It's time to think green...

It's time to think green...

It's time to think green...
I start with a question. Has the word ‘forest’ become more prevalent in our everyday vocabulary, no matter which walk of life we come from? I mean, how often do we see, read or refer to a mention of this term. Let’s explore a few possibilities. The word sometimes comes across in news with a statistical enumeration of the tree cover that India has and whether we are falling short of our policy goals.

At other times, there is an appeal that trees need to be protected as they give a whole deal of services to human beings. Good air, water, a peek into wildlife, a fine trek and much else our environmental mind would desire. Then, there are occasions when the reference is that of a contest. Should part of the Panna Tiger Reserve in Madhya Pradesh be submerged because India is experimenting with the idea of interlinking of rivers or is the habitat of the black-necked crane more important than India’s strategic dam building in Arunachal Pradesh?

Mini hydel projects or wind power are the alternatives for many rational minds, but when located in the fragile Western Ghats of Karnataka and the endangered Shola forests in the Nilgiris, power generation is far from being benign. Another mention comes when the collision is between forest dependent livelihoods and enclosing space for wild and endangered species. When there is limited forest available, should local villagers have the first right, should they be relocated because it is a critical elephant, rhino or tiger habitat? A classic People-Parks controversy known world over.

Investing in forests
Every year, March 21 marks the International Day of Forests. The United Nations has linked this recognition to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. This year, the theme is Forests and Energy. From planting trees in urban areas to reduce global warming to creating carbon stocks by increasing plantations, all activities are driven by this approach. Forests are also being promoted as being important for renewable energy, given the dependence of rural areas on wood as cooking fuel or heating. However, these ideas come directly in conflict with the policy approach to forest conservation in two ways. First, large tracts of forests are being diverted for dams, coal or nuclear power stations to feed the rising energy demand of industrial and urban infrastructure. Second, the creation of carbon stocks remains an offset mechanism increasingly criticised for the limited conservation gains and larger livelihood impacts at a global scale.

The key role forests play in supporting water systems was recognised in 2016. Baan Ki Moon, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, called the investment in forests an insurance policy for the planet. This statement can open up a detailed area of enquiry on whether the statement was looking at a private sector financial investment in forestry, prioritisation by governments to conserve forests and related livelihoods or simply minimising damage by users, especially large corporations. According to the State of the Forest Report 2015, there is an increase in forest cover in the country by 3,775 sq km as compared to the 2013 assessment by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). It has been claimed that 21.24% of the geographical area of the country amounting to 7,01,673 sq km is in fact forest. Interestingly, the same report also talks about a net decline of 628 sq km in the forest cover of north-eastern states. If one is to go by this, although the country is still far from the policy goal of 33% forest cover, there is hope that with the increase in forests, the target might be achievable; at least that is the narrative FSI’s report would like all of us to believe in.

Diversions & compensations
But these figures have received criticism from two points of view. First, on account of the methodology used to arrive at this figure and, second, does the record of land under forest actually mean that the quality of forests is intact. A paper published in Current Science’s May 2014 issue  responded to these questions. The paper titled, Forest area estimation and reporting: implications for conservation, management and REDD+, pointed out that even though a forest is actually cut down and is replaced by a plantation, the FSI’s methodology would still regard that as forest in their assessment.

Even though an increase in the forest would be recorded, it would be devoid of the understanding that plantations cannot be equated with long standing forests. This is both for the ecological and livelihood roles these forests would have been holding  for generations. The net gain recorded in FSI’s 2015 State of Forest report, would also then need to be evaluated. Creation of plantations takes form in two ways.

First, does the age-old practice of forest departments to plant fast growing tree species feed the requirement of timber for different sectors? In fact, our colonial Indian Forest Act, 1927 was designed to generate revenue and there are dedicated divisions of forestry which specialise in this task. The second, and more controversial, has been the process of diversion of forests for non-forest use. The process where existing forests can be used for activities such as mining, industry, transmission line, railways, ports is embedded within Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. A decision is taken following a paper trail between a potential user agency, the state government and the ministry of environment in Delhi.

Every inch of land that changes hands from being a lived forest to a standing instance of extraction, it means much more than a sign off by the government. The lived experience is 13 blasts in a go from the neighbourhood mine taking attention away from the fragrant rice meal to whether the roof will come rolling down the cracks. It is understanding that the high altitude grazing areas might never be accessible again as they are cordoned off for hydropower. The elephants that were distant visitors, occasionally straying into the village for mahua would now be raiding farmlands as their migratory routes are either fenced or dug deep into.

There are compensatory afforestation and other ameliorative measures in law. Every hectare of forest diverted requires the user agencies to ensure equal amount of forest land or double the amount of degraded forest land to be planted over. In addition, there are other financial measures like the payment of Net Present Value. This has meant that an amount close to Rs 40,000 crore is available for all of the above.

The official claim is that each state government could receive Rs 6,000 crore after the passing of the CAMPA Act, 2016, last year. If only, money could buy you a forest! Leave alone the fallacy of recreating a lost patch of forest and all that which lived with it, the assessment of how poorly the practice of compensatory afforestation has faired, has been brought out not once but several times by supreme audit institutions like the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India, the last being in 2013.

Forest rights
After 2006, the forest story saw another twist. On the one hand, it is viewed as the politicisation of forest governance with tribal and forest dwelling communities establishing their claim by seeking recognition of existing rights. On the other, it is a bureaucratic exercise of settling the stake, so that further acquisitions can be streamlined. The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act 2006, has seen its high and struggled with a low, in all of 10 years of its existence. It has given the forest dweller a voice and, at the same time, complicated the contest between the traditional right holder, the revenue arm and forestry arm of government (not always in coherence), and user agencies awaiting approvals for diversion.

As in the case of Ghatbarra village in Chhattisgarh, this would mean that community forest rights once granted are cancelled because they are affecting mining activity in the area. The above law enabling the process of recognising rights does not give government the power to take them away. The proposal to construct the Athirapally dam in Kerala has been revived once again. Blocks across coal fields in central-eastern India are back on the list of environmental approvals in a big way with power plants awaiting linking up to receive the raw material. We can celebrate and make people aware on this International Day of Forests. But it isn’t going a long way if governments don’t reprioritise and citizens don’t elect governments that are likely to do so.

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