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Tree-felling for greenery? Gujarat govt 'accepted' proposal; awaits implementation

By Rajiv Shah 
The other day, I went to Nadiad, a town in Central Gujarat, about 55 kilometres from Ahmedabad. For a change, I took an alternate route, which falls between two toll roads – the Expressway and the National Highway. What surprised me was, I saw truckloads of wooden logs moving to and fro on this state highway soon after I left Ahmedabad.
I was immediately reminded of a "tree enthusiast" I had met in 2007. Introduced by former chief secretary PK Laheri, who was then chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), Jayantibhai Lakdawala came to my Times of India office in Gandhinagar with a unique proposal, which, he said, he had put up before the Gujarat government to grow more trees.
And what was the proposal? Allow tree felling to grow more trees! It sounded strange, but his logic seemed interesting and new, hence I wrote a news story in the paper. He called the 50-year-old Saurashtra Tree Felling (Prohibition) Act “a black law”, urging the government, through a proposal he had forwarded to Laheri, to encourage timber cultivation by allowing tree felling. Himself a sawmill owner, Lakdawala, who told me he also ran a voluntary organisation, Taru, in Chandkheda, off Ahmedabad, insisted, “More timber for industry should be encouraged in order to increase the green cover.”
Pointing towards how forest and revenue departments had "discouraged" the timber industry, he said, the law prohibiting felling makes it obligatory for the farmer to get a mamlatdar’s permission before cutting down a tree for commercial use. The procedure further required the forest department’s nod. His proposal required land on either side of the Narmada canal be "used" for cultivating timber, and SSNNL should allow its commercial use through a contract. Laheri told me, Lakdawala is one of the few persons who have come up with "a fresh ideas".
Running a sawmill in Sejpur-Naroda, Lakdawala further told me, the greenery in Anand and Kheda districts (Nadiad is Kheda district’s headquarter) is due to the heavy concentration of saw mills there. “In 1970, there were 14 trees per hectare (ha). In 1980, this went up to 28, and today in Kheda, there are 48 trees per ha and 65 trees per ha in Anand,” he said, even as seeking a review on the ban on new sawmills, "imposed" after a Supreme Court order.
Recalling what all Lakdawala had told me in 2007, I decided to phone up this tree strange enthusiast in order to find out what had happened to his proposal. “It was taken positively, even a government resolution was issued in 2015 allowing commercial use of trees, but nothing has happened. I wanted the Gujarat government to encourage farmers to grow trees and allow them to cut them for commercial use. Chief minister Vijay Rupani personally called me and we had a discussion on the proposal, which he took positively”, he said.
“However”, regretted Lakdawala, “Things have failed to move thereafter. The policy is there, but it is not being implemented. The bureaucracy appears least interested. I forwarded a detailed project report to the Gujarat government on what all could be done after I signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) at the Vibrant Gujarat summit in January 2013.” Forwarded to me, the proposal, claimed to have been worked out with the help a Netherlands expert, Jan Erftemeijer, who apparently had the Netherlands government backing, said, two sides of expressways, national highways, state highways, district, urban and rural roads could be used to grow what he calls "woodcrop" on a public-private partnership (PPP) model.
Pointing out that this should be done on a “commercial basis”, the proposal said, the two sides of the network of rivers and canals having thousands of kilometers of land also remain "unused", and should therefore be "used" for woodcrop. To start with, as a model, the 95-km-long Ahmedabad-Vadodara Expressway should be used. Once the woodcrop matures, the trees should be allowed be cut and sold, and those on contract allowed to continuously regrow trees for commercial gain.
The Netherlands expert on visit to Gujarat
Claiming that the woodcrop concept was successful in Yamunanagar in Haryana, the proposal said, there was no woodcrop’ and wood based industry in the area, farmers took the initiative in 1990s, that too without official support. The surrounding areas green today. Presently, it is the basis of about Rs 10,000 crore worth annual turnover for timber industry. The situation, though on a smaller scale, is the same with regard to Kheda district of Gujarat, which provides an annual turnover of Rs 2,000 crore, Khagadia district of Bihar, and some areas of Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu.
Woodcrop increases the earning to the farmers by three to four times compared to the regular crop, the proposal contended. If the regular crop earns Rs 40,000-50,000 per acre per year woodcrop earnings would be Rs 1,50,000-1,75,000. This, he claimed, would lead to self-sufficiency in wood and our dependence on import of wood from other countries would reduce.
Seeking “initial government help” for Rs 200 per tree in order to grow about 2.4 lakh trees along the 95-km Ahmedabad-Vadodara expressway, the proposal, floated through Lakdawala’s NGO Taru, said that the NGO would “maintain the tree for the period of 10 years or up to the full grown woodcrop”, adding, the earnings from the trees would be shared between the National Highway Authority of India, which owns the expressway, and the NGO on a 70:30 ratio, while the farmers nearby roads would be “compensated to protect the trees.”
Lakdawala believes, his proposal is “more viable” than crores spent by the Gujarat government to grow more trees across the state every year. He told me, out of the total grown trees grown during its tree plantation drive by the state forest department, less than one per cent survive. His proposal added, government nurseries also provide plants, but unfortunately these plants are not converted into trees, which lead to huge wastage of government funds and human capital.
Here was a propal for woodcrop as an "alternative", he said, to grow, maintain, save, cut and regrow trees commercially. Government, NGOs, farmers and other agencies coulc be involved by "offering" extra earning, creating employment and other advantages, which will cut down the huge gap between demand and supply of wood. Would it work? That's the million dollar question, especially when forest department officials take the view that in the protected forests tribals have are "harming" tree plantations, while tribal activists insist, only by empowering tribals one can protect forests.

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