By Dr. Udaya Raj Sharma
Churiya is the outermost mountain range in the Himalayas spreading from east to west of Nepal with a span of 0.5 -50 km where peak reach between 1000-1500 m. Considered the youngest and fragile mountain in the Himalayas, it still has its about two thirds land under the forest cover. But deforestation in accelerating pace makes one wonder how much forests are actually left in Churiya now. The area until 1950s was sparsely populated and was with high erosion and low productivity of land, proving itself to be less attractive to the settlers. But with the increased pressure on the plains and better access, the land has opened new opportunities for poor settlers. The deforestation and over harvest of natural resources, unsustainable agriculture, and current increased tendency to excavate the riverbeds and hillsides for stones and boulders for building infrastructure to urban centres and across the border as essential construction materials have accelerated soil erosion and thus seriously affected the environmental conditions of the Churiya region.
Although Churiya conservation was given a high "importance" since the period as early as the Fourth Five Year Plan (1970–1975), very little could happen on the ground. On the contrary, migration to Churiya escalated with the highest migration movement taking place between mid-1960s and mid-1980s in districts like Sarlahi and Mahottari (CSRC 2005). On the positive side, some of the stretches of Churiya mountain ranges falling within the protected areas, including Parsa Wildlife Reserve, Chitwan National Park and Bardiya National Park, received adequate protection, and they continue to remain beautiful wilderness areas of the country. But, on the whole, the Churiya suffered over decades as Dinesh Bhuju would put it, "the neglect of the nation."
Feeble attempts by the government to translate President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav’s dream through the formulation of the President Churiya Conservation Programme in its annual budget since the Fiscal Year 2067/068 (2011/12) and the Ministry of Forests and Soil Conservation have been reflected in establishing a unit within its secretariat. The coordinator of the unit is planning to implement the program through two major departments: Department of Forests and Department of Soil Conservation and Watershed Management. The program is being implemented in 23 districts and will be expanded to 27 districts from the following fiscal year. The proposed budget for the next fiscal year is Rs. 260 million, which is very insignificant for the challenge Churiya is facing. The Ministry is proposing a strategy for the conservation of Churiya, which is yet to be tested, but the chances are that it would fall short of achieving the President's dream. The unit trusted with this work with limited manpower and budget will probably be limiting itself on the monitoring and supervision of the work in the districts. The implementers, the District Forest Officers (DFOs) and District Soil Conservation Officers (DSCOs), do not seem prepared for this work. In lack of clear guidelines and motivation, the available budget may not be fully spent or spent unwisely.
As most of the land in Churiya belongs to the Forest Department, it becomes logical that the DFO be given the major responsibility of conservation and management; but he/she alone is unable to undertake this difficult task. The existing strategies have emphasized increasing land productivity through programs of soil conservation and integrated programs of watershed management. The Forest Policy 2000 has stated that Churiya be managed as protected forest as provisioned in the Forest Act, 2049 but, a great deal of discussion is yet to happen on the modality and structure of institutions to implement this. The conflicting provisions especially in the Forest Act, Local Development Act, and Mines Act have made the situation worse for Churiya. The provision of LDA (Art. 218) that DDC can raise fund by the sale of sand, grits, stones, slates, soils and drift wood found in its district has been directly in conflict with the provision of the Forest Act in which the DFO has been made responsible to extract, sell and provide licenses for the forest resources which includes stones and gravel. The Environmental Protection Regulation is not very robust in protecting Churiya against the wanton harvest of such resources as the Initial Environmental Examination (IEE) and is considered adequate to establish crusher industry in the vicinity of forests or rivers. Similarly, the excavation of hillsides such as of Churiya for some mining activities to extract stones and gravel is possible only after a simple IEE.
To resolve the complex issue of Churiya and materialize the vision of the President, the start can be made by conducting a land use survey of Churiya hills and propose land use after rigorous consultation with the stakeholders. The parcels of forest land should be declared by the respective DFO as the Protected Forests, and work plans developed after careful consultation with the grassroots. The land use plan would help to identify "red-inked areas" where the major focus of the corrective activities would be directed. The Committee, chaired by the Chief District Officer, as provisioned in the Forest Act (Art 9), should be made responsible in each district to (i) identify red-inked areas in the field, (ii) formulate strategy to enforce land use plan, and (3) prepare activity plans, timelines and propose budget. The Committee has been given enormous legal authority to enforce forest laws, but it seldom has been seen actively engaged in its duties entrusted by the Forest Act. The Committee members provisioned in the Act include officials from Land Office, Survey Office, District Development Office, and the District government attorney. The official of the DFO is identified as the member-secretary.
The Committee can decide and act (i) to provide compensation to legal landowners, whose land would be taken by the government to implement land use plan, (ii) to offer an alternative plan to long-time settlers who have no land rights but are occupying land classified as unsuitable for cultivation or settlement, (iii) to evict settlers/land grabbers of recent origin, (iv) to close down illegally operating stone crushers on forest or other government lands, or private land within five km of the forest boundary, (v) to cancel illegally registered forest land, and (vi) to propose to the government for approval a set of clear guidelines on the sale of the forest resources including stones and gravels. After the approval of the guidelines, the DFO can implement the guidelines with the full support of the Committee.
The Churiya Conservation is only possible if the Government truly identifies it as national priority work and decides to mobilize its district government machineries in full swing with the support of political parties and the communities. The program, however, cannot make much headway if corrupt and incompetent government officials in all concerned government agencies in the Churiya districts continue to receive favour in posting. The task would require large budget and commitment from all quarters. In my humble opinion, the President’s vision should be given a presidential treatment to bring significant changes in the environmental conditions of a fragile landscape that forms the ‘back bone’ of Nepal’s future.