India State of Forest Report 2019
TOPIC: General Studies 3
- Environment and Biodiversity; Protecting ecologically fragile areas
In news: Forests play an extremely important role in ensuring ecological balance and existence of life on the earth. However, rampant cutting of trees and thinning of forests has been taking place in the country due to activities related to development and infrastructure building, emphasise the environmental experts. Thus, in a bid to keep up the pace of conservation of forests amidst developmental activities, the Forest Survey of India (FSI), an organisation under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), started monitoring forest cover in 1987. Under the same initiative, FSI released its biennial assessment report, India State of Forest Report 2019 on Monday (December 30).
India State of Forest Report 2019 states that the forest area in the country has increased by 5,188 square km in the last two years. The green area covers about 25% of the total geographic area of the country.
- The total forest cover of the country is 7,12,249 sq km which is 21.67 percent of the geographical area of the country.
- The tree cover is estimated as 95,027 sq km which is 2.89 percent of the geographical area.
- The total forest and tree cover is 8,07,276 sq km which is 24.56 percent of the geographical area.
- There is an increase of 42.6 million tonnes in the carbon stock of the country as compared to the last assessment in 2017.
- The mangrove cover in the country has increased by 54 sq km (1.10 percent) as compared to the previous assessment. The top three states showing an increase in mangrove cover are Gujarat with an increase of 37 sq km, Maharashtra with an increase of 16 sq km and Odisha with an increase of 8 sq km.
- The top five states in terms of increase in forest cover:
- Karnataka (1,025 sq km)
- Andhra Pradesh (990 sq km)
- Kerala (823 sq km)
- Jammu & Kashmir (371 sq km)
- Himachal Pradesh (334 sq km)
- There are 62,466 wetlands covering 3.83 percent of the area within the Recorded Forest Area/Green Wash the country. Gujarat has largest area of wetlands within RFA in the country followed by West Bengal.
- Dependence for fuelwood on forests is highest in Maharashtra, whereas, for fodder, small timber and bamboo, dependence is highest in Madhya Pradesh.
- 21.40 percent of the forest cover of the country is highly to extremely fire prone – forests in Mizoram, Nagaland and Manipur.
- Decline in the forest and tree cover was recorded in Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram. In these states, a total decline of 955 sq km was observed in forest cover and a decline of more than 740 sq km was recorded in the tree cover in these states. The forest loss was majorly caused by developmental activities like railways and construction of highways and roads.
Criticisms: For the Report
A. Hidden Figures
An analysis by the Legal Initiative on Forests and Environment has shown that over 49,583 ha of forests were approved for diversion in 2017-2018. This land was required for the construction of industries, mines, dams, ports roads, real estate and other infrastructure projects promoted by the Centre and state governments.
- A recent case allowed for the use of 1,038.18 ha of forests for the expansion of the Talabira coal mine in Odisha, requiring the cutting of over 130,000 trees. Such losses are considered to have “negligible impact” and simply don’t figure in elaborate quantitative accounting of forests in India. Projects that encourage forest grabs by corporate houses that lead to poverty and vulnerability in rural areas give a dismal picture of the state of India’s forests.
- The “unverifiable” ISFR data confuses more than it clarifies, making impossible to explain why 30% of the recorded forest area, i.e. 215,000 sq. km, has no forest cover. Such data is crucial to evaluate the effect of state development policies on systemic forest loss and degradation.
- For example, a senior forest official in Maharashtra attributed the increase in the state to more land being officially recorded as “reserved” forests. This includes the land acquired for compensatory afforestation to offset losses due to development projects. These usually are common or revenue lands used for agriculture, grazing or any other livelihood use.
The methodology relies primarily on remote-sensing techniques that can pick anything that is green and of a certain scale on its radar. This is used to generate data on the extent of ‘green cover’.
- For years, foresters and ecologists have said that this report, put together by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), does not distinguish between natural forests, commercial plantations, orchards and bamboo groves while enumerating forests. According to them, areas with ‘tree stands’ of over 10% canopy cover are counted as forests, irrespective of whether they function ecologically as forests or not.
- A 2012 news report by M. Rajshekhar quotes several experts saying plantations can’t perform the tasks of holding soil, retaining moisture or supporting wildlife the way good forests do.
- The ISFR does include attempts at verification through field-level sample assessments but they don’t seem capable of informing the reader about the challenges that India’s forests face.
C. Securitised forests
In addition to enumerating forests in India, the report draws problematic inferences regarding who caused the losses. Their singular focus on “forest fringe villages” to understand the extent of dependence and loss of forests is prejudiced and unscientific. It is not backed by any data that persuades the reader to agree that this is indeed the group that deserves attention in such a report.
- In the 1970s and 1980s, communities of poor people living within and around forests were seen as the destroyers of this resource because they depended on forests for fuelwood and grazing. But this scenario has changed a lot today, when forest areas are increasingly securitised because they are essential to absorb private capital.
- As a result, Adivasi and other communities that depend on forests have been displaced, state governments have been kept from granting legitimate forest rights to communities, and the basic reasoning behind conservation policies has changed.
- By placing the onus of forest loss on the poor, the report trumpets the Centre’s schemes for “agroforestry practices, fodder improvement and renewable energy programmes” as solutions to forest loss.
There needs to be a way forward –
How do you define a “forest?” What are the rules regarding inviolate forests? And when will India get its new national forest policy? Many questions loom even as India pursues its goal of having 33% of its land under forest cover. While the latest data reveals increasing forest cover in the country, will the uptick continue without a comprehensive and focused forest policy?