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Increasing forest cover, a challenge

Increasing forest cover, a challenge
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Highlights

Increasing forest cover, a challenge. Since 1952 National Forest Policy (NFP), there has been an advocacy for 33% forest cover with a 60% forest cover in mountainous and hilly regions.

Since 1952 National Forest Policy (NFP), there has been an advocacy for 33% forest cover with a 60% forest cover in mountainous and hilly regions. This objective was reiterated in the NFP 1988 and also confirmed in the National Forestry Commission report in 2006.

The ground reality

Ambitious drives to increase forest/green cover to 33% has been taken up by many states but with little success. For instance, the CM of Maharashtra, Prithviraj Chauhan had launched ambitious project of planting 500 crore saplings in 5 years starting from 2012. However, in first year targets were curtailed to 20 crore and actually 16 crore were planted.

The external audit reported several discrepancies and recorded very poor recruitment rate forcing the government to abandon the project. In 2011 Karnataka State Government launched “Krishi Aranya Protsah Yojane” with a target to afforest 20 lakh hectares with the help of 200 crore saplings in 10 years. This project also had not taken any shape in past 4 years and is likely to be discontinued.

Forest degradation in Telangana

Telangana’s forest deforestation peaked in 1970’s when huge influx of settlers from neighbouring states was facilitated by vested interest groups. The strong Maoist presence shielded the encroachers and in the melee many forest officers even lost their lives. Distribution of pattas on forest lands in the name of land for landless, undoing historical injustice, electoral mined government policies gave unreasonable justification for encroachments.

The policies adopted in the World Bank project under Joint/Community Forest Management were not sustained, as the village level Van Samrakshan Samithis (VSS) groups in rare cases took stewardship of forest conservation saw it as temporary employment. The wide spread corruption in our society have had tremendous impact on forests too. Riding the wave of globalisation, market forces penetrated deep inside as forest produce were systematically looted.

The linear intrusions like the roads, canals, electric lines brought unforeseen destruction of forests. The juggernaut continues as Muria tribals from Chhattisgarh or local folks continue to expand agriculture lands or occupy huge forested areas. Forest in Telangana became the classic example of Haddin’s notion of ‘Tragedy of Commons’, which states that common resources are collectively exploited as individual cares only about self-interest.

Haritha Haram

KCR launched an innovative “Telangana Haritha Haaram (THH)”, flagship programme of Telangana Government that envisages increasing the tree cover of the State from assumed 24% to 33% of the total geographical area. It is envisaged that in 3 years a massive plantation drive of 230 crore seedlings with 120 crore in possible outside forests, 100 crore through natural rejuvenation and 10 crore in urban areas.

Hence annually 40 crore seedlingsare proposed, that comes to 40 lakh seedlings per Assembly constituency and 40,000 seedlings for each village through 4000 nurseries. However the hallmark of THH is missionary zeal of KCR, his famous first meeting on 17th Jan 2015, was with all the forest staff up to Range Officers with his personal interactions and sensible suggestions, brought a new impetus for forest conservation, steering Telangana into a possible new era.

In two days a circular was issued from CMO with a “33-point CM agenda” and directions that highlighted immediate boundary fixation, curbing smuggling, filling up of vacancies, creation of legal cells, police protection for forests and dropping of compounding fees targets. An unfamiliar political backing, support of revenue department and police department has set new tone for conservation of forests.

Making it work

Forest Conservation is not stalling development, it augments sustainable growth of Telangana. Forests are essential for poverty alleviation, the three important things that we need forests for Telangana’s water security (both flowing and ground water recharge), absorb heat radiations caused due to growth and maintaining the balance of an ecosystem.

The plantation of forests/green cover is going to be tough and what is great interest is raising of 100 crore seedlings by the way of natural rejuvenation of viable root stock using traditional silviculture practices, along with identification of drivers of degradation with management interventions is prescribed.

The main drivers rally around dependence on forests that include overgrazing, fuelwood, wood for agricultural implements and fencing material, over-exploitation of forest produce, anthropogenic fire resulting in degradation,poor regeneration, soil compaction and erosion, loss of fertility etc. In order to conserve forests, it is pertinent to identify the overall dependence on forests at a micro-level.

The solution for restoration of forests lies in reducing the factors that are responsible for degradation of forests. Another exploitation of forests is done by higher influential class employing fringe villagers as daily wagers. It can be for smuggling of valuable timber species, Sand mining (which causes water-run off, early drying of rivulets influencing the local micro-climate), rock quarry, civil works in forests, illicit electric lines, road works etc.

A logical must-take first step would be to identify and reduce the dependency. For instance fuel wood via LPG connections and promoting fast growing timbers in forest fringes, Grazing via stall feeding or rotational grazing, controlling commercial exploitation of forests, adopt zero-tolerance to fires setting targets to reduce fires by 50%, 25% to 10% etc. The second step could be increase surveillance and setup legal cell in forest department to follow-up on court cases.

Securing the Protected Areas

Protected Areas (PAs) are beacons of conservation of biological diversity and are cornerstones of sustainable development strategies. Aside from their environmental benefits, they can also generate significant economic resources and can be used for poverty reduction, ecotourism etc. In addition PAs can help guard against environmental disturbances and the impacts of climate change by helping society to both mitigate and adapt to stressors.

Unfortunately, despite the significant monetary and non-monetary values of PAs their importance remains poorly understood and greatly undervalued resulting ininadequate financing and hence improper management. Telangana has 5 per cent of its land under Protected Area (PA) Network in the form of two Tiger Reserves, seven Sanctuaries and three tiny National Parks.

These PAs are the safeguards for future of Telangana which are catchments to rivers like Godavari, Krishna, Manjeera, Peddavagu etc. They have a legal framework for protection and also enjoy social acceptance. These areas can yield more than prescribed targets of 100 crore rejuvenation through enhanced protection, reduced dependency, creation of involatile spaces and optimization of benefits from PAs.

Voluntary Relocation a Win-Win Solution

National Tiger Conservation Authority (NTCA), offers an excellent package of Rs 10 Lakh for voluntary relocation from Tiger Reserves (TRs). Some degraded forest areas can be exchanged with prime forests in the middle of the TRs. In TRs of Telangana at least 1100 families has given their willingness to relocate to avoid harsh conditions of remote forests that lacks public amenities.

Relocation can be taken up under TKHH and later financial burden can be transferred to the Central Government. A state level relocation committee and district level committees would be logical first step. The collector of Mahbubnagar Mrs. TK Sreedevi, have heard the plea of 650 families who gave representations for relocation and she constituted district level committee.

Conclusion

KCR’s vision has given Telangana’s forests an unexpected second chance. THH might give some positive results but might not yield a turnaround in 3 years. However, natural rejuvenation is a very good way forward, if coupled with understanding the drivers influencing degradation, dependencies of people on forests and minimizing their impact. Protected Areas should be taken on priority and programmes like voluntary relocation would help secure some best forests of Telangana. (The writer is Director, Hyderabad Tiger Conservation Society, HyTiCos)

By Imran Siddiqui

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