with sanctioning converted sleepers. The maximum quantity of timber that can be availed by a beneficiary and the periodicity of its sanction has also been defined – 30 sleepers for constructing a new house obtainable once in a lifetime and 10 sleepers for repairs obtainable after fifteen years. A person whose father is alive would not be eligible for benefits. The rate of timber has been proposed at Rs. 400, or ten percent of the market price for a person belonging to a BPL family and thrice that amount for other people. To prevent the probability of people entering forests for timber, the timber is proposed to be provided to the beneficiaries at the Forest Guard hut, which would entail the additional burden of Rs. 50-100 per sleeper on the beneficiary for its haulage. The order of preference for sanctioning of timber would give priority to dry and diseased trees and green trees shall be considered last, that too if silviculturally available. The Forest Guard would verify the genuineness of an application for timber and have the decision for sanction approved in the Panchayat Gram Sabha.
The Possible Upshot
The outcome of this seemingly rational and progressive formula has to be foreseen in the light of certain other allied facts. If diligently implemented, the proposal to base timber distribution on silvicultural availability is welcome. Providing converted timber instead of trees shall reduce some hassle for the beneficiary but the cost of carriage to his village is an additional burden. At a landing cost of about Rs. 450 per sleeper, a BPL person would have to shell out Rs. 4,500 for repairs and about Rs. 13,500 for new constructions. Anyone who is acquainted with the villages in the hills would know that this is an impossibility and could result in two scenarios – either the beneficiary would sell off some of the wood to meet the costs incurred or would not go through the prescribed process at all but resort to illicit felling. Needy persons with living fathers would more certainly take the latter approach. But is it that easy for a person to fell and convert a tree illegally with the HPFD staff constantly on the watch? The answer in many areas is YES, despite HPFD’s overconfidence to the contrary.
It has been happening in the past and corruption, understaffing, large ranges, political pressure and the dependence of staff on people for information are factors that would ensure that this continues to happen. The Forest Guard playing the central role in sanction of timber would lead to increased corruption, favouritism and increased burden on the staff. Worse, the imposition of new riders on access of forest resources is going to further alienate the right holders from their forests and escalate forest related offences. This would result in the forests, which the government so dearly wants to preserve due to its own commercial interests, seeping into graver danger than ever before.
It is a sad reality that even fifteen years after the official initiation of the concept of Joint Forest Management (JFM), HPFD is still trying to single-handedly and unfeasibly police the forests as if it was their sole owner. True, the forests cannot be entirely left at the mercy of the local individuals too or the powerful vested interests would conspire to destroy them. But why and how would any village destroy its forest if there was a general sense of ownership towards it and there was a certain accepted set of democratic and transparent rules defining its use, protection, propagation and benefit sharing. These rules could easily incorporate participatory, village level mechanisms for identification of beneficiaries, assessment of a beneficiary’s exact need and silvicultural availability, sanction of timber and proper utilization of sanctioned timber.
Then people would become the real guardians of the forests and contribute positively towards the protection of existing forests and afforesting areas of timber scarcity. One easy way to ‘democratise’ forestry related processes is to have decisions approved through the Panchayat Gram Sabhas, but the method of functioning of current Panchayat system and their incongruity with the forest boundaries makes them impractical units for forest related decision making. Forest- wise institutions of right holders offer a more practical solution, provided HPFD is willing to put in the hard work to nurture and facilitate them, as Nepal has demonstrated. The HPFD may have no choice but to come up with such solutions in the light of many areas impending to come under community control after the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
It is a sincere wish that the proposed prescription on Timber Distribution be opened up for debate and responses sought from public before finalizing it. Also, since no one can get such a complex policy right in the first attempt, it would be crucial to include a procedure for independent periodic review and fine-tuning into the implementation process. Let this opportunity not be missed or the next one might not come within our lifetimes.