How to increase forest, tree cover

The forests of India are not only unique, varied as they are in nature and composition, but they also support various types of biodiversity and ecosystems, including five mega hotspots – the Eastern and Western Ghats, the Himalayas, the Sunderbans, the Deccan Grasslands and the Mainland Forests in vast, undulating plains are the chief forest types in India. Their role in sustenance of agriculture, conservation of soil and moisture, maintenance of ecological balance and providing livelihood to rural masses and tribals is well-recognised.

Emphasising this importance and as a measure to achieve ecological, economic and environmental development in a sustainable manner, India's Forest Policy of 1988 had noted the need to have a third of the country's land under forest and tree cover. The challenge, therefore, is to raise the present forest and tree cover from around 23% to 33%. In hilly areas, the policy envisages having roughly 66% area under forest and tree cover. So, the approach and action plan would have to be different for different regions.

Any strategy to achieve the above targets would start with finding the land, budget and technology to do it, along with people's support.

Areas that need to be brought under tree cover would include both government and private land. The former would include degraded and scrub forest lands (less than 10% density), revenue waste lands, community and grazing lands and pasture, fallows, panchayat areas, river, canal and tank banks, besides land lying unused with public sector units, Railways, national and state highways, village roads, etc.

But revenue waste lands are becoming scare as governments reserve these for various socio-economic programmes, besides earmarking them for compensatory afforestation under the Forest Conservation Act. Further, many areas projected for afforestation are historically grazing, pasture and grass lands which have their own socio-economic value and ecological significance and must not be attempted to be brought under massive tree cover.

In so far as the budget is concerned, while government investment would remain the prime driver (Green India mission, Compensatory Afforestation budget, etc), there is a need to tap corporate funding through CSR budgets. However, both the above remain non-starters. Hence, a lot of attention would have to be on agro- and social forestry.

But the biggest challenge here would be to ease the existing tree-felling and transit rules which, in their present form, demotivate farmers taking up tree-planting. Recent relaxation for a few trees in some states, including bamboo being brought under single transit permit throughout the country, is a welcome step. These need to be further expanded quickly to other species grown by farmers.

Another crucial aspect is research and technology. Only dry, degraded agriculture and fallow land with private individuals can be targeted for block plantations as good agricultural land cannot be diverted for forestry. Therefore, only strips at best will be available for agro-forestry. We have not come out with many replicable models to suit different agro-climatic zones of the country. This will have to be prioritised by the forestry research sector.

Other challenges

Mostly natural and local tree varieties, including NTFP (non-timber forest products) plantings, will have to be another cornerstone of the strategy as the objective is to ensure environmental stability, ecological balance and preservation of biodiversity, besides meeting the needs of tribals and protection of rights and privileges of locals. This would rule out planting of large-scale monoculture trees at least in the government forest lands (many state governments have banned some of these).

There is some talk of leasing out degraded forest land to industry for plantations, but they are not interested in degraded forest (10% cover). In any case, forest land cannot be leased out to industry as per the 1988 policy. Also, CSR funds for forestry is not at all preferred by corporates as they want to spend it for more visible projects. So, government will have to be the largest fund provider, and it is about time that funding to this sector is raised to 2% of the nation's budget to match the estimated contribution of forests to the GDP. And, we are not even taking into account the ecosystem benefits contributed by them.

So, while formulating any strategy, these factors must be kept in mind as well as focus on increasing the productivity of our forests, which at present is abysmally low (0.2 cubic metre per hectare per annum), compared to the world average of 10 cubic metres.

India, being a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement, has committed to add two billion tonnes of carbon sink. Both the above goals therefore call for massive afforestation and tree-planting programmes, besides arresting the alarming loss of forests. The rate of diverting forest land for non-forestry purposes must be curbed. Instead, in recent times, the Forest Advisory Committee has allowed more than 90,000 hectares for such diversion.

(The writer is a former principal chief conservator of forests, Karnataka)

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