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Don’t Understand CPWD’s U-Turn on Wood Use? Try Modi Govt’s Climate Doublespeak.

Don’t Understand CPWD’s U-Turn on Wood Use? Try Modi Govt’s Climate Doublespeak.

India is one of the largest timber importers in the world. Photo: Pok Rie/Pexels.

The Central Public Works Department (CPWD) is a body under the Ministry of Urban Development with an all-India presence. It undertakes all manner of building and maintenance jobs, including the construction of schools, laboratories, hospitals, residential complexes, offices, sports facilities, auditoriums, flyovers, airports, etc. After a gap of 27 years, with a rather terse memorandum on July 1, 2020, the department declared that the ban on wood has been revoked from its construction agenda. This is a reversal of both intent and logic to the ban imposed on wood in 1993.

What is confusing and difficult to come to grips with is the fact that the same logic that was used to ban wood has been used to reintroduce wood.

The 1993 ban was justified due to depleting forest cover and deteriorating ecological conditions in the country, even though the alternatives chosen were detrimental to the environment as well. The amount of energy required to produce 1 tonne of soft timber requires about 0.852 MWh (1,000 kW of electricity used continuously for 1 hour) against 2.57 MWh for concrete blocks and 58.7 MWh for aluminium sheets. Since the ban, we have been greeted with metal window-frames, plastic and shiny metal chairs and tables, cement-based plastic boards, and all sorts of other substitutes to wood in government buildings. Aesthetics were discarded along with ecological sensitivity in one shot.

The present stance of including wood cites climate change as a reason. Specifically, it refers to India’s nationally determined contributions under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) target: to create an additional sink of 2.5-3 billion MT of carbon dioxide by 2030, through additional tree and forest cover. The commitment is also expected to push the rural economy and encourage farmers to bring degraded areas under forest cover.

Assuming climate change was not high on the international agenda in the 1990s, the CPWD in 2014 produced the ‘Guidelines for Sustainable Habitat’, which state that its “sustainability approach [is] the first to prohibit use of wood in construction work and playing a lead role in use of fly ash.”

The pride and justification of the guideline was a ‘sustainability index’ used to select building materials. It was based on 12 parameters that included recycled content, embodied energy, renewability, locally available material, maintenance cost, capital cost, fly ash content and toxicity. But a closer look at the weightage system shows that it had ample scope for neutralising the negatives.

For example, even though aluminium would have a high embodied energy – the total energy required to produce the material, including the fuel for the mining equipment, the transportation and processing – which would give it a low score, it could score high on maintenance. Likewise, the parameter of local availability is further split into manufacture and extraction, with a standard distance of 400 km for each criterion. The bauxite for aluminium could be mined in Odisha (>400 km) but the window frame could be manufactured in the outskirts of Delhi (<400 kms), yielding a final score of 7-8 out of 10! Plastics, steel, aluminium, cement and concrete had all thus entered the CPWD’s sustainable habitat programme, with an additional feel-good factor that this non-wood policy helps with forest conservation and ecology.

Also read: Why India’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Are About to Rise Faster

Now, without warning, this policy has been reversed. The memorandum states:

“Wood is a versatile renewable construction material and the life cycle cost of timber is often much lower. On the other hand building materials such as steel, aluminium, PV, glass, cement and polymers that are used in place of wood depend on non-renewable sources of raw materials with polluting and energy intensive methods of production, whereas timber is naturally available.”

Do the two chief contentions stated in the CPWD memorandum – carbon sequestration and producing timber – hold any water? Or do they simply lay the foundation for other plans?

The wood scenario

It’s useful to see where India stands with respect to wood exports and imports, and to its commitments to UNFCCC. India is one of the largest timber importers in the world, having hit the 2.5 million m3 mark in 2016, with a growing demand fuelled by a rising middle class, better salaries and aspirations in urban areas and small towns. The present demand for wood and fuel is mostly met from trees growing outside forest areas – estimated to be 1,604 million m3 from a total of 5,822.4 million m3 that includes all forests and tree cover. However, this estimate of wood production from trees outside forests (plantations, farms, private lands) isn’t clear.

India is also a large producer of wood and wood products, exporting to the US, the EU and China, among other countries. However its domestic needs are far higher than what it has the capacity to produce. The main woods harvested in India are teak, sal, Acacia catechu and Xylia xylocarpa. Planted species include teak and various species of acacia and eucalyptus. Most government and private nurseries have a dearth of variety, however.

Indian wood imports are dominated by logs, which made up 48% of the total in 2017. Lumber exports to India from the US alone rose from 3% to 42% between 2007 and 2018 despite log imports having a better tariff structure (saw-mills in India aren’t good enough to convert logs to lumber). About 30% of all forest product imports to India come from Malaysia, New Zealand, Ecuador, Costa Rica and a few African countries. Of these, Malaysia and New Zealand account for $637 per m3 of Meranti wood and Radiata pine, respectively. Ecuador and other countries sell teak logs at $367 per m3.

In the last few years, due to logging restrictions in their own countries – especially in Myanmar and Indonesia – supply of tropical woods has dropped.

The carbon commitment scenario

India’s wood economy straddles several commitments. On the one hand, India has committed to the UNFCCC target of creating an additional sink for 2.5-3 billion MT of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest cover by 2030. Its second biennial update report in 2018 indicated the country was emitting 2,607.49 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, 73% of it from the energy sector. And the energy sector – based mainly on coal – is set to grow in the coming decade, according to recent reports. And the promulgation of the Mineral Laws (Amendment) Ordinance in January 2020 casts doubt on the government’s stated commitment to the UNFCCC, under the Paris Agreement.

In 2019, India invested 14% less in renewable energy compared to 2018. Plus the invitation to allow foreign investors in the coal sector is also a global problem: coal fired plants anywhere will lead to emissions that will affect everyone, whoever the end user.

Also read: The 2019 State of Forests Report Tells a Distorted Story of India’s Trees

India’s carbon stock in 2019 was 7,124.6 million tonnes, an increase of 42.6 million tonnes from 2017, suggesting an increase of 21.3 million tonnes annually. This is equivalent to 78.1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent. Even going at the present rate of annual increase – 21.3 million tonnes – India will not be able to fulfil its Paris Agreement figure of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon sink by 2030. The technical body of the UNFCCC has also raised questions about the term ‘forest’ – which India claimed through its 2019 forest report to have increased.

India’s coal-fired power generation capacity is expected to increase over three years from 2019 by 22.4%, according to the power ministry’s chief engineer. This will offset any gains made in carbon sinks. With the Narendra Modi government’s intention of turning the Indian economy into a $5 trillion affair, there isn’t much chance of switching to renewable energy in the near future.

Potential implications

The intention to increase wood production as well as carbon sinks are obviously inseparable. Several existing Acts, drafts and proposed legislation tend to be in conflict with large sections of the rural community, and they don’t achieve any of the goals they are purportedly meant for. For example, we have the proposed draft Environment Impact Assessment that allows post facto assessments of projects, and cuts the time given for impacted communities to respond.

Another major driver is the Compensatory Afforestation Fund, with a mandate to restore and enrich degraded lands. Much has been written about its implementation being far short of expectation – along with calls for scrutiny about the way the funds have been managed. In almost every state in which the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act (CAMPA) 2016 has been invoked, there have been conflicts with local populations or, at best, a substandard level of afforestation. But instead of examining the manner in which CAMPA-related work is unfolding in the country, the draft National Forest Policy 2018 states that the state will use these funds in its afforestation agenda.

After a Department of Agriculture recommendation in 1972, state governments set up forest development corporations (FDCs) that established plantations on lands leased from the forest department. The FDCs also were involved in trading several non-timber forest products, like tendu leaves, gums and resins, sal seeds, etc. At present, 22 states and the UT of Andaman and Nicobar Islands have FDCs. However, most of them plant none of the many wood species that can make the country’s timber stock more diverse – in keeping with the intention of the new CPWD memorandum.

In all states where there is an FDC, the wood species being planted are eucalyptus, teak, poplar, acacia, tamarind, rubber and bamboo. Meghalaya has invested in saw mills. Haryana, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand have gained from the trees felled to widen roads. So no FDC is likely to contribute to India’s wood requirement at present.

India’s 2019 forest report proposes solutions to increase carbon sinks, which could also have a bearing on the country’s wood availability. Broadly, the report proposes to restore ‘open’ forests and to afforest wastelands, improve agroforestry and plant trees along state and national highways. (We just saw that some states were busy earning revenue from widening their highways!) The report also notes that the most cost-effective method to create more carbon sinks, with a view to our 2030 commitments towards the UNFCCC, is to upgrade our ‘open forests’ to ‘medium dense forests’.

Some 70% of India’s forest cover is tropical semi-evergreen, tropical Moist Deciduous and tropical dry deciduous; 30% of these are open forests. The tropical dry deciduous forests are of greater interest. However, the report doesn’t mention the vast numbers of people and habitats these forests contain. About 41% of India’s forest is classified as ‘degraded’, inhabited by about 275 million people, of which about 88 million are Adivasi people. These people have inhabited these tracts for several generations. In the last five decades, 50 million people – of which 40% are Adivasi – have been displaced by the construction and operation of dams, mines, industrial projects, sanctuaries and national parks (in that order). This is the same group of people from whom the government enacted the landmark Forest Rights Act in 2006. Its implementation today lies in tatters, however.

The draft National Forest Policy 2018, which a group of ministers discussed in June 2020 and sent to the cabinet for approval with some suggestions, is convergent with various trends of the state monopolising lands at the cost of its people. There is little mention of the Forest Rights Act or the Scheduled Areas where the panchayat and the gram sabha can adjudicate land use. The policy, under the section ‘Sustainable Management of Forests’ (4.1.1 (d)) states:

The lands available with the forest corporations which are degraded and underutilised will be managed to produce quality timber with scientific interventions. Public private participation models will be developed for undertaking Afforestation and reforestation activities in degraded forest areas and forest areas available with Forest Development Corporations and outside forests.

And under ‘Management of Trees Outside Forests’:

Suitable location specific Public Private Partnership models will be developed involving Forest Departments, Forest development Corporations, Communities, Public limited companies etc for achieving the target of increased forest & tree cover in the country.

Also read: India Is One of the Last Big Markets for Fossil Fuels – and It Is Cashing In

The other issue the policy brings up more than once is climate change, nationally determined contributions and carbon (sections 2.4, 2.13, 3.7 and 4.2.5). Despite criticism from many civil society groups and scholars working on forest-people issues, the state hasn’t revisited the many contradictions in the draft policy. One of the more glaring ones concerns the Mineral Laws (Amendment) Ordinance 2020. This ordinance entails that Coal India Ltd. mine 1 billion tonnes of coal by 2023-2024, obviously destroying vast tracts of forests, reducing the carbon sink, negatively offset India’s nationally determined contributions – mentioned repeatedly in the policy – and unleash social unrest.

It seems all arguments for India’s future ecological path are ridden with contradictions. The CPWD’s doublespeak, without even a pretence of an explanation, is typical of the state’s new language that it needs to justify grabbing lands to hand over to private parties. Most of this land belongs to communities and the commons. It’s a language with a new grammar that emphasises rhetoric and is grounded in hyperbole, and which could soon be included in the Eighth Schedule of our Constitution.

Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.

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