The government says area under forests has been increasing for the last 13 years. ET finds this is the outcome of statistical jugglery and the use of flawed definitions by India's forest bureaucracy. The bald truth is India's forests are in serious decline, both in numbers and in health.
In February, the latest instalment of a little environmental kabuki played out when the Forest Survey of India released its biennial report card of forests. It declared India's forests were in fine fettle, with a net addition of 1,128 sq km, or 0.16%, in the last two years.
At 692,000 sq km, forests covered 23% of India's land, and were directionally headed to reach the targeted 33%. What the Dehradun-based FSI did not declare, and tucked it away in definitions and methodologies, is how it computed that number. Take the very definition of 'forest cover' it has used since 2001. The FSI breaks up land into 1-hectare plots (100 metres by 100 metres) and looks at their satellite images.
If tree canopy covers more than 10% of a 1-hectare plot, the FSI classifies it as a forest, regardless of who owns it, for what purpose and what kind of trees it has. It's an expansive definition, says Harini Nagendra, a researcher studying how forests in India are changing. Under it, tea and coffee plantations, orchards, parks and timber plantations, among others, qualify as forests.
So, Delhi's Lodi Gardens, a favoured early-morning haunt of India's ministers and bureaucrats that is a mix of trees, grassy knolls, tombs and dirt tracks becomes a forest. As does a cricket ground lined by trees along its boundary.
While the trees and plantations counted in the FSI's definition do perform some ecological functions -like holding soil, retaining moisture, capturing carbon, providing a roost to some birds and wildlife outside protected areas - it's no patch on what makes forests critical to the continuity of life as we know it.
Native forests-as opposed to urban trees and plantations-are complex, natural eco-systems that evolved over millions of years. They are intricately woven into our lives.
For example, only if they are large can they trap enough rainwater to birth rivers like the Narmada; or support a genetically viable population of tigers; or support India's 140 million scheduled tribals, whose livelihoods revolve around gathering non-timber forest produce for eight months in a year.
A 10% tree cover in a hectare cannot do this. Neither can the largest of timber plantations. The FSI does not break up the 692,000 sq km by native forests and plantations. "Mapping is a biennial exercise," says AK Wahal, director general, FSI.
"Time doesn't permit a detailed analysis of the data generated." But independent studies suggest native forests are in decline and plantations are driving official forest-cover figures. A 2011 paper titled 'cryptic destruction of India's native forests', by researcher Priya Davidar and others, says area under plantations doubled between 1995 and 2005, from 146,200 sq km to 300,280 sq km.
During the same period, the FSI says forest cover, as defined by it, rose from 660,337 sq km to 690,250 sq km. The paper extrapolates from the FSI number to say that native forests fell from 514,000 sq km to 390,000 sq km. "Both the core and the periphery of our forests are losing trees," says Nagendra, a Ramanujam fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research into Ecology and Environment (ATREE).
Environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan could not be reached as she was initially unavailable and then travelling abroad. PJ Dilip Kumar, the bureaucrat in charge of India's forests, declined to participate in the story.
All the 10 officials from FSI, ministry and various state departments that ET spoke to agreed that India was losing forests. "What we are seeing is not forest cover, but forest cover-up," says a senior official in Himachal Pradesh's forest department, requesting anonymity.
AFFORESTATION = ASSET CREATION
It gets worse. Compensatory afforestation, meant to revive degraded forests and to replace forests lost to industrial projects, is not working. Last month, Natarajan told the Rajya Sabha that 8,640 sq km of forests were cleared for non-forest use in the last 11 years. Whenever this happens, the project owner has to pay the government for compensatory afforestation on an equivalent amount of land.
This money is used to either convert new tracts of land into forests or to regenerate degraded forests. Earlier, project owners paid states, but this money was often used for sundry purposes. So, the government floated a new fund for compensatory afforestation, CAMPA, which would be managed by the central ministry, with states making fund requests for afforestation.
CAMPA has been around for two years, but the utilisation flaws seem to persist, as documented by 'A Pocketful of Forests', a 2011 book on compensatory afforestation in India by Kanchi Kohli, an activist with Pune-based NGO Kalpvriksh, and others. The book points out that Goa used 69% of its allocation on buildings, vehicles and computers.
Similarly, Andhra Pradesh wanted to spend 43% on construction activities, Sikkim 53%, Himachal Pradesh 53% and Tamil Nadu 67%. "This is blood money," says Praveen Bhargav, a former member of the National Board for Wildlife. "We got it in lieu of the forests we lost. It has to be used for natural afforestation and consolidation of habitat."
Even at the ministry, DG forests Kumar proposed using Rs 1,000 crore of CAMPA funds to set up two research institutes. Natarajan refused, saying the funds can be used only for compensatory afforestation. Further, she asked the government auditor to audit how CAMPA money was being used. Even when the money is going for afforestation, there are issues. "Land is not available, especially in the same ecosystem," says Kohli.
Agrees one of the senior-most officials in the forest department: "States like HP and MP say they have no revenue land to give," he says, on the condition of anonymity, adding that his department does not track how much land came back from the revenue department.
And even when afforestation happens, the outcomes are below par. "If you benchmark it against the type and quality of forest lost, compensatory afforestation is not working," says TR Shankar Raman, a biologist working on forest restoration. "Forests in the area we lost used to have at least 30-40 native species (of trees)," says a forest officer in Rajasthan, on the condition of anonymity.
But we do not plant more than 9-10 species." The forest department is planting fast-growing species to meet demand for fuel-wood and its afforestation targets. "We cannot plant trees like Sal. They grow very slowly and are vulnerable to grazing," says the senior ministry official quoted earlier. "In contrast, a tree like Acacia grows in two to three years, and fills out the canopy.
It can be used for pulpwood and poles. It fixes nitrogen." In the process, a forest changes: the tree species originally found in it move towards extinction, as do birds and animals dependent on them. Raman Kumar, a project coordinator studying migratory birds with Bangalorebased National Centre for Biological Studies, documented one such example in a paper titled 'how good are managed forests at conserving native woodpecker communities'.
Kumar compared woodpecker species and numbers in four landscapes: natural Sal trees, old and managed Sal, young and managed Sal, and Teak plantations. He chose woodpeckers as they are "reliable indicators of forest health and avian biodiversity". Natural sal had the highest woodpecker density, teak plantation the lowest. Yet, since 1992, the push is on plantations.
This is partly due to programmes like the National Afforestation Programme, and partly due to private-sector plantations and funding from international donors like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). In their paper, Davidar and others estimate that India is adding 15,400 sq km of plantations every year-about 15 times the overall increase in forest cover in the latest survey.
These are fastgrowing, short-rotation species like Eucalyptus, Acacia and Rubber. "If you travel through Punjab, you will see large tree plantations to meet demand for plywood, etc," says a former FSI researcher, not wanting to be named. "Most are from the private sector. There are similar plantations around Ooty and Nagpur."
India's forest cover is changing. One, forests are becoming utilitarian. Two, the area under plantations is increasing. Three, natural, non-forest ecosystems, like the Banni grasslands of Kutch and the Shola forests of the Western Ghats, are changing into wooded forests due to the afforestation drive. Four, protected areas are degrading.
"Dense forests have become moderately dense, which have, in turn, become open forests," says the ex-FSI researcher. In another paper, Davidar and others say, Tamil Nadu lost about 500 sq km of dense forest between 2001 and 2003, and gained about 1,600 sq km of open forest. However, few of these changes show up in FSI reports, which only report aggregates.
They don't measure the respective area under plantations and native forests. Nor do they measure how much afforestation comprises native species and how much non-native species. "We also don't know if forests are fragmenting," says Bhargav. "How many are over, say, 5,000 sq km, 3,000-5,000 sq km, and so on?" This is important because a forest of 5,000 sq km is not the same as 10 forests of 500 sq km each. As a forest shrinks, it houses fewer large animals and gives rise to fewer and smaller rivers.
Wahal says FSI is acquiring satellite technology that will "lower the mappable threshold to 0.25 hectare", from 1 hectare.
This will further accelerate the shift towards counting trees as forests, and help the FSI report better numbers, as happened in 2001, when the minimum mappable unit was reduced from 25 hectares to 1 hectare. Nagendra of ATREE argues that if the FSI can acquire better satellite technology, why can't it put out data that is more granular, reliable and updated.
"Most forest researchers in India go to great lengths to create their own maps of forest change for specific areas," she says. "FSI maps have many inaccuracies for specific locations." Also, FSI data is old by the time it comes out.
Its 2012 report is based on satellite images collected between October 2008 and March 2009. "Given the lag, it is difficult to go back to locations and check accuracy, and identify why the decline took place," she says, adding that Brazil provides data on forest change at a 25-hectare scale every two weeks.
"There is no reason why we can't do this given India's premier position in satellite technology and applications."
It is the tiger census all over again. In 2006, under pressure to show a jump in tiger numbers, the forest department inflated numbers till it looked like India had over 3,500 tigers. And then, reduced it to 1,411 tigers. Today, the bald truth about forests is that there is little understanding on how they are doing.