Restoring Ecological Balance
Restoring Ecological Balance The Union Government recently became increasingly alive to the need to reverse the process of rapid deforestation which led our ecologists to sound the alarming bells. The government is now considering a move to ban the depletion of forests during the Ninth Plan period. Perhaps, the Centre may like to compensate the states for the loss of revenue on this account. The last amendment to the Indian Forests Act, 1980, also make it imperative for the states to get the Centre’s prior permission before leasing forest land to private persons, corporates, etc. This applies even where land is leaded for reforestation if it involved clearing of naturally grown trees. Hopefully, this and other measures would go some way to decelerate the felling of trees. However, until adequate substitutes are found for firewood and for the multifarious uses to which timber is put as well as large-scale and genuine reforestation projects are implemented, depletion of forests cannot be halted. As such, the task is to save the existing forests, check the spread of wasteland and to grow more trees in the already denuded areas and wherever it could be feasible.It the country where the annual requirement of wood is of the order of 150 million tonnes, of which nearly 80 per cent is used as firewood, the central guidelines to the states to consider banning forest felling makes little sense when the quantity that could be obtained on a sustainable basis from the existing forests is at best one-third of the total requirement. How is the shortfall of nearly 100 million tonnes to be met? If the states were to strictly allow the central guidelines, we may have to import the remaining firewood. What is urgently needed is to look foralternative sources of energy for rural areas. Protection of forests in the circumstances is easier said than done. While the latest official estimates say that India’s 329 million hectare geographical landmass,nearly 75 million hectares (about 22 per cent) was under forest cover at the time of Independence. Owing to expanding industrialization, urbanization, increase in population and illegal cutting of forests, this 22 per cent forest cover now stands drastically reduced to hardly 10 per cent. About 175 million hectares, half of the total landmass, is officially estimated to be wasteland due to degradation of land. The break-up of the 329 million total landmass is specified as 191 million hectares under forests, 18 million hectares under non-cultivable or barren land 25 million hectares under illegal occupation of China and Pakistan. Forest deprivation has been most acute in the Himalayan region, particularly in the Garhwal area.India’s forest cover is 19.52 per cent of the land area, the general consensus among experts is that this is an overestimation which does not take into account the extensive and continuing depletion of forest resources through deforestation, poaching and most important of all, indiscriminate felling of trees by people to meet their firewood needs. In any case, the country is still far short of the ideal 33 per cent that ecologists hold the country should try to achieve and maintain. The most challenging task, therefore is to save the existing forest and check the spread of wasteland. This has to be supplemented by afforestation programmes. According to the Survey of India and the National Remote Sensing Agency, of the 19.52 per cent green cover, over 10 per cent is represented by closed forests, over 8 per cent from open forests, 0.12 consists of mangroveforest and 1.10 per cent comprises of coffee plantations. We have to bring at least 10 million hectares of degraded land under forests per annum to achieve ecological balance after a decade.As is well-known, despite stringent laws to save forests, implementation of their provisions has been utterly lacking. But more unfortunate aspect is that reaforestation programmes have always lacked behind the target. Every year the country is losing 1.5 million hectares of forest cover and about 12,000 million tonnes of top soil owing to surface run-off. As such, the success of an afforestation programme hinges essentially on two factors—people’s involvement and the quantum of investment. But then, so are we have forgotten another major aspect and that is the use of methods that give optimal results. One such method is known as “social forestry” the objectives of which were spelt out by the National Commission on Agriculture (1976) as (a) firewood supply to replace cow dung, (b) small timber supply, (c) fodder supply, (d) protection of agricultural fields against winds and (e) recreational needs. Its main components would be (i) farm forestry, (ii) rural forestry and (iii) urban forestry. In a way, social forestry combines idle land, labour and water resources for optimum production of firewood, fodder, food and manure and small constructional timber. As such, it essentially involves a kind of monolithic integration of forestry, agriculture and animal husbandry. The government has quite adequately recognized the need for rebuilding of existing forest resource near the villages for rural housing needs and agricultural implements. Therefore, dependence on forest resources cannot be wished away. The major solution would lie in launching massive programmes of social forestry throughout thecountry, including the Himalayan region, keeping in view three important aspects of protection, production and environment. country, including the Himalayan region, keeping in view three important aspects of protection, production and environment. fforestation and reforestation programmes in India. For achieving a target of five million hectares, around 10 million seedlings are required but the country is presently planting annually at the rate of 1.5 million hectares using three billion nursery plants. Obviously, such a large programme cannot be accomplished only by the government departments. As such, nursery operations need to be decentralized and involvement of non-governmental organizations should be encouraged. A nursery should, in fact, be available within a 10 km radius with at least 25,000 saplings. The failure of social forestry to fulfill the basic needs of the poor stems from instances like big farmers growing eucalyptus instead of the traditional ragi, thereby making less food available locally, pushing food prices up and agricultural workers losing their jobs as eucalyptus requires less care. What is now needed all over the country is that voluntary agencies get involved more and more in the task of afforestation. In the ultimate analysis, it is crucial that a change in the attitudes of foresters, villagers, politicians, decisionmakers and all others involved is very necessary. Right policies will give a big boost in protecting our ecological balance, while serving many social causes as well.