This International Day of Forests which passed by last week, India Jhas reason to celebrate. Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar has announced India a global frontrunner in forest restoration. The latest biennial India State of Forest Report (ISFR) highlights an increase in the country’s forest and tree cover to 80.73 million hectare, or 24.56% of its total area.
However, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and ministry of environment, forest and climate change (MoEFCC) 2019 progress report on forest restoration highlights that 9.8 million hectares of deforested and degraded land have been brought under restoration since 2011, yet forest cover has barely increased. A closer look at ISFR numbers reveals a disappointing growth of just 0.13% in India’s green cover, along with rapidly degrading profile of India’s forests since last assessment.
India witnessed rapid deforestation in the past two decades, leading to degradation of over 30% of its land and losing 1.6 million hectares of its forest cover. More than a fifth of the country’s population depends on forests for subsistence. Deforestation and land degradation are projected to impact agricultural productivity, water quality and biodiversity, thereby affecting over 600 million people in India. According to a TERI study, forest degradation is depriving the country of 1.4% of its GDP annually.
Affirming the success of India’s afforestation programme, Javadekar claimed, “India’s green cover has increased by 15,188 sq km in the last four years.” Whereas, the latest ISFR reveals that India’s ‘forest cover’ has grown by just 0.56% or 3,976 sq km since 2017. ‘Green cover’ is the total tree plus forest cover of a surface and should not be mistaken as equivalent to ‘forests’.
The real problem lies in how the government defines ‘forest cover’. Relying majorly on satellite mapping, Forest Survey of India defines forests as “all patches of land, with a tree canopy density of more than 10% and more than one hectare in area, irrespective of land use, ownership and species of trees”. Any plantation whether bamboo, coffee, tree orchards, or urban parks are hence currently recognised as forests. Satellite imagery is incapable of detecting differences between plantation and forest. India’s natural dense forests have shrunk at an unprecedented rate.
The government however believes that forests are replaceable and could be easily recreated, allowing rapid diversion of forestland for industrial purposes. A World Resources Institute study found that India has lost 1,22,748 hectares of prime forest within last four years. Moreover, the MoEFCC has recently proposed to abandon the “no-go” forest area classification, thereby opening up India’s dense, pristine and biodiversity rich forest zones to development projects.
To compensate the loss of ‘forests’, India’s afforestation programme focusses on largescale monoculture, single variety tree plantations of non-indigenous, commercial species such as eucalyptus and teak, on a non-forest land. Unlike forests, plantations lack biodiversity, quality species, survival rates and the complex unique ecosystem required for wildlife to thrive.
MoEFCC should create a policy framework on forest management aimed at curtailing deforestation and land use change, while improving the ecology and biodiversity of a landscape as a whole that would ensure food security, water availability and climate adaptation for communities. Employing a scientific evidence based methodology with a participatory approach will help the government determine right type of tree based interventions most suitable to certain land use. The Restoration Opportunities Assessment Methodology (ROAM) framework could be adopted at scale for rigorous analysis of spatial, legal and socio-economic data to plan best interventions for forest restoration.
However, a successful forest programme will depend on creating strict institutional mechanism, for effective implementation, utilisation and monitoring of funds. In the last decade, numerous petitions have been filed with the National Green Tribunal and the Supreme Court on the misuse of state forest funds and negligent monitoring by the states. Geotagging technology would prove a valuable tool for online recording, monitoring and checking leakages, as well as efficient mapping of forest landscapes.
Lastly, any effort to regenerate or afforest lands will require the government to recognise the long-standing knowledge systems and community efforts in protection of forests by formally establishing the authority of the gram sabhas in forest stewardship. Given the critical state of our forests, it is time that the government move beyond celebrating the ‘success’ of ineffective plantation drives in the name of ‘afforestation’ and adopt meaningful strategies for creating serious impact on the ground.