All trees made equal? India's forest cover statistics present a rosy view of reality even as the country's natural forests continue to shrink | Photo: Tamil Nadu Forest Department

The unflattering reality of India’s lofty plans for its forests

India’s forests represent one of the largest battlegrounds in climate change policy. While the Indian government has repeatedly claimed massive success in its forest conservation and afforestation practices, the reality is that there is an insidious tussle to redefine India’s natural forest landscape which has serious implications on the country’s efforts to tackle climate change

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi grabbed headlines this past week as he implored greater collaboration among the world’s largest economies in the fight against climate change. Modi’s virtual address, on the sidelines of the recently concluded G20 summit being held at Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, also touched on India’s successes with respect to its commitments made towards the 2015 Paris Agreement. But while the Prime Minister touted achievements and targets to an international audience, the reality on the ground is more contentious, particularly with regards to India’s forest conservation and afforestation programmes.

Just last month, as India celebrated ‘Wildlife Week’, the country’s National Board for Wildlife (NBWL) recommended the de-notification of 1,000 of protected area to allow for development projects. A few months before that, the Indian environment ministry was on the verge of granting clearance for the felling of 2.7 lakh trees in Dibang Valley, Arunachal Pradesh, one of the country’s most biodiverse regions. As this news report stated, according to data from the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) and the National Informatics Centre (NIC), since 2015, his government had allotted 409 square kilometres (sqkm) of forest area — the size of the city of Chennai — to various development projects. These examples, marking just the surface of a spate of forest diversions for development projects and industry, along with attempted dilution of Environmental Impact Assessment norms and commercialisation of coal mining, muddy the significance of the Prime Minister’s recent words.

While the Prime Minister and his government are talking the talk, they are clearly far from walking the walk when it comes to protecting India’s forests. As a consequence, India is fast degrading its few remaining safeguards that will provide a robust natural defence against the adverse consequences of global phenomena such as extreme weather and climate change. This despite the Global Climate Risk Index listing India as the country that is among the most vulnerable to climate change.

The gap between policy and practice

Five years after the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015, India is considered to be among the best performing major economies in the world when it comes to keeping its pledge made at Paris. Across the board, it is largely agreed that India is well on its way to meet its 2030 targets for at least two of its three key pledges. India’s key pledges were to reduce carbon emission intensity, produce more electricity through renewable energy and enact the Green India Mission, whose focus is to increase the country’s forest cover by five million hectares as well as improve the quality of the country’s green cover. While the first two pledges have seen movements in the right direction, the GIM has been regularly missing annual targets. It currently stands at a stage where it is impossible to fulfil the commitments made by the 2030 deadline. This despite the biennial Indian State of Forest Report (ISFR) published by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), claiming ever-increasing forest cover.

The latest report, published in 2019, stated that over eight lakh of land is classified as covered by tree and forest cover in India. This is about 24.5% of the country’s entire area and 5,188 sqkm more than the area documented as forests in the previous report published in 2017. At the same time, according to the Global Forest Watch, an open-source web application to monitor global forests, Indian forest cover decreased by 4% from 2010 to 2018. To say the ISFR numbers are debatable is an understatement.  

As another report had pointed out earlier, nearly 30% of the land classified as forests does not have any forest cover. For the purposes of the ISFR report, ‘forest cover’ is defined as land that is more than one hectare and has a tree canopy density of more than 10%. The FSI does not look into the kind of forests they are nor does it factor in forest fragmentation and degradation. Areas that are plantations could also be included in the ISFR report as forest cover.

This discrepancy lies at the heart of India’s exceedingly good performances on paper and real change on the ground. As Abi Tamim Vanak, associate professor, Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bengaluru says, “There is a fundamental lack of understanding about what constitutes natural vegetation types in India. Therefore, managers and foresters tend to focus on fast-growing species or a few species that they think are hardy or locally useful. There is also a historical legacy of planting exotic species such as eucalyptus, wattle and some of these such as the Prosopis juliflora became invasive. The biggest problem in our experience comes from planting trees in natural open habitats such as deserts, grasslands and savanna ecosystems. This essentially destroys those ecosystems.”

Vanak’s work focuses on the outcome of interactions between species at the interface of humans, domestic animals and wildlife in semi-arid savannas and agro-ecosystems. He adds, “Old growth ecosystems (both forests and savanna grasslands), tend to sequester carbon at higher rates than new plantations. Therefore, by destroying old ecosystems and pretending that these can be ‘compensated’ by planting trees elsewhere, the government is ignoring science and ecological reality.”

Wrong vs right way of increasing forest cover

Across the world, ecologists and environmental scientists agree that planting trees are not the only solution for carbon sequestration. In many cases, planting the wrong tree or planting trees in the wrong region can actively release more carbon into the atmosphere. In India, afforestation efforts have been mired in controversy for a multitude of reasons. Experts also allege that many ‘targets’ set by the MoEF&CC are inexplicable. “The goals of 33% forest cover in non-hilly areas and 66% in hilly areas are unrealistic and have no scientific basis. The right way to increase forest cover is to recognise the rights of local communities to manage their forest under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) 2006, then allowing and helping them to create their own community forest management plans as per their wishes, and allowing the tree cover that emerges out of this process to be the object of conservation,” says  Sharachchandra Lele, Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy & Governance, also at ATREE.

Professor Lele has been working on issues related to sustainable development and sustainability, and analyses of institutional, economic, ecological, and technological issues in forest, energy, and water resource management for decades now. He feels that instead of this ‘right way’, Indian officials have been directly planting in the name of afforestation without the consent of local communities and without recognising their rights.

The lack of a cohesive afforestation strategy has also been another major issue. As it exists, the three major afforestation schemes in India are the Compensatory Afforestation Act, 2016, various state afforestation schemes, and REDD+, which is an international mechanism developed for afforestation on a global scale to increase carbon sinks.

These schemes are riddled with issues though, at least when they are applied in the Indian context. As Shomona Khanna, a lawyer practicing in the Supreme Court of India and the Delhi high court on a variety of rights-related issues says, “The primary problem with these strategies is that they conflate restoration of forests lost to industrial purposes with tree plantation. A forest, however, is not a collection of trees, it is an ecosystem, comprising the trees and the water sources and the undergrowth and the wildlife, the soil and the aquifers below the earth, and also, as the FRA 2006 categorically acknowledges, the traditional forest dwellers. It has deep social, cultural, spiritual and economic meaning to the Adivasi and forest dwelling communities, and to their very sense of identity.”

Khanna was a former legal advisor to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs (MoTA). She adds that the afforestation policies of the government de-link these various interconnected components of an ecosystem from each other, and promote tree plantation, that too monoculture plantation or agroforestry, where the needs of industry are prioritised, not of the forest dwelling communities. As she says, “The notion that you can replace a forest here, which is lost to industry or mining, with tree plantation there is completely flawed.”

Affecting climate change mitigation negatively

In a report published way back in 2003, the World Health Organisation (WHO), had already warned that climate change will increase the risk of infectious diseases. Among other factors, the WHO researchers identified deforestation as among the reasons for the spread of zoonotic diseases. This is all too evident now as most of our world has been brought to its knees by the spread of one such disease. Even without the pandemic, various reports have detailed the economic loss India will suffer or is suffering due to the effects of climate change. These include startling figures such as an estimated loss of $37 billion just in the year 2018, because of climate change and significant risk to the country’s GDP because of extreme heat. Even the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), for the first time in its history, warned of the risks posed due to climate change in a report in August this year. In this context, mitigation efforts need to be continuous and cannot just be paper tigers.

A lack of governmental oversight and misplaced priorities add to the issue. Kanchi Kohli, legal researcher at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi, says, “The problem is of how these targets are approached, largely through a technocratic and managerial manner. They are also not the primary drivers of governance in India. The result is that emission reduction targets include planting of millions of trees and not reducing the use of coal. It announces large utility solar without a policy level impact assessment on how it will impact common use lands, grasslands. The government’s actions indicate that it is yet to recognise vulnerabilities of coastal areas to climate change. These vulnerabilities are invisible in policies such as Sagarmala or Bharatmala, which propose a network of ports and highways. None of these policies have been reviewed for their climate efficacy and social legitimacy.”

Government policies are in need of serious course correction to tackle the pressing issue of climate change. As Coimbatore-based CR Bijoy of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity (CSD) says, “Both deforestation [reduced to chopping down of trees] and afforestation [reduced to tree plantation] do not address climate change mitigation in the short- or long-term. In fact, land use and land use changes have to be the basis for understanding carbon emission and mitigation.”

The consequences of such poor planning and implementation is only exacerbating the plight of Indians who are already suffering from extreme weather events. As Bijoy adds, “Carbon sequestration through creation and expansion of carbon sinks via massive tree plantation in the long term is not science. What happens to the carbon sink, the trees and forests in the long term? We are not in control over forests. Forests or natural ecosystems can never be managed by us; at best we can only manage our activities.” The solutions seem to lie in allowing for natural regeneration or considered reconstruction of highly degraded forests. The failure to do so is resulting in and will continue to result in disastrous consequences.

This is the first installment in an in-depth three-part series on India’s forest conservation and afforestation policies. The second part will explore how India’s forest management has remained oblivious to the value of ecosystem services, even as the costs of doing so continue to multiply at an alarming rate.

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