Tenurial Issues in Forestry in India
Dr. N.C. Saxena
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Colonial forest policy in India

At the beginning of the 19th century more than two-thirds of the land mass in India was lying uncultivated (Singh, 1986). As lands close to village habitations were enough to satisfy the subsistence needs of the people, forests remote from habitations were generally never over-exploited. Often these virgin forests were concentrated in infertile highlands, where lived India’s indigenous communities, called adivasis or tribals.

The British presence from the late 18th century onwards started making a difference to land and forest usage in India. Guided by commercial interests the British viewed forests as crown lands, limiting private property rights only to continuously cultivated lands. On forest lands, ‘human resource-use practices such as grazing, product collection, and temporary or rotational swidden farming were rejected as a basis for ownership, even when taxes were paid’ (Poffenberger and Mc Gean, 1996: 59). Often such forests were under community management, and their annexation by government alienated the people from their erstwhile common resources, leading to their overuse by the same people.

By the turn of the last century some 20 million hectares (m ha) of land was brought under a category of forests called Reserve Forests (Stebbing 1926). These were used exclusively for producing timber by the Forest Department (FD) and the surrounding villagers had no rights other than the ones explicitly permitted by the State. There was another category of Government forests - Protected Forests (PF) – that was also managed by the Forest Department, but the people had certain rights in them, such as gathering fruits and other produce of the trees, specifically for household use (but not for sale). At the time of country's independence in 1947 the areas under Reserve and Protected Forests were 31 and 15 m ha respectively. Since then the net area under the control of Forest Department has further increased to 67 m ha through several processes.

First, after the abolition of the princely states and landlordism, all uncultivated lands under their control became vested in the State. The larger tracts were handed over to the Forest Department generally as PF, and the rest were vested in the village panchayats which are under the overall supervision of the Revenue Department.

The second process of extending government control over forests was through acquisition of private forests. These laws were passed by the various state governments in the two decades following Independence. Massive felling of trees took place from these forests because of the fear that these forests would be nationalised, as indeed they were in the 1950's and 60's. For several years after this take-over an impression has continued in the villages that if trees are planted on private lands, not only would the trees belong to Government but land on which such plantation takes place would also revert to Government. Even as late as 1987 a SIDA team promoting farm forestry in South Bihar encountered tribals' fears that if they planted trees their lands would be taken away by the government (GOB, 1987). The fear is not baseless as the Bihar Private Forest Act and similar other enactment’s did precisely this in the past, by "nationalising" private trees.

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The three forms of land ownership

According to the nine-fold land classification, out of 304 million ha of land in India for which records are available, roughly 40 million ha. is considered totally unfit for vegetation as it is either under urban and other non-agricultural uses such as roads and rivers, or is under permanent snow, rocks and deserts. The break up of the rest 264 million ha. of land which is fit for vegetation is as follows.

Table 1: Land use in India in million hectares



ownership and degradation

Area under forests

67 (22.0)

Almost entirely owned by government, about 40% with canopy cover below 40%, 5 m ha considered encroached or under shifting cultivation

Cultivated area

142 (46.7)

Private ownership, about 100 m ha is rainfed, subject to water and wind erosion

Culturable waste + pastures + groves

38 (12.5)

Groves privately owned; others vested with government (Revenue Department) or village councils, is in the nature of open access and highly degraded, sometimes encroached.

Fallow land

17 (05.6)

Private ownership but degraded

(figures in parentheses show percentages)

Thus in addition to Forest department, there are two other forms of ownership of uncultivated lands with a total of 55 m ha; private as well as communal (also called village lands). Of these three forms of ownership, village lands are more degraded than lands that enjoy a clarity of tenure, such as Reserve Forests (these are generally remote from villages as compared to the other category, protected forests) or private lands. Village or communal lands have generally been a victim of the "tragedy of the commons" phenomenon where exploitation is by all, but no one considers himself responsible for maintenance. These lands were looked upon by the people as open access lands, where they were not expected to contribute to their management. Other factors have also contributed to a decline in the area of village commons and their denudation. There was pressure on them due to increase of population. The lands that were left out to provide the community needs of forest produce and for grazing were often assigned and brought under cultivation in due course. Often they were encroached upon by the village elite (Brara 1987; Jodha 1989) and others, and later the encroachments were regularised. A laissez faire policy was followed by the government with respect to these lands. There was neither any fund allocation for them, nor was any specific government department made responsible for grasses and pasture development. As these lands could not meet peoples' needs biotic pressure on forests increased, leading to degradation of forests too.

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Problems of managing government forests

Government forests are a source of sustenance to 100 million forest dwellers as they provide NTFPs, fuelwood and fodder. Over the past three decades forest degradation but not deforestation has been the main problem in India, contributing to both aggravation of environmental deterioration as well as declining livelihood options for its rural poor. Out of 67 m ha under the control of forest Department, area with a crown cover of more than 40% has remained constant at 38 m ha in the last 15 years, although it used to be 46 m ha in the early seventies. The main controversy in India has been not ownership of forests, but its objective and management. Should forests be used for subsistence or for industrial exploitation, and what should be the form of people’s participation in its management? Whereas policies in India up to 1988 emphasized the use of forests for industry and urban users, the current policy in vogue since 1988 gives primacy to environmental functions of forests, and satisfying the subsistence needs of the forest dwellers. Thus forest projects today are seen to perform an important poverty alleviation function, and are often funded from budgets meant for rural development.

The case for public management of forests is hinged on a number of factors (Commander 1986: 9). Firstly, forest management is associated with a wide range of externalities, as these provide external benefits to the rest of the ecosystem. Secondly, FD operatives have often argued that management of forests requires a level of professional training and scientific competence that lies outside the capacities of peasants and forest users (Shyam Sundar and Parameswarappa 1987). Thirdly, the time horizons for forest management would favour public ownership and public investment. And lastly, it will allow for major economies of scale and a longer-term planning framework.

The strong case for exclusive government management gets diluted because government today is not in a position today to enforce its property rights. Forests are subject to intense pressure from human beings, livestock and urban markets. Over-exploitation by the people which has increased in the last three decades, is caused by several factors. First, increasing marginalisation of small landowners has forced them to seek new avenues of income, like head-loading. Second, as village commons deteriorated, villagers turned to government forests for succour. And third, government policies of raising commercial plantations further alienated the people from the resource. More than the official revenues which such policies brought to the government exchequer, it nurtured a new culture of rent seeking by those in power. The indiscriminate tree felling by the contractor-official-politician nexus has had a corrupting influence on the forest dwellers, who also wish to make hay while the sun shines.

Given the ease of access to forests, indiscipline and socio-political culture it has been impossible, in practical terms, for the Forest Department to enforce its property rights. Thus exclusive state control for commercial exploitation led to alienation and these lands, especially protected forests, became open access, although state control was designed to prevent this.

These weaknesses in the enforcement of access to government property have led to forests being over-exploited both by the industry and the people. They have no stake in its health, their decisions are guided in terms of current income flows rather than capturing of delayed returns arising out of protection and long-term management.

There is enough evidence from around the world that sustainable production demands extraction only by those with secure and long-term tenure, both defacto and dejure. Where users have independent rights to the use of the forest resource, no user can control the activities of other users, and there is no organisation to enforce discipline, unrestricted exploitation is bound to result in degradation of the resource. This will be particularly true when demand increases because of high price in the terminal markets.

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Leasing of forests to industry

If state control over forests is inefficient, it could be argued that a radically different approach to the system of property rights itself is needed. The conventional wisdom in much of economics favours the establishment of well-defined private property rights in resources. Such rights are clearly specified, exclusive and secure (Mc Kean and Ostrom 1995) and therefore reduce uncertainty in interaction and induce individuals to internalise externalities. The World Bank too has often recommended greater role for industries in management of government forests in India. However, there are practical difficulties discussed below.

The paper and pulp industry in India has been demanding degraded forest lands on lease for meeting their raw material needs. The concept prima facie is quite appealing; government has degraded lands but lacks funds, industry has both capital and technology, and hence best suited to afforest degraded lands. In the process the poor get jobs. So why should one object?

Non-forest barren lands – One would support the involvement of industry in reclamation of non-forest wastelands, such as desert lands of Rajasthan, Bhal lands of Gujarat, ravines of M.P. and saline lands of U.P. The total area of such lands is estimated as 20 million hectares. In fact several state governments had in the past offered on lease such non-forest degraded lands, but industry showed no interest. The state laws relating to land ceiling in Rajasthan and Gujarat are liberal enough to grant exemption on such leases from Ceiling limits. Despite the initial high cost of reclamation these lands have the advantage of being available in contiguous patches and hence amenable to economies of scale. Besides, these degraded lands do not support the livelihood needs of the poor, and therefore handing them over to industry does not exacerbate social tensions.

Degraded forests - The situation would be entirely different if degraded forests are leased to industry. Industry has argued that it would make 'unproductive' lands productive through captive plantations. However, if productivity is defined in terms of subsistence value, such forests are a vital source of living for the poor. Such lands may have a low tree density, but satisfy the fuelwood, fodder and livelihood needs of about 100 million poeple. In fact, these lands are degraded because they suffer from extreme biotic pressure, and require neither capital investment, nor higher technology, but protection and recuperation, which can be done only by working with the people, where industry has neither expertise nor patience. The West Bengal experience shows that about 2000 peoples' forest protection committees have regenerated more than 300,000 hectares of sal forests at little extra investment, simply by protection on the promise of sharing wood and non-wood products with them. If lands on which peoples' livelihoods are dependent are given to industry, they may have to employ muscle power to keep people at bay, thus escalating social tensions, which are already quite acute in several forest and park areas.

Even within the industrial sector, paper and other large industries consume just a fraction of forest products. 90 percent of forest raw material is processed by 25,000 saw mills and a larger number of cottage units, who would also lay claims on forests, once the paper mills are able to snatch concessions from government. Besides there would be claims from coffee, cashew and palm plantation industries. Like paper industry they will raise short-term and quick growing species in place of multi-layer mixed forests obtained through regeneration. Its ecological implications need to be taken into consideration. Using forests for growing raw material for industry will be setting the clock back to the 1960s, showing that we learnt nothing from the mistakes of the past 30 years of trying to create man-made forests, which were ecological disasters, besides completely alienating the people and leading to faster degradation.

According to industry's own admission, their requirement can easily be met from 2 million ha of degraded land. As against this there is 141 m ha of cultivated land and 35 m ha of farmer owned uncultivated wasteland. These lands have the potential of producing pulpwood, especially in view of the fact that both eucalyptus and bamboo are short rotation crops and eminently suitable for the farm sector. In fact the bogey of raw material crunch is no longer valid, given the vast expansion in farm forestry programme. There is a surplus of eucalyptus wood today, as is evident by the sharp fall in eucalyptus prices all over the country, well documented in the World Bank reports on forestry in India. The problem is locational; industries got established close to government forests, where as raw material is available in green revolution areas. A practical solution would be to split the processing units; to establish a new pulp making plant close to farm forestry areas, and transport pulp to the paper mill. If pulp can be imported from as far as Canada, surely it can be moved from Punjab or Haryana, where a pulp producing mill can be located, to Central and eastern India, where paper mills are located.

If industry produces its own raw material, who would farmers sell to? Where is their market, if not industry? 60 percent of farm land is owned by rich and affluent farmers, who are market oriented, and can be trusted to fulfil the requirements of industry. They are even prepared to produce teak wood, if government removes restrictions on the felling of teak trees from private lands and on its movement. Since the overall demand of the industry is limited, and if allowed to be met by leasing it would adversely affect the farm forestry programme, which is one of the cheapest and most sustainable method of producing wood.

The prosperity of the Indian farmers is the very basis for the prosperity of the country. The farmers are at a very great disadvantage as their crops are susceptible to great fluctuations in market prices, perishability of commodities and consequent urgency to dispose of the produce, adverse climatic conditions as well as pests and diseases. The only crop that is not susceptible to these adversities is tree farming, which can be taken up either in place of crops or along with them. Leasing of degraded forests to industries would deprive the farmers of even that opportunity of taking up tree farming.

Thus the claim of the industry that it would create additionality of production is not true, as any afforestation by them will be at the cost of tree planting efforts by farmers on privately owned degraded lands, tubewell enclosures, and homesteads, where the social cost of production is minimal, as these lands are of no use for cultivation. Thus the argument that farm forestry would compromise food security is irrelevant, in the face of empirical historical evidence of significant tree plantation by farmers on lands which were not suitable for agriculture. Farmers exploit their own family labour (which is unpaid), and therefore can produce wood cheaper than industry. Farmers harvest their trees during the lean agricultural season and thus are able to achieve further saving in costs by spreading family labour inputs more evenly throughout the year. In fact the government policy of subsidising bamboo production on forest lands for supplies to industry acts as a deterrent to cheaper production on homesteads. The present proposal of the industry means getting land almost free of capital cost, thus involving subsidy worth several thousand crores. In the light of new liberalisation policies of the government, such subsidies on non-merit goods are highly undesirable.

The proposal of the industry to allow them to use government forests for industrial plantations is thus against two groups of people; thousands of farmers who would be deprived of a market for agroforestry, and millions of voiceless forest dwellers who would be denied access to NTFPs and other biomass that they gather.

The introduction of Panchayat Act in tribal areas, where most forests are located, will render leases to industries of forest lands illegal and unconstitutional, as the spirit of the Act is in favour of local ownership and control over natural resources in Schedule V areas. In any case, involving industry in afforestation of government forests is against the Forest Conservation Act and the Forest Policy, both on grounds of management and species choice. Even Forest Department is prohibited from doing plantations of cashew or rubber on forest lands, how can then private industry be allowed to raise monocultural plantations?

The representatives from the industry have clarified that they require forest lands with at least 1 metre soil depth. Such fertile lands, even when not having much tree cover, would regenerate on their own without much cost. Thus regeneration woud be a cheaper economic option than plantations. Besides, the industry has no credible plan to resolve the demands that local communities have over such lands. As such, any leasing of forest land is likely to result in hardships and oppression for the local communities who have historically depended on such lands for meeting their basic needs.

It is now being proposed by some that the management of degraded lands should remain with government corporations but private companies may invest their money in the plantations. If government banks have not found the activities of these corporations worthy of investment, why would private companies do so? Forestry being a long gestation activity, it requires stable tenure. If land, management, and source of funds is going to be with three different parties; government, FDCs, and private industry respectively, the risk for the investor is very high, unless there is unwritten and unstated understanding between the parties.

Lastly, degraded forest lands with crown density of 25 and 40 per cent are not likely to be available in contiguous patches, as these are likely to be interspersed with better quality forests.

Therefore industry should be asked to establish links with farmers who will produce raw material if given a remunerative price, in ways similar to the linking of poplar growing farmers with a match factory in north U.P. This experiment shows that, with technological back-up, timber size trees suitable for sawing can be raised on farm lands within eight years. In fact, due to farmers' enthusiasm for growing poplar its enhanced supplies have led to the establishment of several plywood factories in that area, thus providing considerable downstream employment. It is a myth that industry cannot deal with farmers directly. For several crops like sugarcane, potato, rice, cotton etc. industry has been in touch with farmers for decades.

The industry has sometimes argued that they are interested not in degraded forests on which the poor depend but only in barren forests (approx. area 6 m ha, density less than 10%). If that is so, why don’t they show interest in revenue wastelands which are available in many states? In any case the industry is interested only in lands with sufficient soil depth of at least one metre. Paper industry has to be internationally competitive which would need raising plantation on good quality lands available in one patch. Such lands would necessarily be good quality forest lands away from habitations, or farm lands and homesteads. If industry is not to get good quality forests, they have no other alternative but to establish links with farmers.

In the ultimate analysis the question to be asked is, whether the claim of the industry over forest lands is based on transparency and sound economic rationale, or is it a seductive myth and a ploy to grab the best quality forests?

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Should leasing of forests to the poor be encouraged?

Can privatisation in favour of the rural poor be an answer to the problem of externalities? Although, as the experience of Group Farm Forestry in West Bengal shows, given good extension and proper technology, creating private tenure can lead to successful tree plantation in some cases, such schemes on a large scale, even in favour of the poor, have several limitations.

First, a great deal of private land, often with the poor, is already uncultivated in India, but may be suitable for trees. In semi-arid regions a substantial proportion of private land is either lying fallow or yields very low output. The total area of degraded private land including fallows is estimated at 35 m ha, which is comparable with the area of degraded forest lands (Chambers et al. 1989). Clearly the first priority should be to address impediments to reforesting of this land. Hence there is no case for further privatisation, unless suitable technological and institutional arrangements are put into operation to bring this huge chunk of degraded private land under trees or agroforestry. Second, privatization may encourage the poor to plant short-term exotics, or use land for agriculture. Both forms of land-use for degraded lands are environmentally not desirable. The limited market demand is another constraint, amply demonstrated by the phenomenon of eucalyptus glut in north and west India. What is appropriate is to put degraded public lands under grasses, shrubs, bushes, or slow growing multipurpose trees, which, although yielding only low-value output, are environmentally more sustainable. This option, however, does not bring good returns commensurate with the individual efforts put in, hence the poor are unlikely to use leased lands for shrubs and bushes only.

Third, the number of the poor families is very large, and privatising in favour of some, while ignoring others, is likely to result in social tensions. Fourth, villagers have rights of collection on most of degraded forest lands, and privatisation would be against the existing settlement laws, and will be opposed by other villages, having usufructuary rights in the concerned forest land. Fifth, forest management has considerable potential for scale economies and, given the ecology of most Indian forests, the area required for satisfactory working is relatively large (Commander 1986).

Sixth, the agricultural economy of the uplands is heavily dependent on the forests for its energy supplies in the form of fuelwood, fodder for livestock, and ultimately soil fertility in the form of leaf litter and animal manure. Each hectare of cultivated land requires sufficient uncultivated vegetated area for these needs. In Sukhomajri programs of afforestation, soil conservation, irrigation water from the community tanks, etc. could be sustained because these improved the productivity of private assets, land and cattle (Chopra et al. 1989). Privatization of public lands may not be conducive to fulfilling the complementary role between PPR and CPR, so essential in upland economies.

Seventh, several watershed areas are a part of such lands, which require comprehensive integrated land-use planning. Creating private rights may delay the implementation of such a plan, as securing willingness of landowners is time consuming. Eighth, the Tree Patta Scheme, as was formulated by the Government of India in the mid-1980's, distinguishes between tree tenure and land tenure; that is, the beneficiaries have no rights on land, their rights are confined to the usufruct of trees. Such a distinction, which exists in some African countries, is totally alien to the Indian culture. People are not used to this concept, as according to the land systems in India trees are considered as ‘fixtures’, permanently affixed to land and hence belong to the owner of the land. The new concept therefore acts as a psychological barrier and inhibits people's participation as individuals on government forests.

Ninth, the experience of some of the NGOs like Sewa Mandir in Rajasthan shows that they were more successful when they undertook afforestation of public lands, rather than of private lands. This is because the constraints in semi-arid monocropped areas are such that individual approach is less likely to succeed than working with groups. It increases cost of protection for two reasons; first, mono-cropped areas have long fallow periods and therefore an individual's decision to plant perennial crops would entail higher protection efforts, and secondly, degraded lands are far from habitation which are difficult to protect without group consensus.

A similar observation has been made by Ostrom (1992) for rangelands as she argues that privatizing rangeland will require each herder to invest in fences and their maintenance, as well as in monitoring and sanctioning activities to enforce their division of the grazing area. If productivity of land varies a great deal from point to point or if rainfall occurs erratically, herders will not be self-sufficient, they will have to approach markets or seek insurance. Both increase costs which could have been avoided if the resource was managed jointly. Joint management therefore exists because it is more efficient than division, fencing and protection.

And last, most forest lands are in tribal areas, where market penetration is weak, and the population per village is not high, and hence working with groups does not raise the kind of problems encountered in the handing over of social forestry plantations on non-forest public lands to the panchayats, where penetration of markets and large size of villages have eroded the cohesive nature of village society.

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Dr. N.C. Saxena Former Secretary, Planning Commision