The government’s forest management record, as portrayed in the State of Forests in India 2019 report, seems a blend of some notable successes and a few glaring failures. While the country’s overall green cover has increased by 5,188 sq km — an area of the size of Delhi and Goa put together — the existing forests are thinning and several north-eastern states and other regions inhabited largely by tribals have lost some of their forests. This bodes ill for the livelihood security of the large forest-dependent population. It also has socio-economic, and law and order implications as many of these tracts are controlled by Naxalites. Worse still, the loss of forests in the north-east is attributed, among other factors, to clearance of forests for the illegal cultivation of poppy, a crop used widely to raise resources to finance the militancy. Well-advised strategies are, therefore, called for to prevent diversion of forestland to any non-forest use other than essential infrastructure and developmental programmes in these regions.
On the upside, the report provides evidence of a sustained long-term uptrend in India’s forest cover. Only a few countries can boast of such a feat. India’s total green cover now stands at over 8.07 million sq kms, or 24.6 per cent of the entire territory. It inspires confidence in fulfilling — or reaching fairly close to — the country’s commitment under the Paris Climate Agreement to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3.0 billion tonnes in the forest sector by 2030. However, given the slow pace of expansion in the forest cover, cumulatively just over 2 per cent in the past three decades, hitting the ultimate goal of having 33 per cent of the geographic area under forests and trees seems a tall order.
But the fact also is that the report’s numbers and conclusions cannot be taken at their face value. The total forest area figure, for instance, includes the “tree cover” comprising the likes of commercial plantations, orchards and the scattered trees on roadsides and elsewhere. The monoculture of these trees, obviously, is not the same as typical forests, though the trees also serve the environmental objectives. However, the much-needed ecological biodiversity that is associated with forests is missing in the tree covers.
The inclusion of plantations in the forest data can, indeed, be blamed on the lack of a proper definition of forests. Each organisation sets its own parameters for treating a piece of land as forest. The Forest Survey of India, which prepares the biennial State of the Forests report, counts any patch of land as forest if it is more than one hectare in size and has a tree canopy density of above 10 per cent, irrespective of the ownership or legal status of the land. States have their own norms for defining a forest. In some states an area once listed as a forest in the revenue records remains so even if it loses its entire vegetation. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, had decreed in a landmark judgment in 1996 that the term forest must be understood according to its “dictionary meaning”. Such confusion is unwarranted for a productive and ecologically critical sector like forests. It is, therefore, time to formulate an unambiguous and universally accepted definition of forests to get a true picture of the country’s forest resources.