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Monday, October 26, 1998

Govt wakes up to illegal charcoal manufacture

Bashir Pathan  
GANDHINAGAR, Oct 25: Weeks after being rocked by the daylight murder of an informant on illegal charcoal manufacture in Kutch district, the State government is apparently cracking down on the trade. The principal chief conservator of forests has directed forest officials not to involve themselves in the issuing of transit passes for transportation of charcoal manufactured in revenue wastelands or Panchayat-governed areas.

The directive, according to sources, aimed to prepare the base for applying the existing laws to the illegal charcoal trade and protecting the government's revenue interests, as well as preventing the exploitation of the large number of labourers working in the trade.

The death of Bavji Jadeja, a close confidant of State Industries Minister Suresh Mehta, had shocked the Bharatiya Janata Party government and paved the way for Mehta's resignation from the ministry. Though the resignation was not accepted, the Keshubhai Patel government suspended a range forest officer, a forester and a beat guard, while two DFOs, a conservator and and an assistant conservator were transferred. The case is still being investigated.

According to sources, a powerful mafia group has been dominating the illegal charcoal trade for years now with the tacit connivance of an ``unholy nexus'' of State Revenue, Forest, Panchayat and Police department personnel. A senior bureaucrat says this ring must be destroyed to prevent the recurrence of an incident such as the recent murder.

That there is such a possibility emerges from the extremely lucrative nature of the charcoal trade. Charcoal is prepared from the wood of the Prosopis juliflora (local name gando baval), a species native to Mexico. Regular coppicing encourages the plant to grow to its full size within five years. The charcoal it yields is used in producing activated carbon and in the thermal power projects.

Introduced to stop the ingress of the saline desert in the Kutch, the prosopis has flourished in almost two-third of the 1,300 sq km Banni grasslands. Forests in the gauchar areas (grasslands) are owned by the local panchayats, while the revenue wastelands are under the administrative control of the revenue department.

Interestingly, the gauchars and the revenue wastelands are beyond the purview of the forest department. ``A 1975 Government Resolution fixes the responsibility of protecting such areas with the Revenue and Panchayat department, whose officials are only responsible for issuing transit passes for transportation of charcoal'', explains a bureaucrat.

``No officer in this area is questioned in connection with illegal charcoal manufacture. Rather, these officers question the Forest Department's intentions'', adds the bureaucrat.

According to the official, a Gujarat State Forest Development Corporation plan envisaging the harvesting of gando baval and manufacture of charcoal offers a way out. ``It is deplorable that the GSFDC plan, though submitted to the government long ago, has been cold shouldered by successive governments''.

If scientifically managed, each of the five coupes falling under the gando baval areas in Kutch can yield 10 lakh bags of charcoal each year at an estimated value of Rs 10 crore. Of this income, if Rs 5 crore could be paid to labourers as wages, Rs 3 crores could go to the government as royalty, besides generating 12 lakh mandays for the workforce engaged in the charcoal manufacture.

Thus the gando baval can not only provide means of livelihood to the local population, but also generate considerable revenue for the government.

However, about 60 per cent of the yield is being siphoned off by unscrupulous elements, obviously at the connivance of revenue, panchayat, forest and police officers in the region, admits the bureaucrat.

Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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