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The Case of India’s ‘Missing’ Forests

ByPratyusha Mukherjee

Feb 20, 2022 #CSE

The India State of Forest Report 2021 (ISFR 2021), released recently, has a huge hole in its estimations – says a new analysis done by Down To Earth, the fortnightly magazine. The analysis, which appears as the cover story in the February 16 issue of the magazine, says India is “missing” almost 26 million hectares of its forests. 

Says Down To Earth editor Sunita Narain, who has done the analysis: “This is the difference between what is ‘recorded’ as forest area, and the actual forest cover that exists on that recorded area. The recorded forest area, as per the ISFR 2021, is 77.53 million ha (hectare). But the forest cover on these lands is said to be 51.66 million ha. This means as much as 34 per cent of the area classified as forests – 25.87 million ha — is missing in the assessment! The India State of Forest Report 2021 does not explain what is happening to this huge tract of forest land – equal in size to the state of Uttar Pradesh.”

According to the Down To Earth analysis, there are states where over 30-50 per cent of the land classified as forests is ‘missing’ from the government’s assessment. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, has ‘lost’ nearly three million ha.

Adds Narain: “This is the real story of forest loss in our country – and it should worry us enormously.”

The story behind the “missing” forests

India can be said to have two kinds of forests – those that are inside the officially recorded forest area, and those that are outside it. The 2013 forest survey report had estimated India’s total forest cover as 70 million ha – but it did not distinguish if this forest was inside or outside the recorded forest area.

From the 2015 State of Forest Report, the area inside the forest got reduced to 51 million ha and the rest – 19-20 million ha — was said to be forest cover outside recorded forest area.

Says Narain: “You can argue that this forest cover was always ‘missing’; it was not possible to assess what was ‘inside’ or ‘outside’ as forest boundaries were not digitised. And that now that this has been done, the forest survey can tell us that 28 per cent of forest cover is on lands outside the forest department’s control.”

She then poses the pertinent question which remains unanswered: what is the state of this massive land area under the control of the forest department, which does not even get classified as scrub in the forest cover assessment?

The definition of ‘forest area’ outside recorded forests includes non-forest plantations. As the definition of a forest includes any hectare of land with a tree cover of 10 per cent or more, these areas would include plantations of all kinds, ranging from coconut to even tea.

In fact, between the assessment 2019 and 2021, India’s forest cover has grown by a mere 0.2 per cent, and most of this ‘growth’ has been in ‘open forests’ (with canopy cover of 10-40 per cent), on lands outside recorded forest areas.

Says Narain: “The biggest takeaway from this report is that huge areas of forests that are under the control of the forest department are ‘missing’ and unaccounted for — possibly degraded to the point that they are not even classified as scrub. In fact, one can say that the forest cover is growing in spite of government, not because of it.”

She adds: “The urgent agenda today is to reinvent forest management for the future; so that we build a wood-based future, but still protect the ecologically fragile areas.”

An agenda for action

  • Protect the very dense and ecologically significant forests through ecosystem payments. The very dense forests, with canopy cover of 70 per cent or more, make up just 3 per cent of India’s land area. But the bulk of this (over 70 per cent) is found in districts classified as ‘tribal’, where the poorest people of India live. This remaining very high-quality forests must be protected at all costs for ecological security, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration

Says Narain:“But we must do this so that communities who live near these forests get true value-based ecosystem payments for their role in protection and for the loss of their livelihoods. The compensatory payments evolved by the 12th Finance Commission must be reworked for this, with real intent and real funds which are transferred to the communities as ecosystem payments.”

  • Focus on the lands inside – under the control of the forest department. This missing 25.87 million ha must be regenerated. But as she explains, it is well understood that regeneration on forest land is not possible without the active involvement of local communities. Felling of trees is not the problem, the problem is our inability to replant and regrow forests.

Says Narain: “This is why working with local communities needs seriousness of intent so that people get rights not just over the grass and minor forest produce, but also the right to cut and sell the trees when they are ready for harvest.”

  • End the license raj on trees outside forests: Narain says that the good news is people are planting trees — on their farm lands, in their backyards. But the bad news is that this is happening against all odds. “In the highly restrictive conditions today, it is literally a crime to fell a tree even if you have planted it on your land,” she points out.

According to ISFR 2021, India has 53,336 million clumps of bamboo in the country. But the fact is that even though this plant has now been classified as a grass and taken out of the Indian Forests Act, 1927, people who plant it are still not allowed to transport it or sell it.

The Down To Earth analysis says: “The bottom line is, Indian forests are not in good shape: the increase in forest cover is not boast- or even note-worthy. The ‘missing’ forest is the real issue that we need to focus on. Otherwise our forests will be only ‘paper forests’ — forests only on paper and not real.” 

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