Fighting For The Forest : A Godavari Experience - P.Sivaramakrishna
|Fighting For The Forest : A Godavari Experience
|- LokayanBulletin, 5:6, 1987 Special issue on survival 1987|
|Often before we have carried articles that comment on the impact of our forestry policies and practices. All these studies have convincingly demanstrated that our ‘policy and practice mix’ is neither to the advantage of forests, nor to the forest dwellers Nevertheless, the common perception of forest-folk as the primary destroyers of forests remains.
We carry below a brief case study by Dr. P. Sivaramakrishna who is associated with a voluntary social action group, Sakti (Society for Action, Knowledge and Tribal Initiative) on what is happening to his field area in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. We can only hope for a stready multiplication of struggles and of such case studies documenting destruction and resistance. It is only this that can correct the distorted perceptions regarding who is responsible for the destruction of our forests and the continuing degradation of local and national eco-systems.
As a matter of policy, the Forest Departments in India have been systematically cutting down the natural forest in the reserved areas for pure commercial gains under supposedly scientific management of forests. This policy, by which the state (then the British) unilaterally declared itself the sole proprietor of the forests, made the tribals aliens on their own soil subject to various types of restrictions affecting their freedom of movement and livelihood. On the other hand, the commercial exploitation of the forests with large scale felling of trees has had disastrous results. Regrettably, the same policy is being continued by the Government of independent India much more unscrupulously reducing the forest cover from around 23% of the area at the time of independence to a precarious 11% today. The measly afforestation programmes have been by and large reduced to monoculture plantations of teak and eucalyptus.
In what follows, an attempt is made to present a grassroot case study of the field situation in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh and the efforts of the tribal people, with the aid of a voluntary organisation, struggling for survival to save the forests.
The reserved forest in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh covering the Eastern bank of the tail end of the Godavari river extends over 2,36,483 hectares which is 68% of the area declared as scheduled by the Government. 30% of the reserved ‘forest’ is only bearren land interspersed with 300 odd villages of tribals of which atleast fifty are definitely well within the reserved forests.
The state Government has leased out 25% of the reserved forest in he district (60,000 hectares) to a private forest based industry viz. the Godavari plywoods Ltd. (GPL) to obtain soft wood for a period of twenty years at a throw away price of Rs. 70 per cubic metre, where as the open market price of mango timber is around Rs. 1,500 per CMT. Mango trees comprise 80% of the timber consumed by this factory. According to the Forest Act of Andhra Pradesh, mango, whose fruits are a source of sustenance to the tribals and wild life, is a tree selected for protection, not for felling. It is therefore surprising as to how the factory has managed to get such a huge percentage of mango are under ‘selection felling’ which means only over-matured trees and dying trees are supposed to be cut, nothing of that bald patches of barren lands in place of thick tropical forests.
For instance, in the Arasad coupe, the GPL has felled mango trees right up to the river bank in one straight stretch. This makes for greater soil erosion and transpiro-evaporation. In this manner the GPL factory has cleared the forest coupes at Valumuru Satlavada, Kakuru, Eagavalasa, Pullangi, Kota and Puttakota. Due to the fellings, a pineapple plantation of tribals was destroyed in Arasada coupe. In the Eagavalsa coupe, several jackfruit trees raised of tended by tribals were lost.
The Andhra Pradesh Paper Mills Ltd. (APPL) is another huge forest consuming industry in the area located at Rajahmundry. 20% of the forest area under Rampachodavaram circle, about 45,985 hectares, has been leased out to the factory for extracting 20,000 tonnes of bamboo annually. This comes to 20% of the 1,00,000 tonnes of bamboo consumed by the factory annually. Within 28 years of its inception, the factory has exhausted the entire bamboo in the area allotted to it. For the last fifteen years, due to shortage of bamboo, the factory has been cutting down timber trees. The Government, not surprisingly, allows felling of these timber trees at a subsidised rate with no obligatory conditions on the factory to attempt regeneration of trees in the area cleared by it. Further, the ill-planned construction of a road by the A.P.P. Mills above the village Pulusugondi has resulted in a landslide under which 8 people died, two were disabled and 25 people survived after being buried neck deep for about 12 hours.
While this is the reality, these forest based industries and the Government project themselves as saviours trying to ‘develop, the area, utilising the on utilised and under-utilised forest wealth and providing employment opportunities to tribals. All sorts of concessions are extracted or provided generously by the Government to these industries being set up in ‘backward areas’ with soft lodans, tax concessions, forest produce as raw material at throw away prices, cheap electricity etc. It would be quite revealing to verify exactly how many tribals i.e. what proportion of the employees in what positions are really local tribals in these industries.
Another by-product of this development process, the construction of the Yeleru reservoir in the area for hydel power generation, has displaced several families belonging to Samantha and Khond tribes, apart from submerging valuable forest lands.
While this is the situation in areas declared as reserved forest, large tracts of forest land adjacent to the area or contiguous with the reserved forest have been allotted mostly to tribal people (as per law). This type of assigned land which is statutorily inalienable in so far as it cannot be owned or sold to a non-tribal, has been much abused. Access to these forests has been possible for non-tribal contractors by leasing the land directly or through some middlemen. But more blatant and illegal has been the issue of title deeds of such lands to non-tribals; 309 cases covering an extent of 1,492.72 hectares belonging to Y. Ramavaram, Maredumilli and Rampachodavaram mandals are pending before the Director of Settlements seeking cancellation of pattas. But these legal hurdles are easily circumvented by the contractors who continue to fell the forest trees in these lands by depositing the nomical regeneration charges with the department. For some inexplicable reason, while he Commissioner of Settlements cancelled the pattas issued to non-tribals in Perikavalasa, the same office upheld the validity of similar pattas at Chintalapudi. Similarly, mystery shrouds the other curcial question; Why are these virgin forests not declared reserved? The answer is very simple, the clique of corrupt officials, politicians and constractors operates smoothly for mutual benefit -- only to the detriment of the forests and the forest dwellers.
Governmental efforts at tackling these problems, in the above context, have therefore beem at best half-hearted and generally only decorative. Even the departmental felling of trees is for timber and is no different from the methods adopted by the private parties. The department completely demolishes the entire tree growth irrespective of terrain, gradient, slope, river bank and the type and age of the tree. That is whether it is a fruit bearing, or a shade giving, or a ‘reserved’ tree yielding minor forest produce such as tamarind and myrobolam etc. which are a source of income and livelihood for the tribals. Moreever, it burns entire areas for future plantations. These plantations are tardy programmes of monoculture plantations of mostly teak and encalyptus. Under the programme, the department could hardly cover 11,495 hectares (hardly 5% of the area) in the last 15 years. Even these, the department is unable to protect properly. For fear of theft and unscrupulous felling by contractors and poachers, the Sudikonda teak plantation was cut down prematurely.
As for the prevention of Jhum cultivation and settlement of nomedic tribals, an enterprising Colletor, Mr. Malyappan, got 1000 acres of prime forest land cleared near Aminabad to settle the tribals in plough cultivation. But the project was still-born with the transfer of the Collector and only barren land remains as a mute witness to his efforts.
The A.P. Girijan Co-operative Corporation is unable to ensure a reasonable price to protect the tribals from the clutches of unscrupulous traders and middlemen. The low price also fails to protect the minor forest produce variety from being felled by contractors. On the contrary, the Corporation has taken up coffen plantations confining the returns to a few individuals and once again repalacing forest lands by monoclulture plantations.
Having these examples of deforestation before them, one cannot blame the poor tribals who clear a patch of land for shifting cultivation. As Anil Agarwal aptly put it: "Today India’s tribals who have lived in harmony with the forests for centuries are to much alienated that they do not find any fault in felling a green-tree and sell ....it for a pitta.... Repeatedly we have been told by poor tribals that there is no point in saving the forest, because if they did not cut them first, the forest department or contractors would take them away. Teh desperate economic condition of the poor made worse by ecological destruction has left them with no other option but to cut the trees. Unless peoples allenation from their environment is arrested, there cannot be any proper conservation or forestation."
The major portion of earning of tribals these days is derived from the wage labour in plantations and other forest work. Though the Government announced a minimum wage of Rs. 16 for the area over the radio and the press, even two months later no notification was received. The tribal labourers under the leadership of the Ryothu Coolie Sangham of a Naxalite group went on strike and got their wages raised successfully from Rs. 13.75 to Rs. 15. The Government’s indifferent approach to the problems of the tribals is strikingly revealed in just one example: At a recent meeting of the Girijan Sankshema Parishad (Tribal Welfare Association) at the State Secretariat, steps to ensure payment of minimum wages to tribal labourers and improve their working conditions were conspicuous by their absence from the agenda.
In the face of such threats to their survival, the tribals have been raising their voices either directly as in 1974 when in Gujjamamidivalasa they protested to the Collector against the felling of mango trees which was then stopped, only to be resumed later. Tribal folk of Eagalavalasa also protested to the Government about the damage done to their jack fruit plantations in 1986. They have been organising under various Naxalite groups to fight for better wages. Sakti, a voluntary organisation dedicated to helping the tribals stand on their own, has been in the forefront of several battles, especially on the question of environment and survival. Under the leadership of Sakti the tribal people managed to obtain a stay against the Godavari Plywoods factory felling mango, jackfruit, jammon and ......fruit ..........are also moving the court for a further protection of minor forest pro........... the factory but also from the forest department. They are also demanding a thorough enquiry into the impact of indiscriminate felling of forests and the consequent ecological damage to the region, citing the havoc of landslides and deaths in the wake of unprecedented floods in the area in 1986.
A padayatra was organised by Sakti under the leadership of Sri Chandi Prasad Bhatt of Chipko to rouse the people to the ecological disaster fast enveloping them and also to publicise the seriousness of the problem to the world outside. Several rallies were held, including a gherao of the State Assembly speaker when he visited the area to draw the attention of the Government to their problems.
The struggle is not without its problems. The GPL tried to argue with the help of some misguided tribals that they, the tribals, do not consume/or are dependent on mangoes! Fortunately, the judge wassensible enough to see through the argument. The workers union of the factory started a propaganda that the High Court stay would mean a stoppage of raw material supply which would throw the workers on the streets. The local tribal MLA issued a statement saying that the tribals are not dependent on the mango fruits and they they are happy with the Rs. 2 per Kg. of rice scheme of the Government. But a tribal sarpanch of the area rubutted his charges publicity. Sakti improved its contacts with the workers and reminded them about the agreement their management had entered into with the Labour Commissioner not to close the factory on teh pretext of shortage of raw material. This helped tide over the confrontation with the workers.
Broadly speaking the movement supported by Sakti seeks the following objectives:
1. To strive for a total ban on commercial felling of trees in the four districts of
2. To bring the activities of contractors, forest based industries and the Forest
3. To assist the tribal people to protect themselves as well as regain their
4. To see that minimum wages and working conditions are properly implemented
5. To implement measures to save ecologically damaged landscape degaraded by
6. To draw the attention of the Government towards the problem of displacement
7. To see that the leadership of the tribal people is in their own hands.
8. To strive for an overall Forest policy which will seek to help the forest dwelling
With these broad aims in view, the activists of the area are inviting ecologists, environmentalists, civil rights activists and all those interested in the issue to join hands with them and save the tribals and forests of the Godavari region from disaster.