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HomeWeatherCut a few, plant many: How one afforestation scheme helped Gujarat's tribals

Cut a few, plant many: How one afforestation scheme helped Gujarat’s tribals

Ahmedabad: Fifty-year-old Dipakbhai Nayak has his eyes on the clouds in the sky, saying a silent prayer in his mind. Two years ago, his daughter Ankula Nayak, his pride and joy, came to him with a dream. She was studying nursing in a college in Hyderabad, but wanted to study some more, on foreign shores. His immediate concern was money, but despite the challenge, he looked no further than his fields laden with teak trees, seven of which he cut and got sold under an initiative called “Malki” in the Dang district of Gujarat. As a replacement, Nayak is preparing to plant 150 saplings, 20 times more than he had taken.

For Nayak and the villagers of Bhenskatri village, the forests on their land are their bank in times of crisis. “The difference is, here in the forest, you have to deposit at least three times what you wish you take. I want to ensure that the trees that I plant are healthy for the next few years so I can apply for Malki again. For this, I don’t mind growing multiple times more than required,” Nayak said.

Over the past few years, this unique programme has served the twin purposes of forest conservation and providing a livelihood for the tribal residents of the Dang district, where more than 90% of the area is under the Protected Forest or Reserved Forest category and has the densest forest in Gujarat. The topography of the area meant that the area remained inaccessible, leading to backwardness and underdevelopment.

Under the practice that began in the year 1984, landholders are permitted to cut trees for economic gain, provided they initiate the plantation of at least thrice the number of trees that are to be cut. Further, from the year 2012, the state forest department started the e-auction of wood collected from the trees that are cut down and sold.

“I expect to get at least 5 lakh from the auction of these trees. It will help send my daughter abroad for studies. This is the second time I have taken advantage of this scheme. Earlier, I availed 300,000 so I could build my house,” Nayak said.

The benefits of the Malki scheme have been demonstrated in a paper published in June 2022 in the Elsevier journal published titled “Analyzing the effectiveness of the ‘Malki Practice’ which said that locals got 300 crore through this scheme in the past 25 years, improving the socio-economic standards of the landholders. The scheme, the paper revealed, had also increased the green cover density of Dang forests.

The paper — written by Dr Dinesh Dasa, who recently completed his term as the chairman of the Gujarat Public Service Commission, Dr Shobhalata Udapadi, faculty at Tamil Nadu National Law University, and Dr Anurag Kandya, an associate professor at Pandit Deendayal Energy University — said that a total of $39.4 million (approx. 300 crore) has been paid to 19,936 land-holders in 25 years between 1994 to 2019. To put this in perspective, in 2011, the Dangs had a population of 228,291 as per the latest census data.

To assess the condition of the Dang forest, the study used the remotely sensed NDVI (normalized difference vegetation index) which gives a quantitative aspect to green cover density. “Although the Malki beneficiaries are required to plant three times the number of trees they propose to cut, our field surveys showed that they planted five times or more. With an upper limit of cutting 10 trees by a Malki beneficiary along with the strict guidelines of the plantation, it is anticipated that around one million new saplings would have been planted during 1994–2019 and a significant fraction of this would have reached their full maturity by 2019,” said Dr Dasa, who holds a PhD in forest laws and sustainable development.

The paper said in the 61% area of the forest, the green cover intensity had an increasing trend which was not significant, 13% area of the forest showed significant levels of increasing trend and in the remaining 26% area, the green cover intensity had a “not significant” decreasing trend. Although the report says the intensity of the forests has increased, the Forest Survey Of India reports showed a fall of 14% in the collective forests and tree cover area in Dang between 2017 and 2021.

Malki evolution

The Malki scheme was introduced in 1984 to undo the historical injustice done to tribals and forest dwellers when the Indian Forest Act, 1927 was enacted, bringing control of all forest produce including timber under the control of forest departments.

To quell growing resentment among tribals, the state’s Agriculture and Lands Department, in 1961, decided to allot up to four acres of forest lands to those cultivating forest lands prior to March 1, 1960, when the state of Gujarat and Maharashtra was carved out of larger Bombay state. However, the ownership of the land remained with the forest department.

On January 1, 1970, 587.58 square kilometres of protected forest land was placed at the disposal of the Revenue Department to confer occupancy rights to forest dwellers with a condition that the trees on this land will continue to vest with the Government and landholders can cut them only for agriculture purposes. “However, even after granting the occupancy rights to the forest dwellers in the Protected Forest, satisfactory results in terms of ‘forest conservation and livelihood’ were not observed by the government of Gujarat and this led to the evolution of the ‘Malki Practice’ in the year 1984,” the paper states.

The word Malki means ownership, and the government in March 1984 decided that a person can seek permission from the forest department to cut a tree with the condition he or she will have to plant three saplings. The timber was then auctioned by the forest department and after having deducted the expenses of the same, 20% of such cost would be paid to the landholder.

The percentage of the payable amount to the landholders from the selling of the five reserve trees (Sandalwood, Blackwood, Teak, Mahuva and Khair) was increased from 20% to 100% by 1997, the paper said.

The Dang district, situated in the Sahyadri foothills in Gujarat, is a hilly region dominated by the Dang tribe. As per Census 2011, the population of the district is 228,000 which is 0.37% of the state population. Of this, around 79% of the population is below the poverty level, according to a 2010 report by the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad.

Dinesh Rabari, Deputy Conservator of Forests, South Dangs division, said that most of the applications they get under Malki are for higher education and medical treatment. Every year the department gets 600-700 Malki applications, of which 400 to 450 are approved. The latest auction in March 2022 fetched five crore, which was disbursed among Malki beneficiaries. “Due to Malki there is socio-economic upliftment of the tribals and as a result, the human pressure on the forest area has decreased,” he said.

Satyakam Joshi, in-charge director and faculty at Surat-based Centre for Social Studies said, “Over a period of time, Malki has been a game changer for the people of Dangs. It has improved their socio-economic condition. Many have re-invested this money by buying more land for cultivation and planting more trees in it. They have also used the money for the education of their children and agriculture.”

The way forward:

Dang is one of the 117 districts of India identified as an ‘Aspirational District’ by the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog because of its social and economic backwardness. Nayak said half of his village, Bhenskatri, a population of about 2,500 people have benefitted from Malki. “I have already planted 500 trees on my land for Malki. These trees are our future,” he said.

An environmentalist who has worked in Dangs said that the Malki practice may have given socio-economic benefits but there are challenges too. “Many people have to wait a long time for their Malki to get approved and at times it takes years,” he said. Joshi added that in some cases, Malki has turned into a business, leading to corruption.

Dr Dasa said the Malki scheme can be replicated in other places in the country also, especially as an alternative to shifting cultivation or Jhum cultivation or Swidden agriculture (a technique of rotational farming in which land is cleared for cultivation (normally by fire) and then left to regenerate for few years) practiced in north-east India, Bangladesh and Latin America. “Malki encourages indigenous people to derive a livelihood from the timber and fosters compensatory afforestation,” he said.

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