ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Tackling Sal Wood Borer Disease

Madhya Pradesh : Politics as Ecology

Sal trees were infested on a massive scale by a wood boring beetle in 1996-97 in Mandla and neighbouring districts of Madhya Pradesh. Remedial tree felling was conducted under the guise of ecological action, exposing the economic undercurrents. The government investigations conducted mostly by the state forest department were mere cover-ups. Following the central government and Supreme Court directives prohibiting tree felling, the pest attack has declined, falsifying the official speculations of an intensification.

Sal (shorea robusta) is the most important tree species in the northern India yielding products ranging from railway sleepers to leaf plates. Fat from its seeds is prized, used in chocolate manufacturing. Its timber yields prime revenue for the forest department while non-timber forest produce provides income to the rural people. It dominated the millennium news due to a massive pest attack in the Madhya Pradesh. As a remedial measure, the forest department felled nearly six lakh trees raising hue and cry amongst environmentalists and the media. This forced the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) to appoint an inquiry in late 1997 by some forest officials under the chairmanship of the then director of the Indian Council of Forestry and Education (ICFRE). However, the report was contested by some team members themselves, besides World Wide Fund for Nature-India (WWF-I).

Finally, a case registered at the instance of related environmentalists led to a ruling by the Supreme Court questioning the wisdom behind tree felling. This forced the ministry to establish a task force in early 1998. The task force, comprising of about 17 members had some 14 forest department officials, the majority of them from the state government. The committee toured six districts around Jabalpur and submitted an interim report in early February regarding efficacy and continuation of measures adopted. It also turned out to be contentious, with some of us protesting against its partisan nature. The then coalition cabinet minister of environment and forests took note of this protest, amongst others. Soon, the Supreme Court also prohibited tree felling as a remedial measure questioning its scientific sanctity given the divided opinion of the task force. Particularly striking was the cleavage between the commercial foresters and others.

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