With the intervention of the Himachal High Court, the state government has framed a new policy on the distribution of timber known as ‘TD’ policy. Whereas this policy is divorced from the reality that exists on the ground also from the basic needs of the people has stood the legitimacy of the court . I will discuss about the neo TD policy in later part, but first I think it is essential to go into the history of evolution of TD rights.
Right enshrined during the British raj
The British governance of India took the management of forests into their hands in the second half of 19h century. The growing demand of wood for Railways , for construction and such other purposes the then government brought a law known as the Indian Forest Law in 1878. (the 1878 act sought to consolidate and reserve the areas having forest cover, or significant wildlife, to regulate movement and transit of forest produce , and duty leviable on timber and other forest produce. It also defines the procedure to be followed for declaring an area to be a Reserved Forest, a Protected Forest or a Village Forest. It defines what is a forest offence, what are the acts prohibited inside a Reserved Forest, and penalties leviable on violation of the provisions of the Act. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Forest_Act,_1927) .This law brought a paradigm shift in the management of forest policy. Precluding, forests were used for domestic demand of the people since then, the forest management shifted to meet the commercial or industrial demand . With this law, the rights of traditional dwellers were restricted, the forests were demarcated and kept in different categories. To settle the people’s right, ‘Forest Bandobast’ reports were prepared. Out of all the major rights of the people, with respect to forests, the foremost right of ‘TD’ for the construction of houses was settled. Such settlements were made in different parts of Himachal Pradesh after annexing various small principalities e.g. Mandi, Chamba and Bushehar. A reference to such a settlement is made in the ‘Anderson report’ made for Kangra and Kullu. (Gazetteer of Kangra district)
These rights got recorded in 1886 and TD became an infamous right since then. Under this, the right holders i.e. the peasants could get a tree of either Devdar (cedrus deodara) , Kail (Pinus wallichiana) or such other building wood once in a period of 5 years. The price was tagged to be 20% of the total value of the wood during that time. Though settlement reports of various principalities had different contents but ‘TD’ rights was ensured almost everywhere. Apart from TD, rights for fodder for animals, grazing rights , fuel wood , wood for various agricultural equipments like plough etc. grass and many other non timber products like fruits, flowers (e.g banaksha/ viola pilosa blume), medicinal herbs and roots, medicinal bark of trees etc were also registered rights.
Going by the trajectory of evolution of Himachal Pradesh, as a state from 1948 to 1954 to 56 , 66 and finally in 1971 when a complete statehood was granted , the TD right remained intact. In all 12 districts were carved out . Quite interestingly land was vested under various heads in the village . There was private land in the sense that people individually owned land and ‘Shamlat’ land . This land was owned by the people collectively and no individual rights vested. Such land was used for various purposes including gazing of animals and even TD. Such Shamlat land was transferred in government’s name at the time of statehood and the age old rights of the people were restricted further . Presently 66.52% of the entire geographical area is under the Forest department. Then another law was passed known as the Forest Conservation act in 1980 by the Union government which took the authority over the forests from the state list and kept it in the concurrent list . Although the rights over forest produce and TD remained. During the course in 1995 the Supreme Court made a full stop on tree felling even on silviculture; the art and science of nourishing the forest where the worn out or the outlived tree is extracted to allow the growth of young trees and saplings. Despite all these developments the TD right remained and continued to be disbursed to all the people.
Over activism of the court
In 2006, a PIL was filed in the HP High Court regarding the misuse of TD. The argument being that the needy do not get this facility and invariably is being used by the affluent sections and it greatly / adversely affects the environment and ecology. Let me take both the arguments one by one.
Firstly it is true that in the state there exists a mafia that manly comprises of the forest contractors , tied to the forests officials, bureaucrats, police and even politicians. This mafia operates in a different set up i.e. targets the wood/ timber through the Forest department and the Forest Corporation (that carries the sale of timer in the state). Though this is true that the erstwhile policy that provided TD at cheaper rates, was misused and it is even alleged that the entire town of infamous tourist destination ‘Manali’ got constructed through this rooted TD via the forest mafia and such others. But this is not a universal phenomenon. The whole argument that the TD is misused hence should be stopped is not sustainable given the fact that it is the pilferage that needs to checked and not TD . The argument is similar to the one where the government stops the aid for those who are in dire need like the ration in PDS stores etc. just because it is being misused.
Secondly, that the TD effects the jungle or the ecology etc also does not contain much ground as the TD that was provided used to come from the process of silviculture and from salvage trees, which requires extraction from the forest for the growth and further development of the forests. Presently there are hundreds of thousands of trees lying unused in the jungles that have fallen because of various reasons; rains etc. Now with the blanket stay precluding the new TD policy under directives from the High Court , such precious wood would lie unutilized in the jungles. In fact the ecology is severely hit by the construction of various hydel and such other projects in the area. It is estimated that to just lay the transmission line of Jay Pee for the Wangtoo Karcham hydel power project 12000 trees of extremely precious cedrus deodara of the alpine range would be chopped down in Nichar tehsil of the tribal district of Kinnaur alone. Similarly the ecology is being devastated with the commissioning of various cement plants in the state. To name a few; Gujrat Ambuja cements limited in Darla, Jay Pee in Malokhar both in solan districts, the Lafarge in karsog in Mandi district and so on. Not just the cement plants have adversely effected the ecology of the area it is also responsible for the largest number of growth of asthma cases in the surroundings.
The Forest department has admitted that over a period of last one decade 9,00,000 trees were cut out of which 6,00,000 legally and the rest illegally in the state by various power projects, cement plants and likewise.
TD a necessity
Another important issue that needs to be reiterated here is that timber for house construction cannot be replaced by brick mortar etc because of these reasons;
Firstly the state falls under the temperate zone with extremely cold weather conditions. In such an environment houses made with traditional wooden structures are more suited to live and can sustain for more than a hundred years. Brick mortar cement cannot replace .
Secondly, the hilly terrain has low road density thereby very difficult for the people to carry industrial material like cement, sand etc meant for constructing such houses.
Because of the region being under the seismic zone the houses with wooden structures are best suited to meet such an eventuality.
Just recently in 2008 two important villages of the state Malana got burnt in the fire , but due to a complete moratorium on TD during that period the poor people had to reel under extremely bad weather conditions.
The New TD Policy
The new policy drafted by the state government has the following features:
(i) no Timber Distribution shall be granted in urban area;
(ii) no Timber Distribution shall be granted if trees to meet the requirement of timber for construction of residential house, cowshed etc. are available on the land holdings of the Right Holder concerned. However, he shall have the right to fell trees from his own land as per the provisions of the Himachal Pradesh Land Preservation Act, 1978 and rules made there under;
(iii) no Timber Distribution shall be granted for 10 years if the right holder has sold trees from his private land holding;
(iv) in case right holder has land holding at more than one place, he shall have option of getting Timber Distribution at one place only. For this purpose a Right Holder shall submit an affidavit clarifying therein his rights of Timber Distribution at different places and his place of option for getting Timber Distribution. Option once exercised shall not be allowed to be changed;
(v) With effect from the date of notification of these Rules, no Timber Distribution shall be granted to a land owner who has purchased land after obtaining the permission of the Government under section 118 of the Tenancy and Land Reforms Act, 1972, irrespective of the date of purchase of such land.
(vi) Timber Distribution shall be granted only to the head of the family as per the revenue records;
(vii) Timber Distribution shall not be granted for the construction/ maintenance of buildings to be used for commercial and hiring purposes;
(viii) Timber Distribution shall not be granted to the Right Holders, if trees for the purpose are not available silviculturally in the forest where concerned right holders have Timber Distribution right;
(ix) Timber Distribution Rights shall be subject to cooperation and participation of Right Holders in forest conservancy. In case any Right Holder fails to perform his duties for apprehending offenders, extinguishing fire or commits any forest offence as contained in the Forest Settlement Report, his right of Timber Distribution shall be suspended upto 10 years; and
(x) Timber Distribution Right of a Right Holder shall be suspended upto 10 years if he is found to have mis-utilized the Timber Distribution grant or committed any forest offence after he becomes eligible again for Timber Distribution.
Further the new policy states that the quantity of timber would be as:
(1)Timber Distribution shall be granted in converted form from the depots to be specified separately as per scale fixed below.—
(i) for construction of new house = 3 cubic meters; and
(ii) for maintenance = 1 cubic meter.
(2) Timber Distribution shall be given from salvage (fallen, dry standing), silviculturally available green trees in the order of preference.
The periodicity for grant of Timber Distribution to the Right Holders will be as under:
(i) for new construction once in life time or 30 years whichever is later;
(ii) for additions/alterations – once in 15 years; and
(iii) sufferers of natural calamities/fire sufferers: as per actual requirement as recommended by the Sub Divisional Officer (Civil) and after personal verification by the ACF/DFO concerned subject to the grant not exceeding the maximum limit prescribed under rule-4.
The basic flaw
The basic flaw with this policy is that the premise on which this has been drafted i.e., to check the misuse; would in fact be the biggest casualty, the mafia and the rich would gain the maximum from this policy. Why?
Because, firstly, the policy states, that timber would be provided at 30% of the actual cost. The actual cost has risen to almost 10,000 to 12000 times . A cubic meter of timber of cedrus deodara costs around Rs 60000. Which means that 3 cubic meter would be for Rs. 1,80,000. Now 30% of this amounts to Rs 54,000. Such a huge amount for a poor household is impossible . It needs to be reiterated that more than 80% of the total land holding in the state is either poor peasant of marginal farmer. And interestingly 80% of this population is dalit. Hence to expect such a section to avail this facility would be like building castles in air.
Secondly and shockingly the fact and point that takes us to the absolute alienation of the policy makers from the people of the state is their utter contempt to the reality existing at the ground level. The policy promises of providing timber through sliviculturally salvage trees. Whereas the reality is that most of the jungles have not been marked for silviculture and the salvage wood is not been extracted. Such people would loose their right for TD.
Thirdly the new policy does not provide TD from salvage trees from the forests where the traditional rights of the people existed or where the people dwelled. The people will have to get the timber from the Forest Corporation depots which are at either the Sub divisions or the Tehsil headquarter. Now a peasant who resides in a far flung area and has no access to road or even if he has will have to buy the TD from these depots and then carry it to their homes , which will highly accentuate the total cost at which the TD would cost to the original or genuine buyer.
Hence in such a situation there is a wider scope for the timber mafia, or the rich people who can easily intervene and can avail this timber from the poor peasant who will not be in a position to use this TD.
Make the TD policy rational
The need of the hour is to make this policy rational so that neither the ecology is affected nor the mafia gets the benefit out of it. It needs to be ensured that the poor people get it easily and at places where they reside , meaning forests that are adjoining to their villages. After all, the same villagers are asked to save the forests from the forest fires. The price of the TD has to be reduced to meet the demand of the common man. Neither should it be akin to the old policy where the prices varied from 25 paise to Rs 6 and so on nor should it be the prices of the present policy. Similarly the quantity and the period of TD distribution has to be amended so that it can meet the demands of construction and repair. Apart from the TD, the rights associated like the right to extract forest produce, bamboo for making baskets, agricultural implements , fodder, fuel wood also needs to be guaranteed.