‘‘Bamboo is not a Tree’’

Raman Swamy

Why was the Modi government in such haste to issue an Ordinance just a few days before the winter session of Parliament to declare that "Bamboo is not a Tree"?

What was the unseemly hurry all about? Why did the Centre draw on its Emergency Powers to pass a decree on November 23, 2017 barely a month before a formal Amendment Bill was in any case due to be tabled in both Houses?

Why was it deemed to be so urgent to modify a 90-year-old provision of the Indian Forest Act with a draconian Ordinance? What was so pressing? Who reaped a fortune during the period between the last week of November and the last week of December, when the Amendment was duly passed as an Act of parliament?

These are all legitimate questions. They are being repeatedly asked by Opposition MPs during impassioned three hour debates in both Houses—on December 18 in the Lok Sabha and December 27 in the Rajya Sabha. No satisfactory answer was forthcoming either from Dr Harsh Vardhan, the incumbent Minister for Environment and Forests or from his predecessor Prakash Javadekar, who made an unusual intervention on his behalf.

The Congress was among the parties which staged a walkout in protest against the evasive replies by the treasury. The Amendment Bill was passed by a voice vote and it is now the law of the land—the Bamboo is no longer on the List of Trees.

But that is not the point. Everybody knows—and agrees—that bamboo is a kind of grass and not a tree. Members of Parliament belonging to every political party have the same opinion—that 90 years ago the British rulers for their own nefarious profit motives had got the humble bamboo plant included in the official 'List of Trees' under the Indian Forest Act.

There is unanimity across the political spectrum that this is an anachronism which needs to be corrected and that the law has to be changed. The Bamboo has to be liberated from the suffocation and stigma of being labelled a tree, guarded and protected like a tree and prevented from being freely felled for the good of humanity—a steady income for poor farmers, a sturdy support for humble dwellings, a precious economic resource for adivasis, a low-cost raw material for wonderful handicrafts and a thousand other essential activities and uses.

The mystery lies in the manner in which the law was changed. The suspicion is about the motive for invoking Emergency Powers to pass an Ordinance and after that bring it before Parliament to replace the Ordinance, all within a four-week span of time. There is clearly more than meets the eye in the Modi government's desperate rush in the matter when so many other urgently needed reforms have been hanging fire for the past three years.

Who would have thought that the humble Bamboo would generate so much heat and who could have expected a debate about it would turn out to be so intriguing and thought-provoking?

But that's the way it turned out to be, thanks particularly due to some pointed and persistent questions raised by Opposition stalwarts. In the Lok Sabha on December 18, the Congress benches were bare, but three Opposition Members Tathagata Satpathy, Bhartruhari Mahtab (both from Biju Janala Dal) and N K Premachandran (RSP) ensured that Dr Harsh Vardhan had an uneasy moment or two.

There were a few others too who joined in raising the questions that the government was unwilling to answer—Konda Vishweshwar Reddy (TRS), Aparoopa Poddar (Trinamool Congress), Sikkim Democratic Front leader Prem Das Rai, Pappu Yadav (RJD) and Joice George, Independent member from Kerala.

In the Upper House on Wednesday, it was Jairam Ramesh who led the charge, zeroing in on the point—Why on earth was an Ordinance issued?—a question that T Subbarami Reddy had already raised while moving a statutory resolution. Minister Vardhan, having had the torrid experience of the Lok Sabha debate, rose to promise that he would respond to the query during the reply to the debate when it would be time for him to answer everyone else. As it turned out, the Minister never did furnish a straight forward and convincing explanation.

As a former Environment Minister himself Jairam Ramesh had many other issues relating to the Bamboo conundrum at his fingertips and among the points he made while opposing the Bill was about who would benefit by the new classification. He said : "You are saying only bamboo growing in non-forest areas will be allowed to be cut without legal restrictions. But 94 percent of bamboo produced in India is from forest areas. Therefore, you are bringing a Bill to deal with only the interests of the six percent. This is, not pro-tribal, pro-poor or pro-Northeast. This will benefit only private industry".

D Raja of the CPI also took up many of Ramesh's key points. He said: There was no need for an Ordinance. The Government should not have resorted to Ordinance route on this issue. As Jairam Ramesh has said it is the loot of forest wealth by private industries. In the forest Rights Act of 2006, bamboo has already been included as a Minor Forest Produce. So, people already have their rights over it. However, since the Indian Forest Act was not amended, forest officials have continued to illegally, stop people from harvesting and selling bamboo on forest lands.

The only place where such harassment was stopped was Maharashtra, where bamboo was removed from the 'tree' category in the filth Schedule areas. Using this, some villagers in Gadchiroli, began to harvest and sell bamboo using their own laws. They earned crores of money which was used for their developmental activities. This Government also talks about development all the lime. Actually, the money which they earned was used for the development activities in those areas. This shows how much money has been looted from the Adivasis and forest dwellers by the Forest Department. They looted the money which actually belonged to the tribal people.

Against this background, now, the new Bill only says that bamboo outside forest will not be considered as 'tree'. What docs this mean? Are you trying to benefit the private land owners? It means, you want to help paper companies. On the other hand, tribal people and forest dwellers will be deprived of their rights and access to forest wealth! Is it proper?

Is it right to deprive the rights of tribal people and forest dwellers and trying to help private industries? And, in order to do this, you have brought an Ordinance! This Bill is not in the interest of tribal people. This Bill is not in the interest of forest dwellers. If at all it benefits anybody, it benefits private industries and companies.

In a similar vein several other Opposition MPs from Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress, Biju Janata Dal and Bahujan Samaj Party opposed the Bill contending that it would only benefit the big industrialists, timber mafia and the rich and not the farmers as claimed by the government.

In the Lok Sabha, Tathagata Satpathy (BJD) had also wanted to know the reason for the hurry to issue an ordinance when it could have been brought in Parliament a month later. He said the Minister was probably misguided by his officials. The colonial masters by defining bamboo as a tree, probably took more care than Indians are doing at present, he said. "You are not taking a holistic view on the issues facing the country. You are acting exactly like bureaucrats".

Vol. 50, No.31, Feb 4 - 10, 2017