IT has all the potential to start a forest fire. Five months after the interim Supreme Court order banning all activities inside forests—including felling trees—to stop rapid depletion
of forest cover, the situation in the northeastern states is explosive. As many as 1,300 plywood, veneer and saw-based units in the region have fallen silent, and their one lakh employees face a grey future. In the absence of a national forest policy, the only hope lies in the final SC hearing in July to reconcile the conflicting goals of protecting the timber/plywood industry and the environment.
With 82 per cent of its area under forests and an equal share of its population dependent on it for a living, Arunachal Pradesh is the hardest hit. Says Forest Minister Lijum Ronya: "The state has lost Rs 68 crore in revenues alone in 1996-97 due to the ban. Our economy is in ruins." Nearly 250 wood-based units have closed shop, forcing over 50,000 labourers to the brink of starvation. In Assam, sources in the state's Plywood Manufacturers' Association say that around 79,000 workers have been directly affected. Commercial centres in upper Assam like Tinsukia and Naharkatia, which have grown around plywood industries, are in turn languishing. Says B.K. Garodia, director of Globe Ply, which operates on the Arunachal-Assam border: "At least 20 small towns are completely dead economically."
The overall industrial impact would, of course, be much larger. Nationwide, as many as a million workers could be hit by the snowballing effect. Sectors like paper, mining, drilling, chemicals, building, transport and handicraft have been affected. Large plants like Hindustan Organic Chemicals, Assam Petrochemicals, Hindustan Copper, Hindustan Zinc, Hindustan Aluminium, Kit-ply, Rajasthan Marbles and Granites have been compelled to axe production of resin and other items. Carpenters, artisans, cane and bamboo item manufacturers are under threat. As are apple growers in Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, and tea producing and packaging units in Bengal and Assam, which consume 40 million cubic metres (mcum) of timber every year. Says Garodia: "The order was too sudden. The Supreme Court did not give us any time to prepare." Agrees K.S.
Rajput, chief executive officer of a plywood unit in Arunachal: "Till now, our workers realise that the ban has tied the management's hands, but they are turning bitter." Small and medium units are in a worse bind. They can neither pay their workers indefinitely nor afford to shift their factories near the ports to feed on imports.
Laments the owner of a small unit in Arunachal: "The top four plymakers—Kitply, National Plywood, Sarda Plywood and Birla Plywood—have shifted their units near the ports and are importing timber. By the time a decision is reached, smaller players would have lost their business." Industry sources fear that by the time of the final hearing, the big four would be controlling almost 70 per cent of the Rs 3,000-crore industry, com -pared to 40 per cent now.
The numbers. According to a 1996 study by the Union Environment Ministry, around 70 per cent of the wood removed from forests is used as fuelwood and 30 per cent as timber. The Forest Survey of India estimated in 1995 that total incremental forest growth is around 87.6 mcum, of which 50 mcum is available as fuelwood. Another 50 mcum is available from private social forestry areas.
Against this, the present national demand for fuelwood is 260 MT and is expected to reach 350 MT by 2010. The present shortfall is around 60 MT, much of which is met through felling young trees and the rest through imports of wood and wood products which amounted to Rs 2,000 crore in 1995-96. As for timber, the available yield is around 12-14 mcum against an expected demand of 50 mcum by 2001. The need for a comprehensive policy to serve the requirements of both industry and environment assumes critical importance against this backdrop of shortages, say spokesmen of the Federation of Indian Plywood and Panel Industries.
Massive replantation to ensure that felling is not carried out at the cost of the environment is the only answer, says federation president M. Jalan. Only Rs 700 crore is invested annually for this purpose, creating around one million hectares of forests. This must be raised to Rs 3,000-4,000 crore a year, if the problem is to be addressed even partially. China for instance, has increased its forest cover from 8 to 12 per cent of its total area, targeting at creating 5 million hectares a year.
Says Piyush Periwal, vice-chairman of National Plywood: "Six people are needed to create one hectare of plantation. Think of the enormous employment potential when you create millions of hectares of forests." Up to 200 million people can be engaged in the plantation/replantation of 28 million hectares in five years.
A more important issue, however, is whether the country has the resources for such an ambitious forest-augmenting programme. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court order has led to social disquiet in the tribal-dominated regions of the Northeast. Arunachal Chief Minister Gegong Apang has already warned that the deadlock would only frustrate and alienate the youth engaged in the timber/plywood trade and render them easy meat for the propaganda of insurgent organisations.
"It won't be surprising to find a large number of our youth joining militant groups or taking up arms," says Wangpha Lowang, former Arunachal minister and a citizen of Tirap town, bang on the Myanmar border, where a faction of the banned NSCN is active. Agrees Hangamn Tante, general secretary of the Nokte Timber Company Mazdoor Sangha in Arunachal: "Our workers have exhausted their savings. Most of them are scouring around for edible leaves and roots in the forest to survive. How long do you think we can remain silent?" In Assam, tribal leaders of the autonomous councils are worried, because they have traditionally regulated tree-felling in different areas. Under the sixth schedule of the Constitution, state forest laws don't apply to them.
But now even in these areas, the court order disallows tree-felling without prior permission from the state government or mining in forest areas without Central clearance, which amounts to direct infringement of their constitutional autonomy! In Meghalaya, where most of the land belongs to clans and individuals, there's no ban on cutting timber. But since the court order prevents taking the timber out of the region, bodies like the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council have lost royalty worth Rs 1.34 crore in the past six months.
The plywood industry has engaged up to 250 counsel to fight the legal battle. Argues an industrialist: "The illegalities committed by a few in connivance with corrupt officials and politicians can't be a reason to punish the entire industry." Preserve the environment but also allow its judicious use—that's their demand. A demand which can be met only by the Supreme Court.