India’s forests are thriving; on paper

India’s forests are thriving; on paper

The recently released India State of Forest Report 2019 says that India’s forest cover has increased since the 2017 report. As per the report, forest cover has increased by 3,976 sq km (0.56%) as compared to the estimates for 2017, and area under tree cover has increased by 1,212 sq km. India’s forest cover is estimated at about 712,249 sq km, which is about 21.67% of the country’s land area. If we add tree crops, the total area under forest and tree cover is 807,276 sq km, which is 24.56% of the total land area. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala are among the states that reported an increase in forest cover -- 990 sq km, 1025 sq km and 823 sq km, respectively.

 Government and forest officials were quick to pat themselves and celebrate the report’s findings and contend that this testifies to the success of their forest conservation efforts. This rosy picture may lull us into complacency and hide the ground realities about the increasing pressures and threats to India’s forests, which are degrading fast.

One may recall that the National Forest Policy of 1988, which accorded primacy to the ecological functions of forests, had envisaged a goal of 33% of the country’s land area under forest and tree cover. It is lamentable that even after three decades, this proportion is only 24.5%. Except in Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha and Uttarakhand, in all major states with large forest cover, such as Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka, it ranges from 16.5-25% only. The 2019 report admits, however, that the forest cover in North-East India has declined by about 763 sq km, which is a matter of concern since one of the biodiversity hotspots of the world is located in this region, home to several endemic and threatened species.

The report also admits that the forest cover in reserve and protected forests in the tribal districts of India has declined by about 741 sq km. Lest we forget, these are the areas witnessing great social unrest and alienation of indigenous communities because of increasing State appropriation of forest resources for the benefit of corporates, corrupt politicians and bureaucrats.

Forest assessment is conducted by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) every two years since 1987, based on remote sensing data supplemented by field-level surveys. So far, 16 reports have been released. To scrutinize the report, we may check the definition of a forest cover and limitations mentioned therein. The term ‘forest cover’ used by the FSI includes “all tree patches which have canopy cover of more than 10% and area of 1 hectare or more in size irrespective of their ownership, legal status and species composition of trees.” It includes “all tree orchards, bamboo, coconut, palms, etc., within recorded forest lands and on other government, private, community or institutional lands”.

 Among the limitations of the data the report mentions that “occurrence of weeds like lantana in forest areas and agricultural crops like sugarcane and cotton adjacent to forests, causes mixing of spectral signatures and often makes precise forest cover delimitation difficult.” It also states that “considerable ground details may be obscured due to clouds and shadows.” Other limitations are that land cover features having a geometric dimension less than 23.5 m on the ground are not discernible; haze and other atmospheric distortions pose difficulty in interpretation, non-availability of seasonal data, which can shed light on phenological changes in forest, and inability to interpret young plantations and tree species with inadequate foliage. The FSI has shied away from using higher resolution data than presently available on the ground that it would require more time for interpretation.

To a question in the Rajya Sabha in November 2019, Union Minister Babul Supriyo replied that during the last three years, permissions were given to cut 6,944,008 trees and 6.2 crore trees were planted as compensatory afforestation. However, environmentalists allege that these figures on afforestation are fudged.

We may recall that 11 years ago, tiger census estimates released by the government indicated the presence of tigers in the Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. However, a reality check revealed that all tigers in the reserve had been poached, which was also confirmed by the locals. It is alleged that forest officials were fudging data and abusing the pugmark technique used to estimate tigers to paint a rosy picture of the status of tigers in the country. When the results of the tiger census in 2019 were released by the Prime Minister, it was stated that tiger numbers in India (2,967) had doubled as compared to their numbers in 2006. However, wildlife conservationists allege that the tiger numbers are bloated since the census also counted tiger cubs which are normally omitted because of their high mortality rate.

Kodagu and Wayanad districts in the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot witnessed considerable damage recently due to unprecedented floods and landslides, which locals blamed on large-scale deforestation for infrastructure such as roads, laying of transmission lines, railway projects and mining. Yet, surprisingly, FSI data shows that forest cover in Kodagu increased from 2,388 sq km in 2013 to over 2,684 sq km in 2019! In Wayanad, however, the FSI data shows that the forest cover has declined from 1,454 sq km to 1,410 sq km. Despite large scale diversion of forests for infrastructure projects in Uttara Kannada district, it is intriguing to note that as per the FSI data, the dense forest cover in the district rose from 5,960 sq km in 2013 to 7,023 sq km in 2019!

Given that we are living in an era when statistics are being withheld, managed or fudged to paint a rosy picture of the economy and the environment, one does not know how dependable the FSI data is. The FSI is unable to clarify as to how much natural and pristine forests survive in the country. On a visit to Wayanad after the recent disaster, eminent ecologist Madhav Gadgil bemoaned that native trees which helped bind soils are being replaced by tree species with no ecological value, such as the eucalyptus.

(The writer is an economist)

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