Cover Story Environment

Forests or no Forests?

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The Indian government reports throw up new forest data, contradicting ground reality. Blue Eve investigates the FSI reports. An expose by her reveals that while forest covers are dwindling, figures are being fudged with impunity. The FSI uses satellite images to identify green cover; invasive weeds and commercial plantations have masqueraded as ‘forests’ across the country as India keeps losing its vital dense forest cover. A special feature by Different Truths on World Environment Day.

I forever loved the picturesque Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand. The dense forest trails and treks with my parents often reminded me of Corbett’s ‘Man-Eaters of Kumaon.’ I was and still am a great fan of the man who dedicated his life to the forests and tigers of the area, and of course to the people too. My mom was an avid trekker, she often left home on vacations to drink in the splendour of the wooded hills and forests of Mayavati, Almora and stretches of Uttarakhand that were often not on the tourist maps. So no wonder I too decided to take my son to those woods this March. But what I saw was like the shock of a lightning ravaging through a meadow full of boys playing and killing a few. For yes, tracks after tracks were literally barren and bare. And well, it was not because of some forest fire, for when I was in the adjoining hills of Nainital, the fire hadn’t started. A little enquiry led me to locals who clearly mentioned these forests are lost not just to landslides and lack of rain (there have been no showers in the area for the past eight months) but to the local log mafia who are hand-in- glove with the state government. What they showed me was what I saw in Lava of West Bengal a few years ago. A slow fire set to the roots of trees that gradually kill them and eventually lead to massive forest fires, one of which soon followed after I left the area.

However, what we see on paper and government reports is a completely different tale. A report by Forest Survey of India (FSI) submitted in 2015 states the forest cover of Uttarakhand has decreased by 268sqkm in last two years. The main reason for the decrease in forest cover has been described as rotational felling and diversion of forest land for development activities. As per National Forest Policy of 1952, forest and tree cover should be of one-third of the total geographical area of a country. Uttarakhand has a total geographical area of 53,483sqkm out of which 34,651sqkm is recorded forest area (RFA). And that area is fast vanishing for sure, though as per the report almost 50 per cent of the total area is covered by forests! Uttarakhand also had long patches of forest that allowed unhindered movement of wildlife especially, elephant corridors.

Almost a similar tale in North Bengal forests. What I saw at Lava ten years back, has taken the form of heightened destruction last year when I was at Lataguri. No wonder the human-pachyderm conflict has reached alarming proportions in recent years in areas like Alipurduar, Jalpaiguri, and adjoining areas. Destroying forests lead to the destruction of habitats of large animals like elephants and they come to destroy the human settlements fringing the forest area.

But what the eyes conceive, government reports states the opposite. Like the latest biennial report released in December 2015 by FSI, shows India gained 60,854sqkm of forests over the past three decades, 43,907sqkm having been added under the dense forest category. In the last two years, while the gain in overall forest cover has been an impressive 3,775sqkm, our dense forests have shrunk by 654sqkm.

Indeed, this is a remarkable feat considering the intense pressure on forest land for the agricultural, industrial and infrastructural needs of a rapidly growing population. But before celebrating the achievement, there is need to look at the numbers.

The FSI uses satellite images to identify green cover and does not discriminate between natural forests, plantations, thickets of weeds and longstanding commercial crops like palm, coconut, coffee or even sugarcane. So millions of these tiny plots that earlier went unnoticed, are also brought in under India’s official forest cover.

This can throw up very interesting results. Like in Delhi, the first FSI report recorded only 15sqkm of forests. The latest report found 189sqkm — an over 12-fold increase in three decades. Nearly a third of this is recorded under the ‘dense’ category. So how come oxygen-starved Delhiites do not have a guide map to take a breather in these ‘forests’? While the satellite pictures show agriculturally rich states of Punjab and Haryana added more than 1,000sqkm each of forests since the 1980s. Arid Rajasthan has gained as much as 30%. A third of Tamil Nadu’s forests are on private land that also has a fifth of the state’s dense forests.

These are indeed surprising figures on paper, though the real picture is so very different. No wonder this report is possible as invasive weeds and commercial plantations have masqueraded as ‘forests’ across the country as India keeps losing its vital dense forest cover. Dense forests have shrunk by 2,254sqkm in Gujarat, and by 1,887sqkm in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana since the first FSI report. Since 2003, 9,513sqkm of India’s dense forests have been wiped out and have become non-forest areas.

What’s worse is the lack of any policy on cutting of trees in most states of India. In the name of setting up factories, industries and real-estates, for over a decade most semi-urban areas and even rural areas have witnessed rampant cutting of trees. One cannot expect to compensate lost forests with plantations, and that is exactly what the FSI reports are trying to highlight. Forest departments of many states are trying to plant mixed native species to create new forests. But they cannot compensate, certainly not overnight, for the loss of old-growth natural forests. For three decades, our net dense forest cover has remained stable on paper. There is nothing in the FSI reports until 2005 to show how much of these prime forests were actually lost, and compensated for, by plantations. And there lies the dilemma: Have we increased or decreased the forest cover of India?

©Saheli Mitra

Pix from author.

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