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International Day of Forests 2023: Manipulative Forest Report Masking India’s True Forest Cover Story?

Stop statistical jugglery to mask declining forest cover. Monoculture and private plantations cannot be counted as forests, writes Rasheed Kappan.

By Rasheed Kappan
New Update

publive-image Deforestation | Conceptual computer artwork | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Accelerated ecological destruction due to climate change, unregulated development and growing cynicism has deeply impacted India’s green cover. So, when the India State of Forest Report-2021 declared that the country’s forest and tree cover was up by 2,261 sq km since 2019, biodiversity activists were stumped. In collective disbelief, they cried: How?

Released by the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India (FSI), there was only one way this biennial report could arrive at that conclusion; they contended: By counting monoculture plantations as forests. “This inclusion is a serious threat, and it leads to the erosion of native forests rich in biodiversity and threatens water sustenance,” as Dr TV Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Centre for Ecological Sciences puts it.

On the World Forest Day 2023, the report’s finding that over 33% of land in 17 States and Union Territories was covered in forests should have been reason enough to cheer. Instead, the inclusion of plantations has been dubbed as a manipulation. “Under the garb of tree cover, they are trying to fool everyone,” says Dr Ramachandra.

This trend of categorising plantations as forests started in 2015 onwards, he recalls. “It is a serious issue. Even private plantations are included under forests. We have been insisting that they stop this practice. If they want to, let them show private plantations separately. That is how they come up with the theory that forest cover is increasing in the country. It is not forest cover, but the agro-forestry / commercial forestry which is increasing.”

Spike In Forest Fires

Whatever the actual extent of the forest area, the existing green expanses are climbing up the vulnerability scale. The latest challenge is a dramatic spike in forest fires across the country due to rising summer temperatures.

Based on satellite-based remote sensing technology and GIS tools, FSI says the country had 337 large active forest fires, both natural and manmade. Nearly 150 of them were in Odisha, 44 in Mizoram, 38 in Arunachal Pradesh and 18 in Jharkhand.

publive-image An Indian forest fire | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Forest fires could be sparked by lightning, aided by dryness. Odisha had that coming since the State has not recorded any rain since October. But the Odisha government has a different take on the rising numbers. Stubble-burning by farmers was captured as forest fires by satellites.

During the particularly acute forest fire season from November 2020 to June 2021, satellite imaging sensors captured a whopping 3.46 lakh forest fires of different magnitudes. “Severe fires occur particularly in dry deciduous forests. More than 36% of the country’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to frequent fires. Nearly 4% of the country’s forest cover is extremely prone to fire,” states a data-tracking FSI site.

The fire is spreading. In the last week of February, about 100 hectares of a forest was gutted near the Kulagi range of Kali Tiger Reserve in Karnataka’s Uttara Kannada district. It was found to be manmade, sparked by dwellers who set fire to dry grass for better cattle graze.

Over 2,000 forest fires have been recorded across Karnataka in the recent past. Foresters had a tough time controlling the blaze in several parts of the Charmadi Ghat in the Western Ghats, where a fire raged for over five days in mid-March. Many fire spots were inaccessible by foot. Locals complained that the government had not sought the help of the Army or the Indian Air Force (IAF) to douse the fire by helicopters.

Inefficient Staff. Insufficient Budget.

“Large-scale fires in any forest and failure to control it for weeks show the inefficiency of the forest department and the government for insufficient budget allocation. The fitness level of the forest staff is key to controlling fire in interiors, and it requires walking for hours in inhospitable terrains,” notes BK Singh, former Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (head of forest force), Karnataka.

If the fire is not controlled within six to eight hours, as Singh notes with decades of experience, it spreads deep into the interiors and becomes uncontrollable for weeks. “Often, the ground fire takes the shape of crown fire, inflicting much damage to biodiversity, including wildlife, especially amphibians and reptiles. Large ungulates generally run away to other areas leading to increase in the conflicts in those regions,” he explains.

So, preparedness is exceptionally critical. Says Singh, “Forest Departments’ preparedness depends upon the success of fire tracing work. This implies fire watchers moving to the spot quickly, beating the fire, and giving a counter-fire depending upon the direction of the wind.”

World Forest Day 2023 Deforestation | Representational image | Photo courtesy: Special arrangement

Statistical Jugglery

Huge gaps in infrastructure, personnel and systemic upgrade show that the threat of forest fires is not subsiding anytime soon. So, is it statistical jugglery to show an artificial growth in forest cover and thus prove India’s climate action on the forestry front?

At the heart of this debate is the biodiversity richness of forests compared to the monoculture single-crop plantations. “Indeed, monoculture is a threat to biodiversity. Also, our study on the Western Ghats across the four river basins shows that whichever catchment has native forests of diverse vegetation, water is available for 12 months. But in monoculture plantation areas, the availability drops to only 6-8 months,” Dr Ramachandra points out.

Forest loss invariably leads to a loss in sequestering carbon. Plantations cannot compensate for it. “Native forests sequester carbon much more than plantations. They should stop this bogus way of accounting. They should know that the forest ecosystems are far superior. Plantations make only the planter rich,” he points out.

Landslides And Mudslides

Categorising plantations as forests has another disastrous impact. In regions where native forests have made way for plantations, landslides and mudslides have seen a dangerous spike in both frequency and ferocity. In recent years, the landslides in Wayanad in Kerala and Kodagu in Karnataka devastated lives and livelihoods.

So, have we reached a point of no return? That depends on how the Centre and State governments respond. Ananth Hegde Ashisara, former chairman of the Western Ghats Task Force, draws attention to an affidavit submitted by the Karnataka government to the Supreme Court, stating that 3.3 lakh hectares in the ghats are in the deemed forest list.

This is significant for a reason. Ananth explains, “Both the Centre and the State should now urgently prepare an action plan to develop and conserve this 3.3 lakh hectares since it is currently with the revenue department. It is urgent because we have been losing vast patches of thick, evergreen forests under the departments’ jurisdiction in the Western Ghats.”

Growing Encroachments

The forest department claims the forests that come under the control of the State revenue department that are called “revenue forests” are not its responsibility. “But the revenue department’s main role is not forest conservation. Many studies have been conducted, but what is the use? At the ground level, encroachments are going on, and the government continues to grant land for different projects liberally,” he laments.

With elections barely a month away in Karnataka, Ananth wonders whether political parties could propose a green agenda for sustainable development in their manifestos. The need is to push for natural capital accounting, recognise the services of the forest ecosystem and factor in a green GDP. Manipulating the extent of forest cover, as environmentalists unanimously contend, is just not a way forward.


Rasheed Kappan is a senior journalist based in Bengaluru with nearly three decades of experience. In the past, he has worked in the Deccan Herald, The Hindu and The Times of India, covering issues related to urban mobility, sustainibility, environment and the interface between policy, planning and activation on the ground. A graphic cartoonist, he is the founder of Kappansky and explores the linkages of art, media and innovation through multiple creative platforms.