Monday, September 19, 2011

Cover Story: Forest Department: Trapped in a Labyrinth


Cover story

Forest Department: Trapped in a Labyrinth

Inspite of having a coastline of 2094 kilometres and forest cover of 86%, it is a shame that sand and sawn timber is imported into the Islands from outside - a direct result of the mess that the department had turned the Andaman forest into. Apparently with no way out of the logjam!

By Zubair Ahmed

In the last 128 years of its existence, the operations of forest department have not seen such nepotism and inefficiency that exists today, at all levels. With the Supreme Court order of 2002, the department lost all the powers save those exercised with the approval of the apex court.  The sudden and unexpected paradigm shift in objective of the department from extraction forestry to conservation forestry caught them unaware without proper orientation and training. The extractors of forest resources had to turn into protectors overnight.  A large chunk of its officers as well as employees could not re-orient themselves as per the requirement of the Apex court and continued with their confused attitude, which resulted in the preparation of an inept working plan which has caused irreversible damage.

The Islanders, who always believed that the department would supply them the required timber for their bonafide domestic use is disillusioned today. They are genuine and their demands too. It's very difficult explaining them the nitty-gritty of the Supreme Court Order, which has been used as a scarecrow by the department to hide their deficiencies. Without proper demand assessment, it's very difficult to ascertain the actual requirement of sawn timber for local consumption. There was a huge demand of 16000 cum of sawn timber a couple of years back and the department could only meet about 3000 cum annually.
Speaking to LOA, a senior officer on anonymity shared his views about the inept Working Plan, prepared based on cut-and-paste data from previous unverified and fabricated records.  The department as we believe does not have the mandate to supply timber as per local demand. Its purely the by product of conservation that we are getting as timber from the government run saw mills - that too after a long struggle.  The laws for extraction are very stringent. The gap between demand and supply has increased manifold. The working plan, based on Natural Profile Analysis (NPA) of the trees is not meant for extraction, but conservation.
The demand is for Category I Ornamental wood - Padauk, Chooi, Marble Wood, Satin Wood and Category II superior hardwood - Pema, Black Chuglam, Tingum, Taum Piung and Coco, which is just 35% of the natural composition of the forests in the Islands. More than 50% of the composition is Gurjan, not preferred by the consumers. However, extraction has to be done based on the Natural Profile Analysis to maintain the composition. The NPA is not proportional to demand. The main objective of this exercise is to restore the indigenous composition.
More than 600 indent forms for timber is lying at Chatham mill waiting clearance due to various reasons. There is a stock of 2000 cum of sawn timber stacked in Chatham saw mill, worth Rs 4 crores, waiting emancipation. The reasons are obvious - Nobody wants gurjan, a standard hardwood that too treated at an extra cost, which has no takers. Out of 2000 cum of sawn timber, 700 cum is gurjan, lying at Chatham yard. However, M Raj Kumar, DCF, Chatham Saw Mill told LOA that last year, he could dispose about 1010 applications out of 1361.

Raj Kumar told LOA that it's very difficult to identify bonafide buyers from commercial units. With indent, applicants submit land papers (patta). However, it is difficult to identify whether the land documents are misused by the SSI units. "We are still awaiting a software based solution to this problem," said Rajkumar.  The problem lies with this identification process too. Why can't the applicant submit the indent with respective Divisional Forest Officers and ground staffs of the division inspect the site of construction, verify it and forward it to the mill for supply of sawn timber? It can rule out the role of intermediaries and touts permanently stationed at the mill.
There are about 109 wood-based SSI units in the Islands, who require wood for commercial purposes too. But, the demand of the Islanders for construction purposes should get priority and preference.
Reeling under the pressure of mounting prices of construction materials including locally available timber, sand and quarry products, life in the Islands have become excruciating and unbearable. The Department needs to look into these issues before finalising next working plan for the period of 2013-2023. A realistic and pragmatic working plan will only save the Islands and Islanders and also put stop to the illegal poaching of forest resources.

Top Heavy: Generals without Soldiers

By Zubair Ahmed

The Chief Secretary, A&N Administration presides over under a dozen IAS officers, the Director General of Police, under half-a-dozen IPS officers. But the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest presides over an army of IFS officers -over 20. He has another PCCF (Wildlife) under him, 5 Chief Conservators of Forests, 4 Conservators of Forests and more than a dozen Deputy Conservators of Forests out of whom 7 are executive DCFs manning divisions outside Port Blair. Rest all the officers are posted in Port Blair.
 The A&N Forest Department has apparently, turned into a parking bay of IFS officers for the MOEF. Major allocation of the department goes into maintaining the army of officers, their personal staff, fleet of cars and additional transport, amenities and facilities that must match their standard. No commensurate output is visible to the taxpayers. Hardly, a few of the top officers are acquainted with the forest conditions of the Islands. In fact their lack of knowledge reflects in the policies they formulate for the Islands.

Working Plan for South Andaman:
A Skewed Document

By Zubair Ahmed

After the SC Order of 2002, the first working plan was prepared haphazardly within a year. By 2003, a plan was contrived using available data - verified as well as unverified. Senior officials accept that the working plan is flawed in various aspects. The felling series and coupes delineated in the plan contradicted with the ground reality.
As per the WP of South Andaman, 30 coupes(area demarcated for extraction of timber) of 260 ha each distributed in three Felling Series were geographically identified and delineated in South Andaman. Unfortunately, on the ground, there were coupes where the composition contradicted with the working plan due to cut-copy-paste.
The working in the coupes are purely based on Natural Profile Analysis and not based on demand assessment. The Working Plan clearly mentions that biodiversity considerations rather than the demand or commercial value of the timber is of paramount importance for selection of species for felling. The result is seen on the ground. It is very hard to convince a common Islander that there is no sufficient timber to fulfill his bona fide requirements as per the WP. However, it is a fact that the general public gets his wood requirement through illegal means. And, certainly, there is a disguised approval too for illegal extraction. Or, why is the compounded penalty just Rs 50/- in such offences, which is not detrimental? The present Working Plan ends in 2013 and new WP is on the anvil. At least, if the department is serious about overcoming its shortcomings, a realistic and pragmatic plan should be prepared.

Govt Saw Mills vs Private Mills:
Victim of Discrimination

By Zubair Ahmed

The government owns two saw mills - Chatham and Betapur. Both the mills face severe indifference and discrimination with the onset of private mills, which are showered with favoritism by the top echelons of the department.
The Chatham Sawmill that claimed the distinction of being the second largest sawmill of Asia; one that used to export sawn timber to foreign countries apart from Indian mainland, has now been reduced to the status of a suburban enterprise with very little to meet the demand of the islanders, let alone export. Betapur Saw Mill, which remained closed for a long period is now operational, but with very low and insignificant output.

Based on the Supreme Court Order of 2002, licenses of all private saw mills and wood-based industries were cancelled. After a long legal pursuit, five makeshift units (MSU) were given permission to operate under strict observance of Forest Department. The private MSUs too serve the interests of the general public, but enjoy an edge over the government saw mills.
It is learnt from very reliable forest officials that S S Chowdhary, PCCF is the only officer, who is acquainted with and understands Island forests like back of his palm also knows how and where to place subservient officers at strategic ranges.  And, they serve his purpose too by diverting high quality and standard logs from their divisions to private mills and deteriorated and sub-standard timber to government mills.
The Apex Court had also mentioned in its order that all timber, bamboo and cane used for construction and requiring treatment in order to extend its durability and life should be treated and the administration should ensure that requisite capacity to treat all such timber is in position within sic months of the order. Gurjan, a fast deteriorating timber needs treatment and the order is fully complied with by government mills. The cost of the treated timber is approximately Rs 4000/- more than untreated timber. Not a single private mill has Sawn Timber Treatment Plants (STTP). And, they are selling untreated gurjan in connivance with the top brass getting an edge over the government mills.

Once Upon a Time...

Shorn of its past power and glory, the top heavy department of environment & forest has failed miserably to serve the interests of those who depended on its vast empire; the people of the islands, the flora & fauna and the forest wealth itself.

By Zubair Ahmed

There was a time when the name and fame of forest department had reached the Buckingham Palace, it was the largest supplier of sleepers for the Indian Railways, its export was unmatched and it was the only revenue earning department of the Island Territory both in pre and post independence period. In its golden era it was the most prosperous and resourceful department. It was largest employer, owned the largest fleet of ships and boats of various sizes. It had tractors, elephants and other tools and equipments engaged in lumbering activities in scores of camps spread across the Andaman Islands from north to south.

 Till the 60s all the lumbering activities from forest to sawmill and then export was undertaken by the departmental labour following the strict norms set in place by the erstwhile British officers. Conservation and protection of flora & fauna was accorded the same high priority as the commerce and profit earning. Forest officers were seen more in the camps and divisional headquarters than in Port Blair. Just four IFS officers controlled and supervised the entire department; one Chief Conservator of Forests and three Divisional Forest Officers - one each in Wimberleyganj, Long Island and Mayabunder.  
 With the advent of plywood industries, the profit motive of the industry coupled with the greed of the officers put paid to caution, conservation and preservation. Large Coupes were allotted to the industries that were plundered with aplomb. The worked coupe areas turned into degenerated forest that never recovered. Protests and agitations by the concerned people and agencies fell on deaf ears.
 The tradition of strict work regimen was given a go by. Personal agenda of officers and senior subordinates replaced loyalty towards the department. The production started dwindling. The graph dipped into red. But the number of officers started increasing; more conservators joined, posts were upgraded. More officers started manning the PCCF secretariat rather than working in the field.
 The Kolkata and Chennai depots became a liability. It worked as liaison offices for the comfort of senior officers rather than a functional unit.
 All the norms of extraction and exploitation were thrown into the wind. But times were changing. The level of awareness was rising and people understood their power to assert. The last nail in the coffin of forest department was driven by the Supreme Court order of 2002 whereby the department lost all the powers save those exercised with the approval of the apex court. It was a simple case of destruction of forest wealth by Andaman & Nicobar Forest & Plantation Corporation Ltd in the tribal area of Little Andaman. The department tried to hoodwink the court with extraneous arguments that forced the hands of the court to review the entire lumbering activities vis-à-vis the status of forest. The arguments resulted in the apex court passing an omnibus order with far reaching consequences both for the islanders and the department. That hardly any part of the court order was implemented in letter & spirit is a different matter. The activities of the department have shrunk drastically but the number of officers keeps on increasing with every passing year.

Gurjan: Problem of Plenty

Six different species of Gurjan occupies 50% to 60% of the natural composition of Island forest territory. All other species including superior hardwood, ornamental hardwood and softwood comprises just 40% of the natural profile. This species was in high demand when plywood industries thrived here. This standard hardwood is not preferred for furniture, doors and windows.
But as per its composition, this species are felled more than any other species after the National Profile Analysis (NPA). This timber remains dumped everywhere - at lumbering sites, roadsides and even in mills. A huge quantity of sawn gurjan is lying in Chatham Saw Mill yard without takers.
Gurjan needs treatment for durability and it's obligatory to treat it before sale as per the Apex court order of 2002. It has become a windfall for many at Sawn Timber Treatment Plant (STTP) at Chatham. Whether the timber is in demand or not, it gets chemically treated, which makes it expensive by Rs 3000/- to 4000/-. Treated sawn timber lies stacked unused and unsold in the yards. The nexus of chemical business too thrives due to this problem of plenty. Moreover, private mills sell untreated Gurjan, which is sold cheaper. Sawn gurjan is used by the construction industry for centering and shuttering.

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