Po­plar no longer pop­u­lar

In the back­yard of Asia's largest po­plar mar­ket, farm­ers are be­ing forced to quit grow­ing the soft wood as its price crashes be­cause of over­pro­duc­tion

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - ANU­PAM CHAKRAVARTTY AND SOUJANYA SHRIVASTAVA

The mar­ket for po­plar wood crashes in Haryana due to over­pro­duc­tion

BALWINDER SINGH, a farmer from Haryana’s Yamunanagar district, is a wor­ried man. Though the July 7 tor­ren­tial rains spared his 6.5 hectares (ha) po­plar plan­ta­tion, it com­pletely de­stroyed the sug­ar­cane crops he had cul­ti­vated along­side. The 50-year-old farmer says he was re­ly­ing on the sug­ar­cane crop to see his fam­ily through this year be­cause po­plar—which till 2013 was worth gold— pays lit­tle to­day. Po­plar is a soft tim­ber va­ri­ety that is widely used in ply­wood, sports and pa­per in­dus­tries. In 2012, when Balw-in­der last sold his po­plar, he earned a resp-ectable 15,000 per tonne. “But things have changed dras­ti­cally since. Now one does not even get 5,000 a tonne. If the mar­ket does not im­prove, I will have to sell the po­plar at this price, which will be a huge loss for me,” says he. An­other farmer from the area, Sarab­jit Singh, ex­plains that the tree takes four to five years to ma­ture and re­quires an av­er­age in­vest­ment of J75,000 a ha per year. “This in­vest­ment would nor­mally fetch a farmer J4- 5 lakh, but with the pre­vail­ing prices he won’t get more than J1.2 lakh,” says he.

Like Balwinder and Sarab­jit, many farm­ers across the district are now strug­gling with their po­plar trees. Since 2014, the price of po­plar has crashed by at least 60 per cent (see ‘Crash crop’ p23). As a re­sult, many farm­ers from the re­gion are plan­ning to stop grow­ing po­plar trees.

The sit­u­a­tion was not al­ways this bleak. In fact, Yamunanagar is the first district in the coun­try where farm­ers started grow­ing po­plar in farm­land. In 1979-80, match­stick man­u­fac­turer wimco started procur­ing po­plar from two big Yamunanagar farms, Hara and Kal­sia. See­ing the de­mand, these farms ex­per­i­mented with dif­fer­ent va­ri­eties and brought down the ma­tur­ing pe­riod from 10-12 years to four-five years.

Farm­ers in Haryana, Pun­jab, Hi­machal Pradesh, Ut­tarak­hand and Ut­tar Pradesh started grow­ing po­plar trees. A 2012 re­port by the then Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment and Forests high­lights this in­crease in po­plar pro­duc­tion. It says that from a few scat­tered plan­ta­tions (in and around Yamunanagar), po­plar plan­ta­tions picked up in parts of west­ern Ut­tar Pradesh, Haryana and Pun­jab. Yamunanagar district has over 700 fac­to­ries that pro­duce po­plar prod­ucts worth 4,000 crore a year and pro­vide liveli­hood to over 50,000 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to Yamunanagar’s Manakpur Tim­ber Mar­ket As­so­ci­a­tion.

“Manakpur is Asia’s big­gest po­plar mar­ket and the district ac­counts for 80 per cent of soft tim­ber pro­duc­tion in the coun­try,” says Maim Singh Dahiya, prad­han of the tim­ber mar­ket as­so­ci­a­tion.

Too much to han­dle

While the po­plar pro­duc­tion picked up, a com­men­su­rate in­crease in the de­mand did not hap­pen. This is at the heart of the cur­rent cri­sis. Jas­bir Singh, sec­re­tary of the Agri­cul­tural Pro­duce Mar­ket­ing Com­mit­tee ( apmc), blames the un­fet­tered ex­pan­sion of po­plar farms in the re­gion for the cur­rent price drop. And one of the main rea­sons this has hap­pened is be­cause of Haryana gov­ern­ment ini­tia­tives to fa­cil­i­tate farm­ers to in­crease po­plar pro­duc­tion. In 2006, the state for­est de­part­ment started to give po­plar and eu­ca­lyp­tus seeds to farm­ers for free. In 2012, the state for­est de­part­ment dis­trib­uted over 25 mil­lion poplars and eu­ca­lyp­tus seedlings to farm­ers to aug­ment agro­forestry.

A year later, the state gov­ern­ment started a di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion scheme to bring 25,000 ha of farm­land un­der po­plar tree plan­ta­tion to break the wheat-rice crop­ping pat­tern. The plan was tar­geted at Am­bala, Yamunanagar, Ku­ruk­shetra, Kaithal, Jind, Fate­habad, Kar­nal, Pa­ni­pat, Soni­pat and Sirsa dis­tricts.

Sarab­jit says that while the gov­ern­ment pushed po­plar pro­duc­tion, it prac­ti­cally did noth­ing to en­sure that the pro­duced po­plar is con­sumed. “Un­like wheat and sug­ar­cane, the gov­ern­ment does not even have a min­i­mum sup­port price for po­plar. As a re­sult, we are left at the mercy of ply­wood man­u­fac­tur­ers who ar­bi­trar­ily de­cide the rates to max­imise their prof­its,” says Sarab­jit.

Dahiya cites an­other rea­son. He says the 2002 Supreme Court ban on is­su­ing new li­cences to wood-based in­dus­tries stopped new play­ers from en­ter­ing the sec­tor. On Oc­to­ber 30, 2002, in its ver­dict on a pe­ti­tion filed by the late T N Go­davar­man Thiru­mul­pad, the apex court put a clo­sure on saw mills and other wood-based in­dus­tries to check large-scale de­for­esta­tion. It also pro­hib­ited state gov­ern­ments from is­su­ing li­cences and called for the set­ting up of a Cen­tral Em­pow­ered Com­mit­tee for the job.

In­tru­sion of for­eign tech­nolo­gies has also played a role in bring­ing down the price of the tim­ber. For ex­am­ple, the in­tro­duc­tion of Chi­nese peel­ing ma­chines, which can peel thin­ner logs as com­pared to the tra­di­tional process, has meant more quan­tity of raw wood can be ex­tracted from each po­plar tree. As a re­sult, ply­wood in­dus­tries are procur­ing less raw wood. This has fur­ther re­duced po­plar prices.

Farm­ers also say high tran­sit pass charges are eat­ing into their prof­its. The tran­sit pass, lo­cally known as Su­vidha Shulk or Mandi Samiti Tax, has been in­creased from 35 per tonne in 2010 to 75 per tonne in 2016. Farm­ers in Haryana and Ut­tar Pradesh also have to pay the for­est de­part­ment two per cent of the money they get from the sale of wood. Traders ques­tion the for­est de­part­ment tax, say­ing that po­plar was deemed a farm pro­duce in 2006.

Farm­ers and tim­ber as­so­ci­a­tions across the re­gion say im­me­di­ate gov­ern­ment in­ter­ven­tion is re­quired to ar­rest the sit­u­a­tion. “Es­tab­lish­ing gov­ern­ment-owned man­u­fac­tur­ing units for wood pro­cess­ing should be a pri­or­ity,” says Dahiya. Next steps should be to ease the tran­sit pass rules for farm­ers and set up an as­sured buy-back sys­tem to ben­e­fit po­plar farm­ers. In­ter­est­ingly, wimco, which was bought over by itc in 2005, had an ef­fec­tive as­sured buy-back mech­a­nism when it started procur­ing from Yamunanagar. Farm­ers also say im­ports should be taxed heav­ily to check com­pe­ti­tion from abroad. And fi­nally they de­mand that a reg­u­la­tory body be set up to de­ter­mine po­plar wood prices.

RAKESH NAIR / CSE A worker un­loads po­plar logs at Haryana's Manakpur tim­ber mar­ket, which is the big­gest po­plar mar­ket in Asia

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