Paper capers

THE Union Cabinet is masticating over a proposal to allow the Indian paper industry to maintain plantations on degraded forests in India. The process is expected to accelerate although several Union ministers have reservations about anticipated protests by ngos and forest-based communities, especially in view of the Parliamentary elections due in 10 months.

The proposal was considered at the meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (ccea) on July 3, chaired by prime minister P V Narasimha Rao. The minister of environment and forests, Kamal Nath, requested his cabinet colleagues to consider a proposal already circulated by his ministry in May. The latter envisages collaborative deals between state level forest development corporations (fdc) and the paper industry to carry out plantation-based afforestation in degraded forests.

The mef-circulated draft cabinet note related to this proposal argued that the strongest point in favour of the proposal is that the paper industry would be asked to bear the scheme's entire cost. In return, it would enjoy 80 per cent of the major timber produce yielded by the plantations.

Nath admitted that at present only about 1 million ha annually may be afforested. Further, he argued that accelerated afforestation through fdc-industry partnerships would also prevent encroachment of forest areas. Lastly, he stressed that the scheme would enable India to meet its pulp and timber needs through indigenous production alone.

But the prime minister wanted Nath to assure that the proposal carries provisions to ensure the interests of people dependent on these degraded lands for fuel, food and fodder.

According to senior officials in the pmo, both Rao and Nath have noted the objections expressed by the latter sections in the week just before the ccea meet. On June 27, the noted environmentalist Chandi Prasad Bhatt announced that he would lead a group of ngos in a country-wide protest against the leasing of forest land to industrial houses for commercial exploitation. Bhatt is the secretary of a coalition of ngos -- the National Committee for Protection of Common Land Resources -- which, in this May, has already explained its opposition to such deals to the Union environment and forests minister.

Says Bhatt, "We know that powerful business and industrial interests will actually grab good forest patches in the name of degraded forests." According to him, the best guarantee against this is strict adherence to the National Forest Policy of 1988, which lays down that "natural forests will available to industries for undertaking industrial or any other activity."

Opposition has also flooded in from several other experts through the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) in Delhi. On June 29, a letter signed by Anil Agarwal -- eminent environmentalist and director, (cse), M S Swaminathan -- renowned agricultural scientist, and C H Hanumantha Rao -- noted economist and former member of the Planning Commission, detailing arguments against captive plantations for industry, was sent by the cse to the prime minister. This letter has made a strong economic and ecological case for raw material needs of forest-based industries to be met by encouraging farmers to grow wood on marginal and degraded lands available to them. "Such a policy would be both pro-farmer and pro-industry", states the letter. Otherwise, argue the authors, the proposal for captive plantations, if seriously put into practice, will cripple the efforts of several rural communities which have willingly participated in the regeneration of degraded forests through Joint Forest Management programmes since the '80s. In addition, millions of poor people who use degraded forest lands for fuel, fodder and small timber, may be forced source their requirements from other forests nearby due to captive plantation. The signatories have also argued that "it is a better ecological policy to keep monocultures and mixed tree cultures restricted to farm lands, while state-owned forest lands are allowed to regenerate genetically diverse forests".

Kamal Nath has assured that he will be party to no policy that may effect the interests of forest-based communities. At the same time, pmo officials reveal that there is no move for the mef note on captive plantations to be redrafted. In fact, the proposal will come up as a listed item before the ccea sometime in August. It is expected that the Union ministries of finance, industry and environment and forests would have worked out some of the funding details for the proposal. The proposals envisage fdc-industry collaborations for 1.7 mha to begin with.

Noticeably, there is no move to change some of the provisions of the proposal which make the scheme blatantly loaded in favour of the industry. Thus, the draft proposal before the Cabinet provides for technical committees that would be reviewing aspects like species selection and harvesting cycles. As envisaged, the membership of these committees would come entirely from state forest departments and partner industries. Again, project reports detailing the identified pieces of land, plantation patterns, yield targets and the like, are scheduled to be prepared entirely by the industrial firms.

Little wonder that there is joy in the paper industry camps. "we are awaiting a final decision by the Cabinet", says a tightlipped Rajiv Budhraja, secretary, Indian Paper Manufacturers Association. On the other hand, several paper manufacturing firms in the country are already planning to launch a coordinated publicity blitz to air advantages of dedicated plantations as perceived by them. The belligerent opposition is nothing but a mere paper tiger to them, they confidently feel.