Skewed picture: The government report has failed to capture the fact that forests are about food and water security and include forest dwellers and millions of other species, say experts. Photo: The Logical Indian

Are India’s forests really growing? Look under the cover, say experts

According to the State of Forest Report 2021, India’s forest cover rose 1,540 sqkm between 2019 and 2021, but unreliable methodology is painting a skewed picture, experts point out  

India’s forest and tree cover has increased by 2,261 square kilometres (sqkm) compared to the last biennial assessment in 2019, according to the 2021 India’s State of Forest Report (ISFR) released this month. Independent assessments, however, reveal a contradictory story. One that speaks of huge loss of forest, biodiversity and wildlife on the ground to official norms, definitions and legal loopholes. 

According to the ISFR report, India’s total forest cover (TFC) rose 1,540 sqkm between 2019 and 2021. At 713,789 sqkm, the TFC in 2021 is 21.71% of the total geographical area (TGA) of the country as opposed to 21.67% of the TGA of the country in 2019. In 2017, the TFC was 21.54% of the TGA. According to the National Forest Policy 1988, India is chasing a target to get 33% of its geographical area under forest cover.

But experts point out that methodology reliant on satellite data is not equipped to assess forests with their social and ecological life. The data fails to capture the fact that forests are about food and water security and include forest dwellers and millions of other species. Experts say by including fruit orchards and monoculture plantations as forest cover, the aim is to show compliance with domestic forest policy and global climate targets. But all it ends up doing is showcasing a distorted picture of India’s forests. 

Tree canopy density: Criteria to skip a lot underneath? 

The Forest Survey of India (FSI), the government agency that conducts the official assessment, classifies forests into categories: Very Dense Forest (with tree canopy density of 70% or above), Moderately Dense Forest (tree canopy density of 40% or above, but less than 70%), Open Forest (tree canopy density of 10% or above but less than 40%), and Scrub (tree canopy density less than 10%).

According to official data, Open Forests have the largest chunk in forest cover, with 9.34% of the total forest cover (307,120 sq km). Very Dense Forests (natural forests) account for just 3.04% (99,779 sq km) of forest cover, which is the smallest share. Moderately Dense Forests account for 9.33% (307,120 sq km) of total forest cover.

India has reported an increase of just 501 sqkm under the Very Dense Forest category in the past two years. There is a loss of 1,582 sqkm under the Moderately Dense Forest category. Open Forests have reported an increase of 2,612 sqkm.

Experts point out that the sole criteria of “tree canopy density” simply fails to capture the unique compositions of forest biodiversity, including its wildlife and livelihood sources. For example, forests in central India are less dense than those in Western Ghats, but are very rich in biodiversity and wildlife. 

Forester Manoj Misra points out Indian forests have been classified by scientists into 16 different types, each of which have unique canopy formations, among other differences. To club all of them as either just ‘dense’ or ‘open’ forests betrays poor understanding of the natural diversity of forest systems, he writes. Some forest types might be naturally dense or open and their ecological characteristics would be ignored if each of them is assessed on whether the canopy density is good or poor and then actions called for to convert all to a dense status, he writes. According to him, such an approach also ignores the wilderness values of natural grasslands, wetlands and largely treeless areas like cold (Ladakh & Lahaul) and warm deserts (Thar & Rann of Kutch) etc. 

Misra also observed that artificially drawn state boundaries or tiger, lion, elephant reserves etc. should not be the assessment criteria of forest loss or gain. Instead the criteria should be the catchment area of major rivers, which is a well-defined ecological unit and its health in terms of vegetative cover can help determine India’s water security potential and locations where due to catchment deforestation flood risks have increased. 

Kanchi Kohli from the Centre for Policy Research points out that loss and gain in forest cover can’t be assessed through tree density since monoculture plantations may be shown as gain over an Open Forest. This could be a wildlife habitat and home to tribal communities that could be diverted for infrastructure projects. Kohli says the state of forest report considers  monoculture plantations and fruit orchards as forest cover only to show compliance with domestic forest policy and international climate targets. India recognises governance rights of forest-dwelling communities, including gaining their consent while accessing forest resources, but the state of forest report doesn’t reflect this.

Methodology: Meeting or missing the targets ?

According to the official definition, forest cover includes all patches of land with a tree canopy density of more than 10% and with area having more than 1 ha, irrespective of land use, ownership and species of trees. 

There is heavy reliance on satellite imagery for assessment of Forest Cover. The report says, “(the) wall-to-wall forest mapping of the country is carried out using remote sensing based methodology.” The methodology includes “ground truthing” , which “enables linking of image data to ground reality.” After the changes are discerned “doubt points are selected by analysts on the basis of certain criteria like significant change, mixing of signature and distortion in signature due to radiometry or phenological changes. More than 3,400 ground truth points were visited by analysts during the current Forest Cover Mapping exercise,” the report says. 

The report also flags limitations. For example, an area less than 23.5m on the ground cannot be captured. Cloud cover, shadows in satellite data, haze may obscure “considerable” data. Phenological changes in forests result in poor reflectance of data, while crops such as sugarcane, cotton and lantana weeds adjacent to forests cause mixing spectral signatures, making it difficult to interpret forest cover precisely. 

Consider the difficulties the report alerts about while capturing satellite pictures. About change in Forest Cover it says “…interpretational changes in classifications also pertains to areas where Forest Cover either went undetected due to snow or cloud cover, hill shadow effect, poor reflectance from trees due to leaf fall, or poor image quality the time of previous assessment or classified as forest due to poor tonal variation.”

In the section on Forest Cover in major mega cities defined as those with million plus population, the report identifies seven mega cities of Greater Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. Delhi is assessed to have maximum green cover (194.24 sqkm), followed by Mumbai (110.77 sqkm) and Bengaluru (89.02 sqkm). The states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Jharkhand have recorded the highest increase in forest cover, the report said. States in the North East have recorded the highest loss in forest cover. There has been a loss (.44 sqkm) in the total forest area of Delhi as well. Its total forest area in 2021 was 195 sqkm. Mostly open forest areas have been damaged. India had 4,992 sqkm of mangroves in 2021, which was an increase of 17 sqkm, according to the report. 

Climate change hotspots mapped: Notes on west, central and peninsular India 

The report has also mapped climate change hotspots in Indian forests, based on projections for 2030, 2050 and 2080. By 2030, 315,667 sqkm or 45% of India’s forest and tree cover are set to emerge as climate hotspots. The report said by 2050, 448,367 sqkm or 64% of India’s forest and tree cover is likely to face the ‘high severity’ (rise in temperature between the range of 1.5 and 2.1 degrees Celsius) of climate change. Hence, forests in large parts of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, the northern part of Odisha and western part of Jharkhand will be impacted by adverse impacts of climate change from 2050 onwards.

Variation to death: Which way will forest turn to climate impacts?

Scientists of forest hydrology say the combined impacts of extreme drought and heat waves exacerbated by climate change is resulting in the death of trees across India and the globe. A 2018 study found that concurrent drought and heatwaves in India expanded significantly between 1981-2000 as compared to the 1951-1980 period mainly in Gujarat, Central India and Peninsular India. The complex impacts on vegetation ranged from short-lived local mortality events to regional-scale death of forests, Scroll reported then

An analysis of forest fires in India between 2004 and 2011 released by the Forest Survey of India shows that the North East had maximum fires between the first week of March and third week of April, South India between the first week of February and first week of April and north and Central India between the last week of February and third week of June. The most fires were in 2009-’10 in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Manipur, Odisha, Uttarakhand, Tripura and Mizoram. The high number of fires coincided with scanty rainfall or a monsoon failure in these areas, the website reported. The droughts in 2004, 2004, 2009, 2012 and 2016 correspond with the total number of fires in these years, especially in peninsular India. In the northern states, Scroll reported, correlation between fires and drought is not evident, probably because of the practice of crop residue burning.

A  2013 study showed 55% of India’s forests are prone to annual fires, mainly in the peninsula and the Western Himalayas. The FSI estimated about 15% of the total area vulnerable to forest fire. Of the 348 vulnerable districts, the maximum number are in central India, especially Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh and Odisha. A 2017 study based on ISFR 2013 categorised forests into different vulnerability classes and estimated 40% of country’s forest grids showed high or very high vulnerability especially in peninsular and central India. Plantation forests showed more vulnerability than natural forests.

The study used models to predict future climate and vegetation type in India’s forest areas in the short term (2030s) and the long term (2080s). predicting a change in vegetation type in almost half (46%) of India’s forest grid cells by 2030; and upto 54% in the long term mainly in west and central India and in the interior peninsula – forests and plantations.

Forest cover vs legal cover 

 The ISFR says the marginal growth in India’s forest cover is primarily due to an increase in the area under open forests, led by commercial plantations. But the moderately dense forests or the area close to human habitations has declined between 2021 and 2019. Between 2021 and 2019, the area under open forests increased 0.09% (1,582 sqkm).

Union minister for environment, forest and climate change Bhupender Yadav defended the classification of forests saying ‘plantations play a crucial ecological role’ and it was not really necessary to separate them from natural forests. MD Madhusudan of Nature Conservation Foundation points out that India’s forest cover declined until 1997, after which it grew 45,000 sqkm over the next three reports because in the 2001 assessment FSI adopted a fully digital analysis workflow, and changed its definition of a forest. He said tea gardens in Assam and West Bengal, coconut plantations in Tamil Nadu as well as in sub-urban areas and offices in Kolkata and Delhi were counted as ‘very dense’, ‘moderately dense’ and ‘open’ forests in the report. 

Researchers point out that authorities divert forest land for mining and development projects such as irrigation projects, highways and even public toilets without changing the legal status of the land (the handbook of Forest Conservation Act is full of the phrase: “The legal status of the land shall remain unchanged.​​” So it would remain a ‘forest land’, but only on paper. Experts say the survey should acknowledge such diversions and provide information if such forests were replaced by compensatory afforestations.  Diversion of forest land through Amendments to the Forest Act, 1980, has also been raised by experts, who reminded that the government told Parliament that as much as 55430.13 hectares of forest land across the country was approved for non-forestry use under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 between April 2018 and March 2021. Analysts point out that the report does not take into account threats to existing forests, and FSI should expand its mandate to these issues to guarantee the long-term security of India’s forests rather than simply counting the tree canopy density.