Forests constitute one-third of the area of the state of Odisha. These are totally under the ownership and exclusive care of the Government. Today the Forests are in dire need of proper upkeep and adequate policing. Most of the resources, sadly, have fallen victim to the prevailing open access to a “soft territory” where sometimes even extremists hide and operate, poachers run and wildlife is on the run for life. The huge asset that was much better managed in the past bears now tell-tale signs of mismanagement. Government apathy persists.
At the cost of repetition, it needs to be said again that a dense forest has always been an effective defence against rapid precipitation runoff. It lets the runoff with a slow and enriching pace allowing adequate time for maximum percolation—a process that augmented subsoil water availability. Wells in the neighbourhood never dried up. In Kalahandi, Paddy, heavily dependent on water, used to be grown twice a year in rain-fed situations. The dense forest helped in carbon sequestration. Fast deforestation led to rapid and substantial erosion of soil leading to the emergence of rock outcrops. A region once rich in biodiversity and hosted life in abundance became a desolate land of rocks and misery.
Not long ago, Odisha’s Forests used to yield good revenue. The situation changed fast and the thieves axed most of the valuable timber trees. The government no more seems interested in selling enough valuable timber of mature trees which it harvested after years of best silvicultural practice. The increasing illegal felling of trees has not been checkmated by active enforcement and strong punitive measures. A few criminal cases are registered against culprits. These are not deterrents enough. The sector is managed by officers of an All India Service most of whom are brilliant minds. Given the required political support and adequate infrastructure support, they could surely make the Odisha Forest domain return to its hoary days.
Total forest area of Odisha is hugely big-- 52.156 sq km –33.5% of the total geographical area of the state. Forests over 7,213 sq km are considered very dense with a tree density of 70% and above and over 20,995 sq km are moderately dense forests with 40-70% crown density. 23,948 sq km of forest lands are open forests. Among India’s states, Arunachal has the largest area under dense forests (21,058 sq km) followed by Maharashtra (8,734 sq km) and Odisha (7,213 sq km). The country has over 3 lakh sq km of moderately dense forests with most of it in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal, Odisha, Karnataka, and Maharashtra. Odisha’s nearly 24,000 sq km of open or degraded forest, however, is the second largest in the country—next to Madhya Pradesh with 36,619 sq km and above Maharashtra with 21,475 sq km of degraded forests.
Odisha, by 30/9/2021 has allotted 6.64 lakh acres of forest lands to 4.49 lakh forest dwellers and another 3.06 lakh acres towards 7,065 community claims. Community allocation has been high in Chhattisgarh (47.79 lakh acres), Maharashtra (27.37 lakh acres), Madhya Pradesh (14.65 lakh acres ), and Gujarat ( 11.66 lakh acres). Such large-scale and scattered human settlements have compromised the forest homogeneity and affected the safety of trees, minor forest produce, and wild animals. Forest dwellers perhaps would find it more congenial in a planned settlement on the fringes of the forest where they would even function as effective protectors of the forests. A suitable legislation to ensure this seems to be the need of the hour.
Over the years, the Forest management approach has changed-- from productive forestry to environment forestry that encompasses issues relating to global warming, biodiversity conservation, water conservation, carbon sequestration, livelihood, and ecotourism. This shift however has brought in a lot of pain and thrown up many issues relating to a healthy and remunerative forestry sector to the forefront. Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and Forest Rights Act, 2006 have been landmark central legislations in the management of our Forest resources. These, however, may not be the last legislative intervention. There should be new interventions.
Odisha’s foresters now seem overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems of large-scale illicit felling, smuggling of forest produce, poaching of wild animals, encroachment of forest land, shifting cultivation, and wide-scale forest fire. The persisting attitude of indifference of the state government is worrisome. The sector suffers from chronic shortage of manpower, modern equipment, firearms, and greater access to technology. The state having a credible and effective Forest Force is a far cry. Booking of forest and wildlife cases keeps becoming fewer due to shortage of staff. There is a need for amending the Odisha Forest Act along the lines of the Odisha Prevention of Land Encroachment Act and provide for summary eviction of encroachers from forest land and imposition of fine. Units of Armed Police raised out of funds of the Forest Department are reportedly not available to the Forest Department field staff when they need them. This issue needs to be sorted out and forest staff should not be handicapped in due discharge of their functions for this reason.
Timber sourced from forests or plantations managed through sound silvicultural principles is the preferred choice in the construction of houses and buildings and in a developing economy, Rosewood, Teak, and Mahogany are always in demand. Odisha must take up the plantation of such species in at least 5% of the forest area at suitable areas and make the plantations a success by adopting the best silvicultural practices. Our Foresters are capable and they must be enabled to make it happen. It is also highly desirable that we do not keep ignoring the average productivity of our forests. As a former top Forest official has said, “Aim for the present should be to achieve the productivity of five cu m per hectare in half of the forests.” This norm should be accepted by the government and the baby step towards accountability needs to be taken. This would set our forestry sector in a productive mode reversing the ongoing process of steady decline.
In the mid-seventies I had personal experience working in the sector of procurement and marketing of minor forest produce. The varieties and the extent of the resources were awe-inspiring. One could procure any quantity of Rawalfia Serpentina roots. The organisation I headed had, as a lessee of the Government, procured a hundred quintals and an experienced trader from north India could not believe we could have such a huge inventory. Not only gums, myrabolans, tassar cocoons, kusumi lac, nux vomica. hillbrooms; tamarind and nonedible oilseeds too were available in plenty. It is a matter of concern that we have thrown open these sources for unregulated exploitation. There seems a case for revisiting the issue.
Odisha’s Forests and mangroves still host good wildlife and rich biodiversity that includes 27% species of mammals, 40% species of Birds, 22% species of reptiles, 7% species of amphibians, and 24% species of fishes reported from the Indian subcontinent. Odisha, however, has been a poor performer in the Project Tiger programme. Tigers are fewer in the state while the Tiger population in India has been increasing. Another major concern has been the huge number of killings of Elephants. In the last decade, annual deaths have ranged from 54 to 93. Elephants in the wild are today facing an existential crisis in the state and some migrations to Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, and Andhra-Telangana have been noticed. Deaths have been caused due to poaching, electrocution, retaliatory killing and train-hit. Loss and fragmentation of habitats and loss of Bamboo have accentuated the problem. The government has yet to come up with credible policy interventions to save both tigers and elephants.
In an ideal situation, there should be a close bonding between people and Forest and wildlife. Prevailing relations, however, seem adversarial. This needs to change. Foresters have a large role to play. They must ensure Butterfly Parks in the state at many places of the state, on the fringes of rich forests. People living on the forest borders should be provided with thousands of Bee Boxes and Apiary needs to be taken up on a huge scale. Foresters need to be proactive in making House Sparrows return. To make this happen they need to make available a sufficient number of sparrow box nests. Sparrow clubs could be set up in rural schools bordering forests.
Meaningful afforestation of Odisha’s huge expanse of degraded forests calls for a bold strategy and maybe out of box thinking. At appropriate locations and in lower gradient Government perhaps should think of massive plantation crops like Tea and Coffee through the participative arrangement. The higher gradient should have trees of higher economic value. America's forests sequester over 800 million tons of carbon a year, which is roughly 12% of the US annual emissions. The United States is home to approximately 766 million acres of forestland covering about 33 percent of the nation’s total land area. Fifty-eight percent of U.S. forestland is privately owned. The other 42 percent is under the control of the government. India’s forests sequester about 128.3 million tons a year and India may have to perform better to reach the 2030 target for 2.5 to 3 billion tons of carbon sequestration. The shortfall should be met from the country’s vast degraded forests.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)