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How government policies aided denudation of Telangana’s forests

The systematic reduction of forest cover in Telangana, which was part of the Dandakaranya forest belt of the Eastern Ghats, continues under TRS rule

The sound of axes and saws cutting aged trees rocks these forests after nightfall. Mass denudation, rampant forest fires and conversion of forest land into plantations and irrigation projects have alarmingly reduced Telangana’s forest cover by 30-39% in the last four years of Telangana Rashtra Samiti rule.

The forest belts of the Godavari basin districts of Khammam, Nizamabad, Adilabad, Karimnagar and Warangal, in particular, have seen illegal activity by timber contractors allegedly supported by the political parties All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM) and Congress, which have played havoc with forest wealth.

The denudation drove the state government under Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao to undertake the Telangana Ku Haritha Haram program in 2015—sapling planting on a big scale. Haritha Haram’s plan is to plant 230 crore saplings across Telangana in five years—130 crore saplings within forests and 100 crore saplings in the countryside. KCR wants to increase the ‘official’ forest cover of 24% to 33%. In reality, Telangana’s forest cover is presently barely 17-18%, though the chief minister himself puts it even lower than that. But hardly 40% of the target has been achieved so far, with only 80 crore saplings planted, while denudation has continued apace. Worse, as many as 175 sq km of forest land has allegedly been denuded to make room for raising sapling plantations for Haritha Haram.

A team of journalists toured the Telangana forest belt last December-January as part of a study on forest fires and illegal tree-felling activities on the Chattisgarh, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh forest belts abutting Telangana. Come nightfall, tree-cutting in the deep forests picks up at a furious pace. Logs are dumped upstream in the Godavari river, to be picked up at downstream towns for onward transportation by bicycle, motorcycle, jeeps, bullock cart and sometimes even by manual labor, to escape detection by satellites and closed circuit cameras. These are then loaded in trucks and ferried for export.

The fact-finding team found that a major concern is government policies, which have done greater damage to forest wealth than forest fires and smuggling. “While nature and illegal activities accounted for 25 to 40% of forest loss, government policies contributed over 60% towards loss of green and forest space,” said Hyderabad-based political analyst and social activist KVVV Charya.

Loss of forest swathes for irrigation works

The Telangana Government has taken up major irrigation works in both Krishna and Godavari river basins in its drive to utilise its share of river water allocation, instead of leaving these to its rival downstream state of Andhra Pradesh. Huge investments have been made in the Kaleswaram project on the Godavari river and Palamuru project on the Krishna, among others, in a spirit of competitiveness with AP on river water utilisation. These irrigation projects also entailed vast clearances of reserved forests to make room for canals, roads, and habitation.

KCR had earlier blamed the former Congress and Telugu Desam Party governments of erstwhile united Andhra Pradesh for taking away the water belonging to Telangana. He has now redesigned all projects earlier approved by the Central Water Commission to suit Telangana’s needs, at huge project cost escalation, with denudation of huge tracts of forest land and green cover. In Nizamabad and Medak districts such forest clearances had led wild animals like bears, monkeys and wild boar to enter villages and rampage in the fields, destroying standing crops. An independent agency finding on deforestation due irrigation works is about 721 sq km. “But my Government is committed to planting double or three times the trees felled,” former forest minister Jogu Ramanna had told reporters after a Haritha Haram review meeting with KCR on November 25, 2018.

Telangana a more forested state on paper

Telangana is the 12th largest state in India by area, covering 1,12,101 square kilometers. The state has 26,903.7 sq km of notified forest land, which is 24% its area. Tribal population dependent on forest produce is about 21%, spread over 14 of Telangana 31 districts.

Telangana has 12 ecologically protected areas, including five wildlife sanctuaries and three national parks. Two wildlife sanctuaries, Amrabad and Kawal, have been notified as tiger reserves.

According to the latest forest department statistics, Telangana’s forest cover has shrunk from 11,689 sq km in 1988 to 8,079 sq km in 2014. This had fallen further to 7,549 sq km by 2018. The illegal felling is greater in former Adilabad, Khammam and Warangal districts (currently 11 districts after reorganisation) abutting the Godavari river basin. Divisions with maximum loss of forest cover due to encroachments are Warangal South, Kothagudem, Paloncha and Khammam wildlife mandals.  “It is a fact that forest cover is just 12-15%, though officially it is 24%,” KCR had said while announcing the Haritha Haram program in 2015.

Illegal felling and smuggling

Though from outside the forests of Adilabad and Khammam districts appeared thick, within they are bald inside for hundreds of sq km. It is alleged that local forest officials, legislators and timber contractors had colluded with timber smugglers, who had the support of  Maoists as well. The entire forest belt of Ichoda Mandal in Adilabad, known for rich timber spread over four sq km, has vanished and only shrubs are seen now. In the Bhimpur village belt of Sirikonda mandal, 2.5 sq km of forest has been denuded. Locals say a few years ago timber contractors came with huge machines and in just a few weeks huge trees vanished. “We used to see wild cats like tigers and leopards, bears etc., but now even wild boars are visible without the green cover,” says Govindanna, a local village official in Bhimpur village.

Similar is the status in the Jannaram, Kadam, Khanapur and Mohammadabad mandal forests in Adilabad. Almost 2,000 acres of forest land has allegedly vanished or been encroached upon by local landlords and politicians. Tree-felling on the Maharashtra border at Boath, Neredikonda and Bazar Hatnoor is done with woodcutters run on diesel and petrol, some of them imported from Australia. The Godavari river basin from Basar to Bhadrachalam and onwards to Kunavaram and Rajahmundry is known as ‘bamboo route’ for transportation of timber. It is sold in bulk at 25,000 per cubic meter onwards, by timber merchants and contractors of Maharashtra and Telangana and transported with fake permits of both states.

Sources in the border forest and police departments say that during 2017-18, nearly 12,293 cases of theft of timber such as teak and rosewood were recorded, but hardly any seizures were made.  In January 2019 itself, 480 cubic meters of smuggled wood was seized. “It is a shame that the value of seizures are not even 5% of the total wood cut and smuggled from our forests,” conceded a senior forest official, who alleged political interference.

Purported political connections of timber smugglers

It is alleged that MLAs of both ruling TRS and Congress and MIM leaders were protecting the smugglers and timber merchants in north Telangana districts. A joint report on alleged timber smuggling by police and forest officials recently has reportedly identified the deputy mayor of Nizamabad and sawmill owners of Adilabad, Nanded and Nizamabad as key partners. When an alleged smuggler Afzal was arrested in January end, the deputy mayor had allegedly visited the police station and forcibly got him released. Local journalists allege that police were in the pay of the timber syndicate at the rate of 5 lakh per sawmill per annum.

Severe forest fires

One of the reasons why fires can burn such large expanses of forests in Telangana is that these are ‘dry, deciduous forests’. As per the forest department’s report, the leaves in the forests start drying up and falling during January and February. Most fires are thus detected during March and April.

These fires are mostly caused by humans. People often start fires to make collection of non-timber forest produce like tendu leaves, forest gum and leaves used for manufacturing beedi, or for collecting the mahua fruit and istaraku (to make eating plates, etc.) easier.

The popular belief is that the fire improves the yield of the tendu plant. The fire often escalates beyond their control and engulfs the entire forest belt. This writer was caught in one such forest fire in Utnoor belt in Adilabad in 2016, and had to be eventually rescued by local tribes.

The wild growth of invasive weed plants Lantana camara (popularly known as mullu kampa)  and also parthenium, very susceptible to burning, is also a major cause of forest fires. “In their zest to improve green cover, some governments promoted such invasive weed plants in forests which cause rampant forest fires in Seshachalam forest range on a yearly basis”, says Dr K Venkateswarlu, a Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam forest official.

However, even this ground fire is extremely dangerous for the state’s forest ecosystem, killing a large number of ground-dwelling species including small mammals. Fires also destroy multiple food sources of these animals.

As per a recent World Bank report titled ‘Strengthened Forest Fire Management To Help India Meet Climate Change Goals,’ three of the top 10 districts in India affected by forest fires are the erstwhile districts of Khammam, Warangal and Adilabad in Telangana. The report claims that 4,191 sq km of forest area was affected due to fires in these three districts during the years 2003 to 2016.

From just 609 forest fires being detected a decade ago in 2008, 1,512 forest fires were detected in Telangana last year, affecting as much as 6,225 sq km of forest. Hitherto this year, the number of forest fire incidents detected in Telangana is a massive 12,343.  

Anti- Maoist operations also led to forest reduction

Telangana forest officers contend that the anti-Maoist drive had also led to forest denudation. Nearly 160 km of roads were laid in border towns across forests to enable speedy movement of security forces, enable combing operations etc.

Several patches of thick forests were denuded to enable monitoring of movement of both Maoists and security forces for easy detection by satellites and drones. The Telangana Greyhounds commando force deployed nearly 200 drones to keep track of their platoons and movement of Maoists in forests.

The damaging Vana Samrakshana Samitis policy

Vana Samrakshana Samitis (joint forest management) program was a brainchild of the chief minister of erstwhile united AP and incumbent CM of AP, N Chandrababu Naidu, in his first innings in 1999. Farmers and self-help groups were encouraged to take forest tracts for the preservation of trees and green cover and enjoy benefits of forest produce, though they did not have ownership rights on trees and forest lands.

In those days, VSS was hailed as a novel program, even lauded by the World Bank. Naidu was hailed as a messiah of the poor and tribals. After Congress came to power under YS Rajasekhara Reddy in 2004, the VSS program was sidelined but VSS revenue documents given to 1.50 lakh women’s SHG groups were not canceled.

Instead, local politicians and SHGs converted forest land into plantations to raise nurseries, etc for profitability. The SHG movement also had a natural death after the Congress government promoted microfinance institutions, which became parallel to women empowerment programs.

By the time Telangana was formed, VSS was almost defunct but politicians had been enjoying the fruit of forest land treated as plantations. Though the KCR government abolished the VSS, local politicians, most of whom had crossed over to the ruling party, continued the plantations with 24×7 free power, farm loans, etc. The same plantations were raising and selling saplings for Haritha Haram, for which the KCR administration had earmarked 5000 crore. “Now nobody knows where these forest lands have disappeared, and fancy plantations and resorts have come up in their space. Instead of rich flora and fauna, now we have spas, safari and Telangana food festivals,” says Professor Purushottam Reddy, an environmentalist and green campaigner of Hyderabad.

Worse is to come. While KCR has assessed remaining current forest cover at 12%, environmental campaigners contend that it could soon be less than 10% when wood felling for constructing 25 lakh double bedroom houses for Telangana’s poor man’s housing program is completed. “During YSR period, the Indiramma housing programme provided free forest wood for rural poor. Now the DBR scheme will take a huge toll on forest wood again”, says Mohammed Ali Shabbir, Congress leader of opposition in the Telangana Legislative Council.

The systematic reduction of forest cover in Telangana, which was part of the Dandakaranya forest belt of the Eastern Ghats, continues.

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