Missing the woods for the trees: India’s afforestation efforts have failed to keep step as deforestation shows no signs of slowing down | Photo: Indiatimes.com

Forests be damned, we need the concrete jungle

After all the public mobilisation and demonstrations to save the swathe of forest at Aarey Milk Colony chalked out to be cut down for the planned Metro car shed, the implications of the last-minute special hearing in the Supreme Court and the order to halt tree felling were little more than just academic. By the time the order to maintain status quo was pronounced, 2,145 of the 2,185 trees designated to be felled, or 98% of the planned felling, had already been executed. To atone, the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation (MMRC), which is handling the project, claims to have planted around 24,000 trees at Aarey and the neighbouring Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP) to limit the environmental impact of the felling.

But such announcements almost never include plans of how authorities plan to monitor the years-long replantation process. Already, of trees planted at Aarey, official apathy seems to have killed some, while many have been planted too close to each other and therefore may not survive. The lack of a concrete plan to ensure their survival is why activists and citizens seem most sceptical of grand replantation announcements.

While the Aarey episode set the internet abuzz this fortnight with news, photos, videos and opinions and grabbed eyeballs, India’s track-record regarding forest clearances in the recent past has been unimpressive. In fact, for every Aarey, there seem to be numerous other cases of blatant forest land diversion and tree felling that have mostly flown under the radar. According to government data, in India, over 15 lakh hectares (ha) of forest land has been diverted since 1980, around a fifth of which has worryingly happened since 2010. In 2015 alone, more than 1 lakh ha was diverted. The Global Forest Watch reports that India has lost 16 lakh ha of tree cover between 2001 and 2018 – a 4.3% decrease relative to 2000 levels.

Worryingly, the largest losses in tree cover have been reported from north-eastern states indicating high levels of clearance of natural forests. The signs are ominous in the Western Ghats, too, as states have declared only half of the recommended 60,000-odd sq.km of the ghats as ecologically sensitive.

Road projects have by far been the biggest reason for forest diversion and tree cutting in recent years. In Uttarakhand, for instance, the much-touted Char Dham Mahamarg road project is estimated to have cost over 25,000 trees across 373 ha of forest land susceptible to slope instability. In Madhya Pradesh, the numbers are even more stark. The Bharatmala Pariyojana highway development plan is slated to be implemented at the expense of at least 1.18 lakh trees spread across seven protected forests. Between 2015 and 2018, India lost 20,000 hectares of forest land, almost the size of Kolkata, to industrial development and mining. 

Projects that are to be built on forest land for non-forest purposes have to, by law, undertake compensatory afforestation on an equivalent piece of non-forest land or double the expanse of the forest land that has been degraded. But this week, a CAG report found that the Karnataka state Forest, Ecology & Environment Department violated the Forest Conservation Act while approving or leasing 7,785 hectares (19,237 acres) of forest land. The CAG audit, conducted between January and July 2018, covered two offices of Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and 10 out of 39 territorial divisions in Karnataka. It found that the state department had failed to ‘ensure compensatory afforestation in exchange for forest land diverted to other purposes between 2013 and 2018, even after collecting statutory charges for the purpose of raising plantations.’ A similar situation has been reported from multiple states over the past years.

Even where compensatory afforestation is seemingly working, it often puts indigenous communities at risk. In Chhattisgarh, 4,000 acres in 16 villages have been earmarked for a compensatory tree plantation in lieu of forests to be stripped for the Parsa coal block. The victims in this case are hundreds of villagers, many from the indigenous or adivasi communities, who have suddenly been forced to give up their lands for this project. A recent move by the Centre has made it possible for states with high proportions of forest cover to transfer compensatory afforestation projects to other states. With little or no monitoring in place, the move threatens to further erode the country’s natural forest cover with almost no replacement.

While monitoring and reporting of forests, tree cover and sequestration potentials are riddled with accounting complexities, India does not even have an operational legal definition for forests and has been using the criteria of 10% tree cover to demarcate them – which often includes agricultural and agro-forestry lands. This ambiguity was once again exploited to announce an increase in afforestation targets in last month’s UNCCD COP in New Delhi. The loophole is likely to have enabled exaggeration of afforestation claims by up to 12% and has earned the ire of other nations in recent international forums.

In the larger scheme of things, it has put India’s Paris Agreement carbon sink target in doubt as sequestration from natural forests has been showing dramatic decline in the country even as sequestration from agriculture and agro-forestry see massive jumps. The trend once again underlines India’s preference for plantation crops for afforestation while reforestation efforts have been scuppered by falling budgetary allocations and poor monitoring. India’s latest attempt is to come in the form of a 1,400-km long and 5-km wide green belt from Gujarat to the Delhi-Haryana border. The plan is part of the country’s goal to restore 26 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. The idea is still, however, at a nascent stage and the effective implementation of such a large-scale project remains to be seen.

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