This article provides a case study on social forestry in West Bengal.
One state which has succeeded in taking an ambitious social forestry programme to poorer sections of the village community is Marxist-ruled West Bengal. The per capita forest area in West Bengal, 0.02 ha., is among the lowest in the country; the population density of 600 per square kilometer is second only to that of Kerala. Its livestock population is estimated at 19 million.
The state’s annual requirement of household energy is 10 million tonnes of fuel wood equivalent (f.w.e.). Of this one fifth comes from commercial sources and one tenth from Government forests.
Of the rest of the 8 million tonnes of f.w.e., 55 per cent is firewood and charcoal, 20 per cent is agricultural waste and 25 per cent animal dung. To meet the cooking energy needs of the present population would require planting more than 1 million ha.
In 1981 West Bengal launched a World Bank assisted social forestry project, to cover 93,000 ha. This includes plans to rehabilitate 15,000 ha. of degraded forest, strip plantations on 20,000 ha. and village woodlots on 6,000 ha. During the first three years of the programme 30 per cent of the 42,000 villages in the state had been covered. The area covered was 20,800 ha.
There are two reasons for the rapid success of social forestry in the state: the effective interaction between the village panchayats and the Forest Department and the allocation of government land to tribals and other landless poor. Like other successful community programmes, this one too has had a fairly long “gestation” period.
In 1973 the West Bengal Panchayat Act introduced a three-tier system of elected village panchayats, block-level committees and district level panchayats. The panchayats are highly politicized, organised and effective.
In 1975 the State Panchayat Department sponsored a social forestry scheme (under a local leadership scheme) to motivate both the panchayats and village youth to plant trees. By 1980, 1,200 ha. of community plantations had been established and 5 million seedlings had been distributed for individual planting.
For the World Bank-assisted project, 1,200 part-time village-level motivators (outside the regular forestry- service) were appointed by the Forest Department. These motivators and the primary school teachers in the villages are the links between the Forest Department and the people.
The sharp rise in the number of participants from 20,915 in 1981 to 85,000 in 1983 reflects the optimistic manner in which social forestry has spread among small land owners in the state.
Much of the success has been in the degraded forest areas in the south west of the state. Here the soils are ‘poor in ingredients’ or ‘poor in quality’ and laterised, with a hard layer of kankar 30 cm below the surface.
In east Midnapore district 0.4 ha. plots of such wasteland have been allocated to landless people who may use it to grow trees or crops. Rain-fed agriculture, however, is very difficult in this area, but the return from the trees—mainly Eucalyptus tereticornis and Acacia auriculiformis—is expected to be extremely high.
The landless do not get the title to the land but have full rights to the use of the land and the profit from it. They also continue their normal occupation as agricultural labourers, preparing the pits for plantations only in the dry season when they do not have other work.
The Forest Department supplies the seedlings, a small amount of fertiliser and a cash incentive for surviving plants at the end of the second and third seasons.
As the tree-grower does not have to make any financial investment, the programme is attractive to the poor. Many small landowners have formed blocks of their lands for similar afforestation. Village panchayats are also converting their commonly owned wastelands into tree plantations.
Assuming that in the seventh year each hectare of trees will be worth Rs. 1,000 the total value of the assets created would be over Rs. 200 million. As on December 2001, there were 3,614 FPcs in the state comprising of total number of 415,200 members protecting the total forest areas over 529,945 ha.