Shimla/Bhoraj: Pine needles, a major cause of forest fires in Himachal Pradesh, are now helping villagers earn money.
The inflammable needles, which fall on the ground in summer and cause forest fires because they have resin, are being used as bio-fuel by a cement plant. The locals are collecting the needles and selling them at Rs.1.65 per kg to the company.
"Gujarat Ambuja Cements is using pine needles along with charcoal in its kilns. The needles have good calorific value," divisional forest officer Pradeep Thakur told IANS.
This is the second year in a row when the company is purchasing the needles directly from the local people for its plant in Ropar in Punjab, adjoining the hill state. Last season the company procured 250 tonnes of pine needles.
This time it has procured more than 560 tonnes and the procurement is still on. The forest department is facilitating the trade between the company and the villagers.
Thakur said the company had increased the procurement rate from Rs.1.50 per kg to Rs.1.65 per kg.
"It`s a good source of additional income for the villagers. In the Hamirpur forest division alone, more than 200 families are involved in the job," he said.
On an average, a family earns around Rs.15,000 per month through pine needles, said an official.
The forest department has set up 20 collection centres in the forest division where the company is procuring directly.
At the collection centres, the needles are packed into bales of 35 kg to 40 kg using machines provided by the company.
"The transportation cost is quite high but in financial terms its use is viable as the company is saving 25 to 30 percent of coal," Thakur said.
The company is also paying Rs.5 per quintal as royalty to the panchayat concerned from where the needles are extracted.
Manju Devi of Bhoraj village in Hamirpur district said collection of pine needles was a good source of alternative income.
"Since pine needles are not used at homes as a burn directly (due to the presence of various nitrogen oxides), these lie unused in the forests. The demand picked up after the company started procuring them. We are now earning up to Rs.40,000 in a season (from May to June)," Manju Devi told IANS.
The needle fall starts in April-end and continues till the beginning of July.
Forest officials said the harvesting of needles greatly help checking forest fires too.
On an average, a pine forest yields two to three tonnes of needles per hectare during a season and the state has pine forests spread over 1,500 sq km, found up to an altitude of 5,500 feet.
This summer, forest wealth estimated at well over Rs.2 crore (over $400,000) spread over 20,000 hectares has been destroyed in forest fires.
A majority of the fires are reported from the pine forests.
"Supplying pine needles to an industrial unit is a great success. We are identifying some other end users too," said Avtar Singh, chief conservator (Forest Protection and Fire Control).
According to the 2009 Forest Survey of India report, Himachal Pradesh has 37,033 sq km of forest area, of which 3,224 sq km is very dense forest.