State of Forest Resource in the Darjeeling Himalaya
"During an aerial survey of the Pirpanjal terrain, in 1988, Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah saw the wanton denudation of a compartment at Sangarwani, in Pulwama-Pakharpora belt of south-west Kashmir. He saw wood-poachers felling the green coniferous trees in broad daylight. Without losing a moment, he took the extreme step by way of ordering the premature retirement of senior Forest officials. Several officers were fired on account of their negligence and failure to strike on timber-smugglers. His drastic measure evoked widespread appreciation"
The above statement was reported by the Pioneer, leading news daily, published from Chandigarh, sometimes in 2000.
Human beings along with their ambitious development matrixes are posing serious threats to their own livelihood, destroying the ecological bases that sustain them. The forests are being exploited both legally and illegally for their timber without realising that trees are only secondary producers of timber. Their primary function is to promote rain, absorb moisture and recharge ground water. The economic benefits of forests, in terms of climate control, pollution abatement, and wildlife maintenance, have rarely been calculated. The economic importance of non-timber forest products is also increasing. The forest is also vital as a watershed. Because of the thick humus layer, loose soil, and soil-retaining powers of the trees' long roots, forests are vitally important for preserving adequate water supplies. Almost all water ultimately feeds from Forest Rivers and lakes and from forest-derived water tables. In addition, the forest provides recreation and aesthetic renewal for people, and irreplaceable supplies of oxygen and soil nutrients.
Dwindling Forest Resource in Darjeeling Hills
Forests of Darjeeling Hills are in a dire need of similar aerial survey as highlighted above.Forests in Darjeeling Hills have been degrading and depleting with time. There is a huge gap between the area under forest and actual forest coverage in the region. This gap is rapidly increasing with time. Further, even within a particular area covered with forest the density of trees has been falling on a massive scale in the last 15-20 years. Today it is believed Darjeeling Hills has less than 30 per cent of its land under forest cover in strict sense of the term. However, as per the records of Forest Department, over 40 per cent of its land is under forest cover. Mention should be made here that according to the forest guidelines of India, 60 per cent of the geographical area of hills and mountains should be covered with forest.
There are number of factors working in tandem towards the degradation of our forest resource. Some of the important factors may briefly be discussed below-
First, forests in Darjeeling Hills are under the overall control and maintenance of two administrative entities. They are the Department of Forest, West Bengal and Darjeeling Gorkha Hill council. Management of about 70 sq kms protected forests and unclassified forests are with the executive power of DGHC while all reserved forests are under the control of forest department of the state. Such divisions of forest responsibility in Darjeeling Hills have not proved beneficial to our forest resource over the years. The forest protectors have failed to coordinate between themselves and as a consequence proved futile in protecting and sustainably managing our forests.
Second, if we visit forest areas across the countryside it will not be difficult for us to observe the difference in the density of forest cover at present times and about two decades ago. There was time when these forests were so dense that it was scary for a human to travel alone. Today these forests have been witnessing massive selective timber smuggling. A visit to a number of villages and discussion with the villagers involved in this illegal, but thriving, business provides us much light about the whole process that needs to be briefly noted.
Majority of the rural timber smugglers are semi-literate but there are often educated unemployed youths too involved in the business. They understand that they are not doing justice to their forest resource and associated environs but they say they have no other economic options. Unemployment and threatened livelihood security are cited to be the principal causes of forcing the villagers into this easy but often risky business. It is ironical to point out here that the villagers confided to this writer that they have been successful in taking the forest guards into confidence over the years. They bestow the forest guards and sometimes forest officer-s at local levels certain percentage of their illegal earning and it is done. The only hurdle in their 'operation forest' after taking into confidence the forester-s is that they have to operate their entire business cycle in dark, at night.
The semi-processed as well as completely processed timbers are usually supplied to the already fixed client-s in urban locations comprising of urban middle class, in majority of cases. This means, to a large extent, wooden furniture and other associated family items in our urban lower and middle class households are made up of illegally supplied teaks and such other economically valuable species supplied at much lesser rate than what is prevalent in the market.
Third, the haphazard and unplanned development venture taken up by the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council (DGHC) within its functional jurisdiction of Darjeeling Hills have, in the last 18 years, severely impacted the forests and other associated environmental resources. Among other unplanned ventures, construction of roads and buildings across fragile and vulnerable spaces without properly considering the environmental viability/suitability and land capability have resulted in increased mass wasting, notably land subsidence and slides over the years, thus affecting forest resource therein, negatively. Further, promotion and construction of hydel dams along Teesta River right from North Sikkim to the foothills of the Himalaya by the Government of India and with support of respective state governments have impacted forest resource and other valuable environmental parameters in more than one way.
Joint Forest Management in Darjeeling Hills
Joint Forest Management (JFM) scheme in Darjeeling Hills was initiated in 1990-91. On paper today, there are over 75 Forest Protection Committees functioning in Darjeeling hills covering an area of over 19406 ha. This constitutes more than 30 per cent of the total forest area in the region. As the largest sub-division of Darjeeling Hills, Kalimpong has the largest number of FPCs under its fold. This writer was surprised to learn, after he informally discussed with the villagers, that an ordinary rural soul does not even know what 'Joint Forest Management (JFM)' exactly is about let alone the noble principles and rural/grass root empowerment that it carries along with it. Such situation indicates there is an appreciable gap between the figures often highlighted by relevant official records and actual implementation of the Programme.
Ironically, one of the senior forest officials in the region posted a note to People's Commission on Environment and Development India's website in the 1990s highlighting the success of JFM in Darjeeling Hills. It may be relevant to quote a passage from his note:
'Before formally registering FPCs, motivation camps are held to explain to the local people the basic concepts of the JFM scheme and the role of FPCs. The point that was sought to be driven home is that ecological restoration of denuded forests is linked to their economic well-being. Besides training, a host of support activities aimed at providing economic security to the people are also undertaken. They include eco-development works like construction of new village roads, culverts, ponds, ring wells , school buildings , etc. and the repair of old ones. Vocational support and training in bee-keeping, mushroom growing, pisciculture, and floriculture are also imparted. Inter-cultivation of fodder grasses, medicinal and other economically useful plants are allowed between main tree species in plantations. All such activities are community-oriented and eco-friendly in nature. Training in knitting and sewing are organised to improve the women's economic status. Employment by the Forest Department is a part of the income generation programme. As support activities, the laboratories for production of mushroom spawn have been set up in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Sukna. They cater to the needs of mushroom growers. Fire-wood and small timber centres have been set up in different parts of Darjeeling district to meet the local people's needs'.
Elsewhere in the note, he also writes, 'The reduction in illicit felling and theft of forest produce can be attributed to the joint efforts of the staff of the division and the forest protection committees'.
Nothing of the sort, as noted in the quoted passage above has ever happened or happening in Darjeeling Hills, at least not in the villages that this writer visited. If the average rural masses do not have even heard about JFM where is the question of its successful implementation in Darjeeling Hills?
It is high time that we internalise the fact that Darjeeling is being relentlessly denuded of its rich forest cover for which we all are responsible. Starting from mis-coordination between the protecting institutions followed by lethargy and highhandedness among the forest professionals, down to opportunistic attitude of a section of villager-s, not to talk of prevailing corruptions, have over the years inflicted large scale destruction to our forest resource and the associated ecology. The impacts of such onslaught are in front of us to experience. Our natural springs and small streams are rapidly drying up; the occurrence, frequency and intensity of landslides and flash floods have increased; the ratio of barren and wasteland is increasing; monsoon has been showing us its fluctuating behaviour; and there has been variation in the temperature in recent years, to name only the few. Forests of Darjeeling Hills must be protected from further damage from human depredation. They have to be rejuvenated so that their past wounds are healed. Considerable study and work need to be done in this connection.