Afforestation project suspended as anti poor

A SOCIAL forestry scheme in Himachal Pradesh that for long was charged by environmentalists as a state-sponsored land-grab bid in the guise of afforestation has been suspended following the dismissal of the Bharatiya Janata Party government. The van lagao rozi kamao yojana (grow-forests-and-earn-a-living scheme), implemented by the BJP, sought to distribute two ha of forest land each to 75,000 families. Now, a joint forest management (JFM) system involving village communities in protection and greening for a share of the benefits.

An inquiry has been ordered into the yojana, under which about 30,000 ha of forest land was distributed. According to K C Pandeya, advisor to the Himachal Pradesh governor, "The scheme might have created problems of encroachment. Van sevaks (land allottees) might have refused to vacate even if they were caught violating conditions of allotment."

The state government reportedly agreed to adopt the JFM principles under pressure from the Union government. And, the forest department still justifies the yojana and contends the JFM system "will only broaden the original scheme's concept." Principal chief conservator of forests V P Mohan says, "The van lagao rozi kamao yojana was an experiment in partnership. The JFM programme will institutionalise the concept."

Under the yojana, which was pushed through despite objections from the Union ministry of environment and forests, the forest department would fence plots and allot them to families, who would plant and protect saplings. In return, the allottees would get a monthly income of Rs 400 in the first year, and, depending on the survival rate of the saplings, between Rs 200 and Rs 300 in subsequent years. Families would be allowed to cut some grass, but they would not have rights over timber and other produce.

However, there were fears the scheme would privatise a large part of the forest land. Environmentalists condemned it as "anti-poor" because common lands, which are the chief source of fodder and firewood, would have been the first casualty of privatisation.

The scheme had also triggered tension in Himachal villages and its suspension has brought considerable relief. Shyam Singh, former pradhan of Baloh village in Bilaspur district, commented, "The scheme was a recipe for village feuds."

Some officials admit in private the project was a "vote kamao yojana (vote collection scheme)." In fact, MLAs wanted to be consulted during the selection of beneficiaries. The opposition Congress(I) alleged the allottees would be used by the BJP for electioneering.

While the suspension of the scheme is being seen as a wise decision, even wiser is Pandeya's realisation that "all aspects should have been taken into account before introducing the scheme."