Linking employment generation schemes in the corona era to meeting our forestry targets could prove to be a game-changer for the nation’s poor in these trying times as well as provide a lifeline to our beleaguered forests
Never before in recent history has such a large percentage of our population been forced to remain at home without a fixed source of employment. Equally startling has been the jump in demand for agricultural inputs as observed in the past few weeks. The corona induced inward migration has put the focus back into agriculture as a major driver of the economy. We might see a dramatic increase in output by the end of the Kharif season as most estimates acknowledged that the farm sector has been largely unscathed by the effects of the pandemic and is in fact poised to grow at a fast pace.
However, it is still uncertain that the revival of agriculture will lead to an increase of incomes and above all, job security to millions of migrants and local villagers who have been hit by the effects of the pandemic. The fear of slipping into a state of poverty coupled with an uncertain future requires a mammoth re-imagination on the part of the government to pull the currently unproductive population back into the employment cycle.
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We see evidence of a spurt in activities as demand for work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) surge. With 36 million households seeking work in May and more than 40 million households seeking work in the 25 days of June, the demand for work has increased by more than 70%. While average monthly demand under MGNREGA hovers around 21.5 million households, the sheer increase in numbers of May and June offer relief that families are able to currently obtain employment and yet portend a grave future as people tend to shift to MGNREGA often in terms of crisis.
The current avatar of MGNREGA may not be enough. With billions of lives shaken worldwide and several million Indian lives staring at an uncertain future, doors are opening for millions to be pushed into poverty. The nation has an impending crisis of depleting resources on one hand and the growing threat of Climate Change on the other. Times such as these require the society to leap beyond customary contended zones. We require an immediate massive investment to make our society resilient and our environment healthy, a scheme that few would have seen a parallel before.
On many occasions, simple economics can work wonders. When a drought struck the city of Jodhpur in the early part of the last century, the Maharajah commissioned the construction of the Umaid Palace and employed around 3000 people to build what was then the world’s largest private residence, saving several lives in the process.
The Jodhpur experiment might have been conducted on a small scale but the Civilian Conservation Corps in the United States of America, which operated as a public work relief programme from 1933 to 1942 to provide manual labour, invested intensively in tree plantations and helped create much of the infrastructure of the present-day National Park system of USA. Not only did it provide the desperately required jobs but also laid the foundation for economic recovery and even till this date, the “Tree Army” is fondly remembered in the USA for planting more than 3 billion trees in 9 years and helping shape the much-beloved national parks system of the present day.
While such an idea can still be exercised for various infrastructure-based activity in the present day, improving the green cover of our nation is an arena that requires intense input and determination. As the impact of COVID-19 is felt across communities and landscapes in myriad ways, a gnawing fear is that the first effect of growing poverty would be felt upon vulnerable forests. And it may turn out to be the endgame for our forests, besieged as they are from all sides by thousands of villages.
India’s current forests cover as per the latest Indian State of Forest Report is around 24.56% of the geographical area of the country. And this is just not enough! As the country grows rapidly, pumping out greenhouse gases in its quest for development, it needs to double the rate of forest cover expansion to meet the Paris Agreement deadlines. And that is unlikely to happen in the current scenario, even without taking into account the effects of Corona. The country is in the midst of a mind-boggling developmental push. As India attempts to grow financially and catch up with its equally development-hungry neighbour China, forests and natural green spaces are likely to suffer infinitely. Yet, it is apparent to everyone that a green stimulus might offer some hope to a nation like India to withstand the effects of Climate Change and help improve forests across the nation.
The pandemic offers this window of opportunity to the government and companies seeking to improve their social responsibility. Corona is indirectly telling us, “We are behind our committed target of achieving 33% forest cover in India and there is a severe crunch of job opportunities in rural areas”. It would take a few brave decision-makers to initiate a multi-state large scale native tree planting initiative that may provide job opportunities to millions of Indians staring at a crevice under present circumstances.
We would not be deviating from current national priorities as achieving a healthy forest cover is mandated under the constitution and aligned to international objectives such as the Global Deal for Nature (GDN) which seeks to protect at least 30 percent of lands by 2030, with an additional 20 percent of the land protected as ‘Climate Stabilization Areas (CSAs)’. Other prominent voices have called for protecting more. Prominent biologist Edward O. Wilson writes that devoting half the world to nature would help save the majority of species. More people are advocating what we already know. We need to protect the earth to protect ourselves and the Coronavirus pandemic may be offering us the solution to strive for a concerted tree-planting movement now!
Pakistan is doing just that. As part of its 10 billion forest restoration campaign, it is hiring daily wagers who have been laid off to plant trees, often paying them up to Rs. 500 per day. Their new job as “Jungle Workers” is a green stimulus that has the potential of generating vital livelihoods and helping the nation prepare for the impending climate crisis. It has been reported that the programme has already helped generate 65,000 jobs and envisions employment for 6,00,000 more in the coming time. It is not just Pakistan but countries like Germany and England are also investing in large scale tree planting.
With agriculture and forests, historically at loggerheads in India, and the forests been systematically reduced, forestry to supplement farm incomes is the way forward for the government of current times. States like Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Chhattisgarh, and Karnataka have witnessed a high demand for MGNREGA related jobs lending credence to the emerging dire job scenario in these states. Currently, India’s stimulus package of INR 20 Lakh crore or USD 260 billion ranks 5th worst on the world’s Global Environment Index. While India allocated INR 6000 crores for plantation projects, the significant push to oil, coal, and diverting forests makes India’s claims of a green push redundant.
On the other hand, instead of focussing on large scale destructive projects, India and its leaders need to put their priority back to the village. The current list of activities listed under the MGNREGA is not enough and the authorities need to increase more jobs so that more people are employed. The outlay can be supplemented by the Green India Mission and more programmes in the coming months. Watershed development and revival of traditional water bodies along with localized small-scale plantations, especially to serve as a buffer for existing forests is an idea worth exploring. And the idea of greening India is a proposal way past its due date. A green revival must begin today!
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