LAHORE: Nearly 30,000 acres of forest land is being leased in Punjab province of Pakistan for agriculture purposes as against the advice of the forest department and amendments approved by the cabinet this week.
According to the already announced plan envisaged by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, the government intends to lease out 25 acres of the forest land to each unemployed person holding master’s degree in forestry or agriculture. Each of the selected person will be given a loan of nearly Rs900,000 from the Punjab Rural Support Programme with 13 per cent interest rate.
The problem with the scheme appears to be its permitted use for “agriculture” and forestry. Sources say that this has been done against the advice of the forests department, which had proposed that the land should only be used for forestry or agro-forestry as is done all over the world to protect environment and plantation of jungles.
They say that initially nearly 30,000 acres of forests called Chak Plantations are being doled out to the jobless youth. Such plantation was initiated by the British rulers of India during colonisation on 50 to 100 acres of land near every Chak (village).
Such plantations were given to local governments after introduction of the system in 2001, but their ecology has never been tampered with in view of the importance of forests in the overall environment.
Sources say the forests department first tried to suggest that forestland should not be leased out. But after failure to convince the authorities to refrain from doing so, it advised that only forestry or agro-forestry should be allowed to protect the forests from destruction, but this advice fell on deaf ears.
They say that it is being claimed that agriculture will be allowed on blank area of the leased out forestland, but the fear is that forests will be cleared to create land for agriculture. “Our forest area is only four per cent of the total land in Punjab and allowing pure agriculture on it means we are going to lose a lot more of it forever. It will affect not only the plantations but also the pure land and wildlife there,” an official said on the condition of anonymity.
The biggest fear of the officials who know the entire scheme of things is that the project might be extended to reserve forests in future if it is allowed on Chak Plantations. If not stopped, future rulers could misuse the scheme to grab reserve forestland, they said.
They say that since there is no prohibition mentioned in the scheme, the recipients could sublet the forestland to influential farmers who might start vigorous agriculture on this land.
Use of pesticides and machinery even by the recipients is a sure recipe for the destruction of the forestland. This will gravely affect the plantations, many of them rare, even if they are not cut down to extend the agriculture, the officials say.
Sources praise the Punjab cabinet for approving amendments to the Forest Act 1927 that disallow transfer of reserve forestland to any agency or department for non-forestry use.
The provision for such permission in the original law robbed the forest department of 101,517 acres of forestland that has been transferred to other agencies for non-forestry use.
The amendments to the law will certainly plug this loophole. But the irony is that the Punjab government is prohibiting the misuse of forestland through amendments to the law on the one hand and allowing it through its scheme for the unemployed youth on the other. “One must look into the anomaly,” says a senior official.
Another significant amendment to the law is the enhancement of fine for various offences, including theft of forest wood from the previous up to Rs500 to Rs1 million. Previously, thieves were allowed to take away the stolen wood, even the costly one, after paying the peanut fine but the amendment allows the department to confiscate the stolen wood besides imposing fine on the thief.
The amendments empower district forest officers to directly submit charge sheets of offences to courts instead of waiting for police to do so because the previous scheme had been benefiting offenders instead of the government. The amendments allow the department not to allow sawmills, charcoal kilns and firewood depots within five-mile radius of forests to prevent quick disposal of stolen wood.
“The Punjab cabinet has approved landmark amendments to protect forests planted by the British rulers of India. We have not added to the forestland ever since the creation of Pakistan and have rather shrunk it.
The scheme for the jobless youth is a step forward to further shrink the forest area. The government must rethink its scheme and allow agriculture only on agricultural land, which it has in abundance,” the senior official concluded.