Social forestry is an important programme to improve the greenery of the country through people’s co-operation. It involves greater co-operation between forest department and the general public in increasing forest-cover; providing fuel, fodder and domestic wood to rural folk utilising the barren and waste lands in tree plantation; relieving pressure on reserve forest; and improving the environmental conditions in rural areas.
The social forestry progamme comprises of two schemes, viz., (a) mixed plantation of waste lands, and (b) reforestation of degraded forests and rising of shelter belts. Its main objectives include: (a) supply of fuel wood to rural folk so that cow dung used as traditional fuel could be saved for manures, (2) provide small timber for the construction of rural houses, (3) give green fodder to cattle, (4) protect crops from storms and strong winds by raising shelter belts and check the advancement of the desert, (5) control floods and soil erosion, and (6) improve recreational facilities.
Although there was provision for rural forest and farm forest in the Forest Policy of 1952 but the first suggestion for social forestry was made by the National Commission on Agriculture in 1976 which divided it into: (a) agro forestry, (b) expansion forestry, (c) rehabilitation of degraded and low grade forests, and (4) recreation forestry. The programme was formally launched in 1978 and became part of the Sixth Plan in 1980.
In the second Forestry Conference (1980) it was decided that social forestry scheme should be given priority over barren and, waste land, community land, and lands along the roads, canals and railways. This land used for tree plantation may be under individual or community ownership and in the form of narrow strip or rectangular blocks. Seedlings for afforestation should be provided by the Forest Department.
Social forestry was initially a centrally sponsored programme in which 50 per cent of the expenditure (or a maximum of Rs. 1,000 per hectare) was met by the Central Government. During 1980- 85 afforestation was carried on 260,000 ha. Of area and 580 million seedlings were distributed with an expenditure of 500 million rupees (50% of total). Besides, World Bank, SIDA (Swedish International Development Agency), U.S.A.I.D. (United States Agency for International Development), C.I.D.A. (Canadian International Development Authority), and D.A.N.I.D.A. (Danish International Development Authority) are financing these programmes in 15 states of the country. World Bank has provided financial assistance of 3.7 crore dollars to Gujarat, 2.9 crore dollars to West Bengal 2.7 crore dollars to Karnataka, 2.3 crore dollars to Uttar Pradesh and 1.3 crore dollars to Jammu-Kashmir. Similarly USAID has provided 30 million and 25 million dollars worth of aid for social forestry programmes in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh respectively. Similar contributions have also been given by CIDA to Andhra Pradesh (44 million $) and by SIDA to Tamil Nadu (33 million $), Orissa (18 million $) and Bihar.
Social forestry programmes have mainly three components: (a) farm forestry, i.e., encouraging farmers to plant trees on their own farms by distributing free or subsidised seedlings, (b) woodlots planted by the forest department along the roads, canals, railways and public lands for the needs of the community; and (c) woodlots planted by the communities themselves on community lands to be shared by community people. Under social forestry only planting of such species of trees is preferred which provide quick benefits to the people.
Seedlings are provided free or subsidized by the forest department. For the success of the programme the Central Government has initiated ‘tree lease plan’ under which a part of the public land is temporarily (for a specific- time period) leased out to the people of low income group, small and marginal farmers and ex service men of the village to plant trees and reap the benefits of their fruits, dry wood and leaves, but the ownership of the land will remain unaltered.
Social forestry programme has achieved unprecedented success. According to Government claims 18,865 million trees have been planted under this programme between 1980-87. If the survival rate is assumed to be 60% the average number of trees per village comes to 18,865 (Singh, J. 1994, p. 114). However, a recent note by NWDB admits that there has been a big gap between the stated objectives and the actual outcome (Saxena, 1989, p. 488). The World Bank mid-term review of social forestry projects in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat has noticed phenomenal success of the farm forestry scheme (in Gujarat 200%) but unsatisfactory result in case of community self-help woodlots (U.P. 11 %, and Gujarat 43%). But in West Bengal the village woodlot and farm forestry programmes achieved 109% and 200% success respectively due to greater involvement of party cadres at grass root level.
It has also been observed that the programme has been more popular among big farmers owning over 4 ha. of land or amongst absentee landowners who devoted their crop lands to farm forestry to gain easy returns from the land and maintain their ownership. Amongst the planted trees eucalyptus has been very popular which is hardly of any utility to poor rural people? Instead it is a good source of earning for big landlords who earn good profit by selling the trees to paper mills. This defeats the very purpose of social forestry for weaker section of the rural society.
Hence, there is a need to reorient social forestry programme so that it could achieve its desired objectives meeting the needs of the poor people and improve their economic conditions. The programme should be linked with the rural employment and rural development.
It should be broad based so as to include within its purview rural employment, dairy development, usar and waste land development, checking floods, soil erosion, reclamation of degraded lands, rehabilitation of groves and wood lands, planting quick growing and economically useful trees, restricting the plantation of eucalyptus to only 6% as in Tamil Nadu, and developing alternative sources of rural fuel like LPG, biogas, solar cooker, wind power etc.