If there is a sea change that has come about with the sealing of the Paris climate deal, it is the consensus among tions that if the Earth is to stop overheating and breathe freely, its air has to be cleaned up as soon as possible. To mop up greenhouse gases, the role of forests as the planet’s carbon sinks or green lungs has never been more vital. But forests do not spring up everywhere, which is why the global community now has much at stake with countries rich in forest wealth. India is one such country, and Assam a key state as far as forest cover is concerned. Sadly, in nearly three decades, Assam has been continuously backsliding, losing as much as 3,085 sq km of forest cover. If in 1987, the state’s forest cover was 30,708 sq km — it has shrunk to 27,623 sq km presently. It is a huge loss within 28 years for a state to suffer, as brought out in the latest report of the Forest Survey of India. Rampant encroachment of forested areas by a rapidly growing population is the main reason. But what is alarming is the outright public defiance to occasiol drives by the government to clear encroachments. Even the drive to clear encroachments in Kaziranga tiol park under Gauhati High Court orders has met with organised resistance. The issue has become so politicised that some quarters are getting away with the strange argument that since Bangladeshis have already grabbed land in Kaziranga with Dispur’s blessings, indigenous people too have as much right to encroach upon the park! By lending an ear to such indefensible demands, the state government is encouraging more law-breaking in forested areas.
But then, organised law-breaking by a section of corrupt forest officials at the behest of political masters in Dispur has for long played havoc with the State’s forest wealth. These ‘syndicates’ are raking in crores of rupees every month from the huge illegal market for forest products. They are wilfully violating the Supreme Court ban on felling trees, smuggling precious timber and rare animals, dealing in coal made by burning down trees, blasting rocks and operating sand mines. Whether in Chandrapur, Rani or Pobitora forests on the outskirts of Guwahati, or in Goalpara, Kamrup, gaon, Jorhat and other forest divisions, many such rackets are reportedly flourishing. It is clear that forests are an important source of ill-gotten revenue for some politicians and forest officials operating through goonda brigades. When forest resources are so blatantly looted by those supposed to be their protectors, is it at all surprising that Assam is irreversibly losing its green cover? The critical manpower shortage in the Forest department is also another reason cited in the Forest Survey report. The Tarun Gogoi government has promised many a times to raise a forest protection force, but these have remained on paper. As for forested tracts along borders with neighbouring Northeast states, Assam has long been on the receiving end due to bitter disputes and large scale encroachments. Overall, the writing on the wall is clear — unless corruption is rooted out from forest magement, it will be a losing battle to preserve the State’s green cover in the long run.