The biannual India State of Forest Report 2021 (ISFR), released on January 13, proclaims heart-warming tidings that the country’s forest or tree cover has increased by 1,540 sq km since the last survey in 2019. But environmental experts say this is green gloss, achieved by conflating forests with plantations, and misses the trees for the wood.
First, the findings of the survey. According to it, a little over seven lakh sq km (71.38 million hectares) or a tad less than 22% of the country’s area is forested. Of this, 99,779 sq km or 3% of the country’s area is a very dense forest (VDF) with a canopy cover of 70% or more. The extent of moderately dense forest (MDF), with canopy cover ranging between 40% and 70% is 3,06,890 sq km. Another 3,07,120 sq km is open forest (OF) with a canopy cover of 10% to 40%.
The survey considers forest area to be any patch of one hectare or more with a canopy density of at least 10%, regardless of land use, legal status or ownership. The trees should be able to reach a minimum height of two metres. Coconut gardens, tea, coffee and rubber plantations, orchards, bamboo groves, or trees planted along roads, railway tracks and canals are considered forest if they meet the area and canopy criteria. Even wooded areas with bungalows as in Lutyens’ Delhi are regarded as urban forests. The survey is agnostic between manmade plantations and natural forests. They might have single or multiple species, but the survey is non-discriminating.
The survey is a “target-fulfilling exercise”, says Avay Shukla, who retired as additional chief secretary to the Himachal Pradesh government in 2010 and is one of the founders of the Eco-Tourism Society of India. Under the present government, the emphasis is on “forest management” rather than “forest conservation”, he says.
The data has been gathered from “complete wall-to-wall mapping of the country’s forest cover, using remote-sensing techniques, sample plot-based natural forest inventory, and special studies carried out at the national level,” the survey says. The mapping was done between October and December 2019. This is the time of the year when cloud cover is low and vegetation after the rains provides good reflectance. Additional images were obtained between January and March 2020 for the north-eastern region, the east coast, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands because of cloud cover during the preceding three months.
Playing with data
As per the survey, between 2019 and 2021, very dense forest cover increased by 501 sq km and open forest area by 2,621 sq km, moderately dense forest cover decreased by 1,582 sq km and shrub area expanded by 242 sq km. Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Karnataka and Jharkhand contributed most to the increase. The survey attributes this to better conservation measures, protection of forest areas, afforestation activities, tree plantation drives, and agroforestry. The states that lost the most forest cover were Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram, and Meghalaya.
The eight north-eastern states contribute the most to India’s forest cover with nearly two-thirds of the area being forested. They have slightly less than 8% of India’s landmass, but nearly a quarter of its forest cover. These states lost 1,020 sq km of forest cover between the last survey and the latest one, owing mainly to jhum or shifting cultivation, where forests are temporarily cleared for agriculture and allowed to re-grow.
In the hill districts, forest area decreased by 902 sq km and their shrub area (canopy density of less than 10%) rose by 7,550 sq km. A hill district, as defined by the erstwhile Planning Commission, is one with at least 50% of the area higher than 500 metres above the mean sea level. There are 140 hill districts in the Northeast and about 40% of its area is forested. Of this, nearly 17% is a very dense forest, about 46% moderately dense forest and the remaining 37% open forest.
Twenty-eight percent of the country’s 218 tribal district area is covered by very dense forests, which occupy a fifth of the forest area. All the districts of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Nagaland, Sikkim and Lakshadweep are classified as tribal districts.
In the 5.16 lakh sq km of Recorded Forest Areas (RFA), which are Reserved Forests and Protected Forests as per the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and state government acts, about 17% is very dense forest. Forest area and Recorded Forest Area are not the same. There can be RFAs without forest cover and there can be forest cover outside RFAs.
The survey says India has 39.15 billion green sound bamboo culms of various sizes and 9.35 billion dry sound culms. Nearly five billion culms are decayed. These were based on a survey of 18,000 inventoried grids between 2016-17 and 2019-20. There has been an increase of nearly 14 billion culms after the 2019 survey. The weight of the culms has been estimated at 402 million tonnes. The total bamboo-bearing area in recorded forest areas as per the latest survey is 149,443 sq km — a decrease of 10,594 sq km from 2019.
The eight north-eastern states contribute the most to India’s forest cover. They have slightly less than 8% of India’s landmass, but nearly a quarter of its forest cover
A 2017 ordinance that amended the Indian Forest Act has exempted bamboo grown in non-forest areas from the definition of ‘tree’ and thereby done away with the requirement of felling or transit permits for transport and economic use. This has led to an increase in the cultivation of bamboo in non-forest areas as a source of income. India has 125 indigenous and 11 exotic species of bamboo in 23 genera. They are found in abundance in the deciduous and semi-evergreen forests of the north-eastern region and in the tropical moist deciduous forests of northern and southern India. The Northeast and West Bengal account for more than 50% of the bamboo resources of the country. The other bamboo growing areas in India include Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, the Western Ghats, and the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.
The survey has also assessed the extent of mangroves. They cover nearly 5,000 sq km or 0.15% of the country’s geographical area. Of these, nearly 30% are very dense mangrove forests, a similar portion is moderately dense mangrove forests, while the rest are open mangrove forests with a canopy cover of 10% to 40%. Compared to 2019, the mangrove area has increased by 17 sq km. Incidentally, India was the first country to bring mangrove forests under scientific management in 1892 and the Sundarbans are the world’s single largest patch of mangroves.
In the five urban agglomerations with a population of 10 million or more, plus Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, the total forest cover is 510 sq km or 10% of their geographical area. Delhi has the most forest cover at 194 sq km (12.61%) followed by Mumbai at 111 sq km (25.41%), but the national capital is the only city that has very dense forests (6.74 sq km).
Forests can be rejuvenated
But environmentalists have faulted the survey’s methodology. “Tree cover cannot be forest,” says C.R. Babu, professor emeritus at Delhi University’s Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems (CEMDE) and project in-charge of the Delhi Development Authority’s biodiversity parks programme. “Natural forests,” he says, “provide a range of ecological services,” which a plantation does not. They have a variety of tree species and ground vegetation, the trees are of various heights, and they constitute ecosystems that shelter different birds and animals while providing a source of livelihood as well.
Compared to 2019, mangrove area has increased by 17 sq km. Incidentally, India was the first country to bring mangrove forests under scientific management in 1892
Babu and his team have developed six biodiversity parks in Delhi that are tiered forests of native species with grasses and legumes covering the ground. These have attracted migratory birds and small wildlife. About 40 km from Rourkela, Babu and his team have rehabilitated the Steel Authority of India’s Purnapani limestone and dolomite quarry. Work on the 200-acre quarry began in 2007. Babu says it now has a five-storeyed forest of native species, with the tallest trees reaching about 100 feet in height.
Vivek Choudhary, also of CEMDE, says restoring a quarry is harder because the topsoil is buried under overburden dumped on it while extracting limestone and iron ore. The soil, he says, is dead, unlike in degraded forests where there is microbial activity on the ground and below it. Ecologically restoring an abandoned quarry or mine begins with planting grasses and legumes to attract soil micro-organisms, enhance its organic carbon content, and conserve soil moisture.
The number of species at Purnapani has reached 250 against 50-60 species usually found in forests, Choudhary says. To give tribals a stake in sustaining the forests, there are enclaves of ber, arjuna, and asan trees in the forest, which host tussar silkworms. There are also patches with trees and plants that attract lac insects and honeybees, and the quarry is now a reservoir teeming with fish.
For the ecological restoration of the Purnapani quarry, the initial cost was ₹3 crore. According to Babu, in all about ₹8 lakh per acre has been spent. However, he says, it’s time-consuming and takes a lot of effort and dedication despite being inexpensive. CEMDE is also developing biodiversity parks at the Bhurkunda and Damoda coal mines in Jharkhand.
According to Babu, the Purnapani model should be followed for restoration of degraded forests and compensatory afforestation and there should be a ‘National Mission for Ecological Restoration of Degraded Forests’ and rehabilitation of mines and quarries, which are usually located in dense forests.
Satellite imagery-based forest surveying was started by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1985 and the latest report released by the Forest Survey of India is the 17th in the series. Jairam Ramesh, who was a no-nonsense environment minister in the Manmohan Singh government and had delineated ‘no go’ areas for mining, did not fault the methodology of the surveys, but he had flagged the tendency to play fast and loose with environmental laws and regulations. That mindset does not seem to have changed.
Bhupender Yadav, the minister for environment, forests and climate change, says India’s definition of forest cover is in sync with that of the Kyoto Protocol
For the 900-km Char Dham road widening project, the government insisted on a width exceeding 5.5 metres, which the road transport ministry had stipulated as the norm for mountain roads. It amended the 2018 circular in 2020 to accommodate the defence ministry’s demand that roads along the China border needed to be broader to enable the movement of armoured vehicles. The Supreme Court accepted this but Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist and chairman of the Supreme Court-appointed High Powered Committee that was to report to it on environmental compliance of the road project, resigned in the second week of February, stating that the panel to protect the Himalayas “had been shattered,” according to news reports.
Defending the forest survey report in an article in The Indian Express, Bhupender Yadav, the minister for environment, forests and climate change, says India’s definition of forest cover is in sync with that of the Kyoto Protocol, which defines a forest as a patch of half-a-hectare to one hectare with tree crown covering 10% to 30% of it and with trees having the potential to reach a minimum height of two to five metres.
While not advocating plantations be equated with natural forests, he said the role of plantations cannot be dismissed. Cashew plantations along the coast mitigate the ferocity of cyclones and mixed plantations of native species meet all the ecological functions of natural forests and even provide a habitat for wildlife.
Yadav says India’s afforestation efforts are aligned with wildlife conservation. The forests that shelter the tiger increased to 51 reserves from nine in 1973 when Project Tiger was launched and are huge carbon sinks. The draft National Forest Policy of 2021, Yadav says, emphasises the need to substantially increase tree cover outside the forests through agroforestry, farm forestry, and urban forests like woodland gardens and avenue plantations. Yadav regards this as a holistic approach to increasing the country’s forest area and tree cover to 33% of its geography.