Ecostani | Reading between the lines: The grim reality of India's forests

Jan 19, 2022 06:00 PM IST

The richness of India's forest system is slowly eroding with various factors contributing to this decline. Here is a deep dive into the fine print of the latest forest report:

The richness of a country’s biodiversity is known by the quality of forest systems that hold its flora and fauna. The India State of Forest Report released on January 13 provides a glimpse into the health of Indian forests, and the indicators hidden behind glossy numbers are gloomy.

The biennial forest survey report is the most comprehensive survey done anywhere in the world to gauge the quality of forests. (File Photo) PREMIUM
The biennial forest survey report is the most comprehensive survey done anywhere in the world to gauge the quality of forests. (File Photo)

India's forest cover has risen primarily due to the rise in plantations outside reserve forest areas, with mango trees being key contributors to the growth of commercial plantations. This indicates that the richness of India's forest system is eroding, albeit slowly.

The biennial forest survey report is the most comprehensive survey done anywhere in the world to gauge the quality of forests. It comes at the time when the government plans to amend the country’s forest laws to allow more participation of the private players — plantation growers and herb harvesters — while easing the norms for mining activities, which are ecologically harmful but have great potential for economic growth. The report doesn't examine the impacts of these kinds of forest degradation activities that will deregulate forests and replace natural habitats with plantations.

MD Madhusudan, a well-known independent forest expert, explained on Twitter, the extent of the depletion of "real forests" in India. He said that India’s forest cover declined till 1997, when it suddenly rose by 45,000 square kilometres (sq km) when the Forest Survey of India (FSI) adopted a fully digital analysis workflow, primarily because of its perverse redefinition of a "forest". As a result, the forest cover when up and down due to “vague” harmonisation of maps by FSI on basis of “improvement in accuracy.”

FSI defines forests as all lands with more than one hectare in area having a tree canopy density of more than 10%, meaning if 89% of the land is barren, it would still be a forest. It didn’t opt for a more harmonious definition of "continuous wooded lands" as depicted by the greenwashing on Survey of India toposheets. As a result, in Sonitpur of Assam, Valparai in Tamil Nadu, and Naxalbari in West Bengal, tea gardens are treated as forests.

In Pollachi in Tamil Nadu, and the densely populated Kavaratti in Lakshadwadweep, coconut plantations are also considered forests. Madhusudan's tweets also highlight that the FSI survey has marked a forest in the desert of Jaisalmer in Rajasthan and Kutch in Gujarat. 

And, according to FSI, I work in a moderate-to-open forest in Connaught Place, New Delhi.

Forest surveys are based on satellite images and mention plantations as forests because they look green from the sky — a reason why these surveys repeatedly claim that the green cover is rising. A deeper look at State of Forest Report 2021 shows a forest decay — forest cover inside the most protected reserved forests and tiger reserves has dropped significantly. Green corridors connecting tiger reserves and high-quality forests, essential for the movement of wildlife, have lost canopy density and area.

The human factor

The report said that the total forest cover (TFC) of India has increased by 1,540 sq km between 2019 and 2021; it is 7,13,789 sq km in 2021. TFC in 2021 is 21.71% of the total geographical area (TGA) of the country as against 21.67% of the TGA in 2019. In 2017, TFC was 21.54% of TGA. India has set a target of bringing 33% of its geographical area under forest cover as envisaged in the National Forest Policy, 1988. The marginal growth in India’s forest cover is primarily due to an increase in the area under open forests, led by commercial plantations.

The decline is in the moderately dense forests or areas close to human habitations. Moderate forests are areas with tree canopy density between 40-70%, whereas dense forests have a tree canopy density of 70% or higher. India has been losing moderate forests since 2011 — an indicator of how people are taking over the space for wildlife in the country — by about 4.3%. This has been on an account of an increase in forest diversion for development and mining projects. India has diverted 55,430 hectares of forests between March 2008 and April 2021, according to an analysis by the Centre for Science and Environment. Dense forests, however, are rarely diverted for mining projects.

The report reaffirms the loss of forests due to shifting cultivation, called jhum, in all Northeastern states — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya, and Sikkim — where 1,020 sq km of forests were lost during 2019-2021. These states account for 23.75% of the country’s total forest cover. The loss in the Northeast is likely to impact its rain pattern in long term, according to the report's analysis on the health of forests by scenarios for the years 2030, 2050, and 2085.

The mango factor

The report says that India’s forest cover increased by 2,261 sq km between 2019 and 2021 and most of the increase was under the category Trees Outside Forests (TOFs). TOFs have increased by 13.09% from 2015, while the growing stock inside forests has risen by just 4.60% in these years, highlighting the disproportionate importance given to plantations in these reports.

Sal tree (Shorea robusta) contributes about 10.87% to the growing stock, followed by Teak (Tectona grandis) with about 4.37%, Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) and Silvergrey wood (Terminalia tomentosa) contribute to about 4.12% and 3.88% respectively, according to Down To Earth quoting the report. But, it is the quintessential Indian fruit, mango, which is the biggest contributor to the increase in forest cover. As per the report, Mangifera indica (mango tree) contributes to 12.94% of the total volume of growing forest stock, followed by neem (Azadirachta indica) with 6.78%, mahua (Madhuca latifolia) with 4.65%, and coconut (Cocos nucifera) with 4.51%, the report said.

The spread of mango trees has increased by about 3.2% in the past decade. The growth of mangoes across Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Madhya Pradesh is a reason for the increase in the forest cover in these states.

Mango tree plantations, like any other commercial plantation, do not provide the ecological benefits for the flora and fauna of the land to survive. The grass is repeatedly removed to ensure that the trees get the maximum ground nutrient supplies. The mango is the perfect example of how plantations are being used to indicate higher forest cover at the cost of natural forests, which are considered living entities, and should be read in that context.

The Himalaya factor

The report states that the Himalayan region is facing the worst impacts of the climate crisis because it is fast losing its natural habitat. The Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir, which had "very dense forests" of 4,270 sq km in 2019, now has 4,155 sq km of the same forest category in 2021 — the highest loss of very dense forests anywhere in India. The UT gained in open forests, spurred led by commercial plantations — a common trend in the country.

Another Himalayan state, Himachal Pradesh, has lost both open and moderately dense forests, close to human habitations. Himachal Pradesh had an area of 7,126 sq km under moderately dense forests in 2019. This has reduced to 7,100 sq km in 2021. The state’s open forests reduced from 5,195 sq km in 2019 to 5,180 sq km in 2021. The report has attributed the loss of forest cover in Himachal to developmental activities as well as agriculture — here, more apple and other fruit plantations.

The Northeast, which is part of the Himalayan belt, has, as mentioned, also fallen. Even though the cutting of trees in the Himalayan states has reduced in the past decades, no effort has been made to improve the quality of forests and the livelihood of people living around these forests.

With natural forest cover going down, the report warned that rainfall in the Himalayan region will fall drastically by 2050, bringing down the forest cover further. It labelled the entire Himalayan region as a severe climate hotspot. For instance, almost all of 15,434 sq km of forest in Himachal will fall under the "very high" category as a climate hotspot.

The severity of hot spots has been defined from "high" to "very high" to "extremely high" to "critical". In Jammu and Kashmir, 16% of the forest cover of 21,122 sq cm falls under the "extremely high" category and the rest under "very high". And in Ladakh, the entire 2,490 sq km of forest falls under the "extremely high" category. By 2085, the report's climate mapping shows that most of the forest in northwest Himalayan regions will be in a degraded state, and will impact the country’s water resources in a big way as almost all rivers providing water to the Hindi heartland emanate from the Himalayan region.

The forest fire factor

The biggest danger to the forests, especially Himalayan forests, is forest fires, with 3,45,989 forest fires reported from November 2020 to June 2021. This is the highest recorded in the country for this period so far. Incidentally, 2021 was also first warmest year in the past 121 years, after 2016, 2009, 2017 and 2010 according to the Annual Climate Statement 2021 released by India Meteorological Department (IMD) on Friday. In same period in 2018-19, 258,480 forest fires were reported. It is well documented that the increase in ground temperature causes a spike in forest fires.

Even though Odisha recorded the highest number of forests fires (51,968) among all states, the highest increase was seen in Uttarakhand with a 28.3% jump. The higher number of forest fires is also because of better monitoring and recording of fires by the FSI.

While data points to an increase in forest fires, this phenomenon is not restricted to India with devastating forest fires reported from Australia and North America. This winter, some of the coldest places in the world — Siberia, North America, North Africa and the Mediterranean — have come under fire. In 2021, forest fires emitted 1.76 billion tonnes of carbon, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service, 148% of the emissions from fossil fuel burning in Europe. With India getting warmer, the rage of forest fires is likely to intensify further, destroying forests and burning small animals.

The tiger factor

Tiger reserves and the sole lion habitat in Gujarat are the most protected forested areas in the country. The report shows that there is an overall decadal decline in forest cover across India’s 52 tiger reserves and the Lion Conservation Area (LCA) of Gir in Gujarat. According to the report, the overall decrease in the forest cover across the 52 tiger reserves has been 22.62 sq km. Some 20 of the 52 tiger reserves have shown an increasing trend, with Pakke reserve in Arunachal Pradesh recording an increase of 1.28 sq km and Buxa in West Bengal of 238.80 sq km. The second-highest increase in forest cover in a tiger reserve was in Anamalai in Tamil Nadu (120.78 sq km) and Indravati in Chhattisgarh (64.48 sq km). Both these reserves have a poor tiger population.

The 32 remaining reserves have shown a forest cover decline with the maximum fall in Kawal (118.97 sq km) in Telangana followed by Bhadra (53.09 sq km) in Karnataka and Sundarbans in West Bengal (49.95 sq km). The least decline was in Orang in Assam. All major tiger reserves — Jim Corbett National Park in Uttarakhand, Ranthambore in Rajasthan, Kanha and Bandhavgarh in Madhya Pradesh, and Kaziranga in Assam — have recorded a decline. Although the report does not give reasons for this decline, it is well known that tourism and an encroaching human population have contributed greatly to this.

The Sundarbans Tiger Reserve has the largest area under wetlands at 2,549.44 sq km, with 96.76% of its area being a wetland. The Kanha Tiger Reserve has the highest number of wetlands at 461, most of which are less than 2.25 hectares (ha) in size. Around 7.26% of the total tiger reserve area of about 77,000 sq km is under 5,821 wetlands, though the report does not give any update on its health and change in numbers in the past decade.

The report does mention that the health of forest corridors connecting one tiger reserve with another in a landscape is not good. The Kanha to Navegaon-Nagzira-Tadoba-Indravati tiger corridor that passes through Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Maharashtra has the largest forest cover at 2,012.86 sq km. This is followed by the Pench-Satpura-Melghat corridor in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (1,195.79 sq km), and the Similipal-Satkosia corridor in Odisha (810.23 sq km). Except for the Nagarhole- Bandipur-Madhumalai-Wayanand corridor, which has seen an increase in forest cover of about 84 sq km, most of the other tiger corridors have witnessed either a loss or degradation of the forest cover. There was a decrease of 33.43 sq km in its forest cover in the corridor area during the last decade, the report said.

The ill-health of India's forests

A detailed analysis of 13 chapters of the State of Forest Report hints that the health of the Indian forest is poor. The report highlights presented by Union environment minister, Bhupendra Yadav, glosses over the ills, which Madhusudan says is “deliberate” to nullify adverse impacts of the diversions of forest land.

However, signs of chronicity of this ill-health should be a wake-up call to the forest bureaucracy to prevent the dismantling of the few measures in place to protect forests, while ensuring robust and swift action to reverse this trend. The recently proposed amendment to Biological Diversity Act, 2002, will open up forests to private ayurveda companies, the proposed changes in Forest Conservation Act will give a push to money-making plantations at cost of forests, and the proposed revamp of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, will further delineate forest dwellers from forest protection.

The report is telling us clearly that we need to protect our forest legacy for future generations. And we need to act now before it's too late.

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    Chetan Chauhan is National Affairs Editor. A journalist for over two decades, he has written extensively on social sector and politics with special focus on environment and political economy.

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