Why and how Maharashtra has taken up social forestry in the last five years.
We all are so engrossed in numbers and topics like economy, taxes, finances, GDP etc., that usually we tend to miss the finer and the nuanced aspects guiding our daily lives and things which indirectly matter to us or should matter to us. I realised this a few days ago when I was travelling in the southern Maharashtra regions of Kolhapur, Satara and Sangli. I came across a very unique model of governance which not only served the environmental needs but also provided livelihood for the people. After all, we all keep saying we need to protect forests and increase tree cover. So, how is the government of Maharashtra achieving it? What steps have been taken? I decided to dig deep into it and here is what I found out.
What Is Social Forestry
Social forestry is involvement of people in tree plantation activities on barren and fallow lands as well as on farm bunds to achieve the dual goals of providing income to the persons and ensuring increase in the forest cover which helps environment and in rural development. Community involvement and optimum use of land to plant trees takes the pressure off the forests and provides a source of livelihood for the persons which acts like an incentive.
Policy Moves Undertaken By the Government
It was in 1982 that the Social Forestry Directorate was set up in Maharashtra. For about five years that is till about 1987, it used to be referred to as Social Forestry and Horticulture Department and then it was shifted to Revenue and Forest Department and between 1992-2014 it was came under the Rural Development and Water Conservation Department.
Post that, the social forestry department came under the forest department. This marked a significant change in the policy and intent showing how serious the government was regarding involvement of people into conservation and forest expansion efforts.
The National Forest Policy, 1952 and 1988 and Maharashtra State Forest Policy, 2008 lays down that to maintain the ecological balance and environmental stability, the forest area should be a minimum 33 per cent of the total geographical area.
Change in Leadership revitalised the department
Sudhir Mungantiwar, the present Forest Minister of Maharashtra, is from the Vidharbha region which is home to the Tadoba Tiger Reserve, and grew up amidst the same in Chandrapur district. It is said that a person who has hands on experience understands the needs and issues regarding that particular topic much better. Probably this is the reason why all the initiatives started by the Forest Department are people-driven, result-oriented and carry a clean plan and initiative.
Mungantiwar’s objectives were clear: Maharashtra needed clean air to breathe and for this it had to increase its forest cover. It was with these objectives that the Maharashtra Forest Department started working on a war footing.
The Forest Department started a mega awareness drive. The entire state machinery was used to create a mass movement and it reached out to various sections of the society. The departments reached out to schools, colleges, NCC, scouts /guides, film stars, corporate, NGOs and self-help groups as part of the outreach programme.
For the success of the programme, “Jan Bhagidari” was indeed important. The target was to attract 1 crore persons and till date approximately 60 lakh people have enrolled as volunteers. In fact, these numbers can be clearly seen here in the and people can register online too.
Buoyed by the success of this plan and development of input-backing vis-a-vis building nurseries and research institutes, government built a state of the art nursery named after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and meanwhile continued strengthening and standardising government nurseries at the regional level and modern nurseries at the taluka level. The sole intention was to generate good quality saplings for future phases.
The government also setup an “ambitious” target of planting 2 crore trees. For this, the scope of activities was expanded and many more departments and institutions were roped in like offices of all MPs, MLAs, schools, colleges, spiritual leaders and private companies etc. Due to huge response from the public, the government could easily surmount the target of 2 crore and thus, could plant 2.82 crore saplings on 1 July 2016.
Encouraged by the huge and positive response, the government decided to continue the tempo of the plantation programme. It increased the targeted number to 50 crore saplings in three years i.e. from 2017 to 2019. The targets were divided in the following manner.
The targets for 2017 and 2018 were not just achieved but exceeded and the government machinery is all set to achieve the targets for 2019 as well. This is something rare because we have known governments to not achieve targets they set, and we get surprised when they complete a target. But here, the targets are not just achieved but exceeded and with a big margin. Going by the historical achievements, I have no doubts that even the 33 cr plantation target which was set will also be achieved.
Success Criteria of the Programme
Often the issue is not plantation but survival of the saplings. It is common knowledge that the saplings have to be nurtured and watered and usually the success rate of survival in such massive programmes is very low. Growing a plant is not a day’s job. It needs monitoring and intensive care. This programme, phased out over a period of 4 years, was followed with an intention to increase the forest cover and not for photo ops. Hence being transparent and forthright about ensuring the survival of the saplings was inherent in the plan itself.
The Status Report on Forest at the All India level had been published by the Forest Survey of India in February, 2017, vis-a-vis, the status of forest and related sectors in 2015. As far as Maharashtra is concerned the findings were as follows :
- Tree cover on Non-Forest Area increased by 273 Sq. km. Maharashtra was the leading State on this count.
- The mangrove cover has increased by 82 Sq. km. Maharashtra is also leading in this sector.
- Water bodies in Forest Area went up by 432 sq. km. Maharashtra is also having higher rank in this sector.
- Increase in the bamboo plantation area and development of bamboo sector by 4,462 Sq. km(4,46,200 hectare) (four lakh forty six thousand two hundred). Eventually, Maharashtra placed second in the Country.
Involvement of People making it a mass movement
Protection of trees and forests is in our culture and is taken as a responsibility by the people. When the government took a step forward, it was but natural for the citizens to pitch in. Social Forestry suddenly has become a “mass movement.” From a farmer distributing mango plants in his daughters wedding ceremony to doctors from Solapur coming together and contributing monthly Rs 2000 in a “Tree Bhishi scheme”, the movement has caught the imagination of the people of Mahrashtra.
During Diwali festivities, people of Shindewadi village, Pune planted a tree called “Lakshmitaru” which thus proclaims that the religion without the tree is incomplete and the tree is incomplete without the religion. To acquire the fervour of such religious sentiments, people ought to plant more and more trees. The government also issued 2 GRs (government regulation); one by the Urban development Department and the other by the Rural development Department to implement “Ranmala pattern” throughout the state. The GRs provide for planting a sapling on special occasions like birth of a child, during marriage and after death in memory of the deceased. Janm Vruksha (celebrations of birth), Maherchi Zhadi/Shubh Mangal Vruksha (gift tree from maternal home or celebration of marriage tree), Anand Vruksha (celebration tree) and Smriti Vruksha (in memory of departed loved ones).
The Way Forward
There is absolutely no doubt that we as a country must have ample forest cover and sustainable solutions to protect our environment and wildlife. Economic needs must be balanced with environmental needs. When railway tracks, river beds, fallow, barren lands are used for planting economically advantageous fruit and nuts bearing trees it reduces the pressure on forests in terms of tree felling for wood, paper, pulp etc. Social forestry not only adds to the beautification of any spot but has direct economic consequences on the income levels of the households. The success of last four years has to be continued. The tree plantation app, geo tagging of sapling planation etc., which was done must be monitored on a regular basis. The survival rate of the saplings is envious already and the same ought to be continued. Ensuring that we achieve ‘each one plant one’ will bear fruits for the farmers and the state.
This is in my opinion the very rare example of frictionless sync between “Neeti, Niyam and Adhiniyam” by the government.