More than three decades ago I used to drive to Alipurduar, in the North of West Bengal where my mother was stationed. And each time I drove through the forest areas of Kokrajhar, I used to be dismayed. I used to be dismayed and desperate because the forest was gone. It had suddenly disappeared.
The only vestiges of the once luxuriant forest were the cut stumps that marked the otherwise bare lands. This one could see on the both sides of the road, this rampant degradation and destruction of the Sylvan dee. And all of this due to the only one thing. The ever increasing greed of man! Such was the case in many areas of Assam. I had seen such depredation in Chariduar Reserve Forests near Nameri. It was depressing times nary a respite.
My sojourn in the small town of Alipurduar was disturbing with the images of the cut stumps haunting my reverie both in free time and while I slept. For in my dreams I found that the cut stumps had somehow became grave markers bearing the epitaphs of giants that were part of a lost empire, that of the forest trees.
Again once in my dream I saw one grave marker suddenly morphed into a giant and magnificent tree and like in a National Discovery animated feature, I see that the tree is in fact a small habitat for a myriad species. I could see the epiphytic foxtailed orchids in bloom along with some epiphytic bryophytes, pteridophytes and algae making it their home. The tree bears an exotic fragrance bearing bloom where many insects like bees and wasps come and there is a profusion of birds that come to either feed on the insects or the nectar. I saw the bee eater grabbing the bees, the paradise flycatcher at its work, the runner posing, the humming bird drawing out the nectar. When the fruits ripen another set of birds squirrels, including the Malaysian squirrel and monkeys having a field day.
And suddenly we hear the sound of the electric saw whining and suddenly I wake up and hear that a carpenter was drilling in the next room. It seemed my dreams have met a nightmarish end.
“It is a win win situation,” so said my friend Himangsu Rabha. “Everybody is happy. Everybody except the conservation people and the species directly dependant on it. No, I am not considering the two legged variety. The timber mafia, the small time operators, some corrupt forest guys, even the security agencies,” he added further.
“How come the security people?” I asked.
“The loss of forest cover helps in operations against the insurgents. You see, the extremist too need the forests for their sustenance and camps.”
“Hmmm! But did you see the size of the logs that we had seen in the range office. Yea! Those were huge!”
“Imagine how much carbon sequestration it must have done,” Himangshu suddenly remarked. “You know something. Actually the state should be made to pay in form of carbon credits as it is unable to check such huge forest resource and loss of such carbon sequestration.”
“I think you are getting too technical, my brother.”
“What's so technical about it? It's all there in public domain. “Go ahead and mine it.”
My friend Himangshu, who was an M.Sc. in Life Sciences from a renowned university, had the small flaw of assuming that ignoramuses like me had the acumen, tenacity and propensity of keeping on learning and thus, possess a large knowledge base. Which I obviously don't have. But not him. He would keep on studying anything and everything he can lay his hands on. Or maybe the process is not so random as I describe. Perhaps there is a design in his choice of books. Perhaps as a senior beaureacrat he has to. So I told him to spare my limited knowledge and explain things to me.
“No. I will not,” he told me ruthlessly. “You are doing a piece on the affect of loss of forest cover the environment, do your research,” he yet again admonished me.
“See I have done my research. I have a functional knowledge of such terms. But I wanted the inputs from a bureaucrat, someone who is at the helms of affair of a district.”
He didn't answer me. But the next Sunday day he took me deep inside the forest area and I was dismayed once again. Just a few hundred metres from the forest road the area was bereft of vegetation. The huge timber trees, the saal, shegun and even the akathis have been cut down. The land was desolate. Where no springs flow. And no roses grow. Nor were the chirpings and songs of the birds that usually rings out in the forest. Indeed it was desolate.
It was not so almost fifteen years back. Back in 2002 when I was working on a documentary on the encroachment on elephant corridors I was happy that the forest were once again springing back. Like many environmentalists who I interviewed told me that if a forest is destroyed in a fragmented manner, there is a greater chance of the forest coming alive once again and be teeming with biodiversity. But after 17 years, the forests that had survived the first onslaught of the axe thirty years back, had now been cut down, greedily and ruthlessly.
“Where is the solution? Where is the respite from by this spectre? You know what is required in such conditions?” Himanghsu asks me.
“Political will,” I tell him.
“Exactly,” he replies. “See you must know that plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere for photosynthesis and store the carbon in the wood. This is carbon sequestration. Now imagine there is an industry which is making a lot of profit but is heavily polluting the environment with toxic smoke, belching out carbon and sulphide emmisions along with other toxic materials like PAN...”
“PAN?” I interrupt him again.
“You find out,” he tells me. I take out my smartphone and google it out.
“Now imagine this particular industry is made to sponsor an afforestation of large chunk of forest. So it would be allowed to make some emissions provided it earns some carbon credits.”
“Now wait a minute,” I interrupt him again. “Thus it mean I can earn carbon credit if I plant the one acre of land I have?”
He stares at me for sometime before answering
“Perhaps no. It needs large tracts of land. As of today we need to have hundreds of thousands of acres... you know miles and miles of square areas. And besides it needs verification by competent authorities.”
"So you see in theory it is alright to think that carbon credit programs entail planting trees as a way to reduce carbon footprint in the atmosphere. The idea is to sequester it or trap it in the wood of the tree and thus offset emissions from other sources. But as I already told you before, actually being awarded carbon credits, such programs require that such initiatives go through a comprehensive third-party verification process. This to ensure that the project is viable and the projected sequestration of carbon would be the major way of handling such reduction of carbon-dioxide.
Besides the process is quite time-consuming and costly. It would cost far more to go through this process than the potential value of the credits. For this reason, the only financially feasible afforestation and reforestation carbon credit projects are those that have a sufficiently large scale area for plantation.
But who can do it? Not you and me or for that matter a few NGOs. It has to be done by the policy makers. The current government can actually initiate such kind of an initiative. Because actually a lot can be done like for instance buying carbon credits by the polluting industries, and other such entities which in turn can be used to finance such large scale afforestation programme. The government has to do it in a war footing. Provided there is a political will. And then anything is possible."
He waited for a few seconds, selecting the words, then looking at me, he says, "If a poor country like Ethiopia can plant more 356 million plants, why can't India execute it in a bigger and a better way?"