End of road for saw millers ?

Stringent government regulations have resulted in acute shortage of Indian timber. But there could be some way forward!

The orders of the Supreme Court in the ‘forest cases’ were aimed at safeguarding Indian forests from extinction, such as in this elephant-assisted logging camp in Arunachal Pradesh.

By Ramesh Vishwanathula

Timber in India has always held importance in the living style of its population. It is widely used for the purpose of construction and building houses in almost all regions of the country, particularly the states in South and North-East India.

Starting from the pillars to roof-top supports timber is used extensively. Almost every house in these regions is made with the best available hardwood timber in India, and exhibit the best of local carpentry skills and native construction expertise.

After the 1900s, the living style of Indian families changed: households introduced wooden furniture as part of their home needs. By the middle of the 20th century most houses, big or small, came to be furnished with wooden furniture. The requirement of skillful producers of such furniture also increased.

Because of its enormous requirement of conversion of timber into different forms for day-to-day activities, every village in India has its own recognised carpentry families who earn their livelihood exclusively from the skilled conversion of wood and timber into utilitarian and decorative items.

Around the 1950s, cement and iron began replacing timber in construction activities. In recent times, more and more families prefer living in towns and cities, in buildings made of steel and cement. Even then, each such urban household uses timber for purposes such as cupboards and shelves, kitchen and storage shutters, resting furniture, etc.

Forest exploitation

After India’s independence from British rule, most Central legislation was revamped to meet the needs of the country; but not the Forest Act, 1927. It was originally enacted to consolidate the laws relating to forests, the transit of forest produce and the duty that could be levied on timber and other forest produce across the country.

Then there was the problem of exemptions granted in the legislation to the erstwhile princely states of Hyderabad, Jammu & Kashmir, Madhya Bharat, Patiala & East Punjab States Union, Rajasthan, Saurashtra, and Travancore-Cochin.

Over the decades, many states – notably Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala – enacted their own legislation to deal with state forest lands. But there was no agreement on the movement of timber from one state to another, no regulation of timber and other forest produce.

Demarcation of forest lands was not possible due to their extension into neighbouring states. Such feeble regulations and loopholes in law all over the country led to irregular timber migration and rampant illegal forest exploitation. Forests were being cleared for timber (often in the name of expansion of agriculture and industry) without a thought to maintaining a balance with their replacement or growth.

Court interjection

This situation was reported and debated through the mid-1990s, and came up before the Supreme Court through various petitions by non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The cases filed by Goa Foundation, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, Godavarman and others came to be collectively known as “forest cases”.

In the Godavarman case in the year 2002, the Supreme Court shook up all forest-related and timber trading activities across the country, with the apex court taking total control of the forest regulatory system. It is the first time that a judicial forum has taken on an administrative task.

At one point in time all illegal WBIs and saw mills were shut down, all timber transportation in the country came to a halt and consignments were stranded.

The Supreme Court set up a high-level committee to administer forest-related matters and regulatory affairs of wood-based industries (WBI), which includes saw mills. This committee has been given absolute powers to monitor and control the situation, and functions under the Supreme Court’s day-to-day orders.

The orders passed by the apex court were so severe as to draw punishment of forest officials and principal secretaries of the many states for contempt of court by permitting unlicensed saw mills to function.

New guidelines

On orders of the Supreme Court and under guidance of the high-level committee, the Union Ministry of Environment & Forests, has enacted stringent regulations for monitoring and control of WBIs all over the country. These regulations are called the Wood Based Industries (Establishment & Regulation) Guidelines, 2016, which applies to any industry using timber as raw material.

State-level committees (SLCs) are being established across the country, with the head of forest force (often the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests) as its chairman. There is a provision for invitation of one representative from WBI association for each SLC meeting.

The powers of the forest department relating to regulation and monitoring of WBIs states have been withdrawn, by giving special status to the SLCs. Earlier District Forest Officials or Divisional Forest Officials had powers to license, regulate and monitor WBIs in their regions.

Another major function of the SLCs will be to conduct wood assessment and availability study every 5 years. Depending on reports of availability of Indian timber, licenses relating to WBIs will be allotted. SLCs are expected to maintain a database of timber and other raw material utilised by each WBI unit for each financial year.

Stringent measures

Under the new regulations brought in by the Government of India, there is a restriction on establishment and operation of any WBI within 10 km of the boundary of any notified forests or protected area. However in the North-East, WBIs are permitted to establish units in industrial estates.

This means that about 30% of WBIs with sanctioned licenses will not be able to renewed them the next year. A major closure of the saw milling sector is imminent in the coming days, especially those operating their units to convert timber located within 10 km of forest areas.

Another major decision of the government is implementation of record-keeping in all WBI units: each one has to record receipt of timber, conversion and final yield of wood. Though this situation is harsh on the units, the records will help update the database of SLCs every year.

These records will be tabulated for calculations to assess the quantum of timber used in the country every year. The usage and availability of private timber from farmers’ lands will also be revealed from this data.

New regulations notified by the government recently restrict the annual requirement of timber for WBI units. They are categorised on the capacity of machines, for which electrical power consumption is sanctioned.

WBI units having 10 HP or less are restricted to an annual use of up to 540 cubic metres only. The maximum allowed for units with more than 60 HP is 2,160 cubic metres. This will perhaps prod the units into reducing waste and employ more efficient machinery.

Furniture factories

A welcome development in the newly notified regulations is the exemption granted to furniture manufacturing! Any furniture unit established solely for making furniture is completely exempt from the new regulations – unless the unit uses a band saw or rip saw with a diameter exceeding 30 cm.

Normally furniture units, big or small, do not use high capacity saws that are mainly required to convert wood logs. Since conversion of timber is not their primary concern, furniture makers buy sawn timber from various legal sources. Hence these units are exempt from the new regulations.

Some furniture units are as big as a factory with hundreds of employees. These large furniture makers are also not covered by the new regulations, so long as they do not establish a rip saw or circular saw with a diameter exceeding 30 cm.

But if a furniture unit is attached to a WBI, or established within the premises of a WBI, a separate license to operate it will be required under the new regulations.

Imported wood

The orders of the Supreme Court in “forest cases” were aimed at safeguarding Indian forests per se. If the same timber or wood is imported into the country from a legal source, these stringent guidelines do not apply.

In fact, some Indian states have already categorised WBI units exclusively consuming imported wood, so that these regulations do not apply to them.

The new regulations permit fresh licenses as required for the units that solely operate on imported raw material. The assessment and wood availability study is not a requirement for such fresh licenses. However, the switch of licenses from imported to domestic wood category is not permitted.

With these stringent regulations being notified and their implementation a certainty, the existence of WBIs using Indian forest wood has become a challenge. Whether they use private timber or that from forests, WBIs are accountable with records maintenance, restriction of quantities, restriction of location of operation, restriction of operation hours, restriction of machinery, etc.

Such restrictions will not only hamper the growth of the industry, but also increase the price of wood manifold. With such highly restricted trade, most traders are looking to importing timber. Around 30% of the 1,50,000 saw mills across the country have already done so. For the rest, there is no option.

 

The writer is a senior advocate based in Hyderabad. He specialises in environment and forests, science and technology matters and represents the Federation of Telangana Timber Merchants, Saw Millers & Allied Industries, in high courts and the Supreme Court. He can be reached at
ram.attorney@gmail.com.

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