Fallacy in figure
THE FAO assessment claims that in 1990, India had a forest cover of 70.63 mha, of which 51.73 mha were natural forests and plantations another 18.90 mha. A similar FAO study regarding the 1980 forest cover had claimed that then India had a forest cover of 60.42 mha of which natural forests were 57.23 mha and plantations were 3.18 mha. So, according to FAO, the country's tree cover has gone up by over 10 mha - almost one million hectare a year during the 1980s.
While the natural forest cover went down, the area under plantations went up dramatically. After the first set of data regarding India's forest cover in 1980, FAO conducted a fresh exercise to estimate the forest cover for both 1980 and 1990 simultaneously. These estimates were made around 1990 and from one set of data sources so that the two data for 1980 and 1990 would be comparable.
FAO believes that it has now got better baseline data for 1980. The natural forest cover in 1980 according To the organisation was only 55.119 mha as compared to 57.234 mha estimated earlier. When the two ,new sets of FAO data relating to 1980 and 1990 are compared, it becomes clear that while the area under natural forests has gone down by 3.39 mha over the 1980s - an erosion rate of about one-third of a million hectare a year - plantations increased in area by 15.72 mha, an increase of about 500 per cent. The actual increase in the plantation area may actually not be as high.
In a more recent study, the FAO has explained that the 18.9 mha of plantation area is the 'reported area', which is usually based on numbers of trees planted or delivered from nurseries. Since studies available worldwide indicate that the actual or net plantation area is usually 70 per cent of the reported area, FAO now estimates the 1990 plantation area for India to be 13.23 mha.
The sum and substance of all the figures cited by FAO is that while the plantation area in India is' increasing, its natural forest cover is going down. This data, thus, forces us to reach two conclusions. One, that India's forest managers are allowing plantations to increase at the expense of the natural forest cover. Two, that precious little changed between the 1970s and the 1980s in terms of the destruction of natural forests despite the enormous interest that the environ- mental community took in forestry issues in the 1980s, the creation of a full-fledged ministry of environment and forests, and the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in 1980 with a subsequent amendment a few years later to strengthen the law.
FAO, however, states in its Forest Resource Assessment 1990, that it did not assess any area of closed broadleaved forests. The information supplied was taken from a special study on the state of logging (see graph: Natural forests trail). The given estimate of the closed broadleaved forest - 28.747 mha in 1990 - therefore, is not a reliable estimate especially as there is considerable discrepancy in this data. In 1980, the area under closed broadleaved forests was reported to be as much as 46.044 mha. The FAO report quotes The State of Forest Report 1987 to state that as much as 59 mba out of the total 75 mba area under the control of the state forest departments in India is covered by working plans. While numerous environmentalists have consistently argued that working plans, ironically, betray their name and do not actually work, the FAO report argues that "by and large, prescriptions of the working plans have been adhered to".
But the report admits that once these forest areas are logged, there is very little regeneration. Adequate regeneration has taken place on less than one-sixth (15 per cent) of the area logged under the working plans. The three reasons that are given by Indian foresters for this abysmal rate of regeneration are - open grazing, inadequate fire protection and heavy firewood collection which exceeds the natural annual increment.
This simply boils down to the fact that forest authorities in India are themselves actively involved in logging forests, totally disregarding people's biomass needs. As logging considerably reduces biomass availability, continued pressure of the people on the forests to meet their survival needs naturally suppresses any kind of regeneration. The picture that emerges is that if state-owned forest lands were managed for ecological needs and for the survival needs of the local communities only, in accordance with the National Forest Policy of 1987, then these lands should not be brought under working plans and logged.
Thirdly, the FAO report points out that India has the world's largest area under plantations today, something that most environmentalists in India are not aware of. The total plantation area reported by 90 countries of the tropical zone amounted to a total of 43.8 mha in 1990. Of this, India alone had 18.9 mha or 43 per cent of the tropical world's total. The next four countries with large plantation areas in 1990 were Indonesia, Brazil, Vietnam and Thailand. The four combined just about match the Indian area under plantations.
Nothing is known about how much of the plantation area projected by FAO (see graph: Topper) is in the state-owned forest lands, non-forest government lands like revenue lands, panchayat lands or private farmlands. S N Rai, director of the Forest Survey of India, recently told a Planning Commission meeting that most of this plantation area in India consists of farm forests, which indeed was the only successful component of the massive afforestation programme launched in the early 1980s with the assistance of the World Bank and various other bilateral agencies, under the title of social forestry.
According to N C Saxena, who served as a senior officer with the National Wastelands Development Board, some 18 billion trees were planted in the country between 1980 and 1988, of which 10 billion trees (equivalent to an area of five mha) were planted on farmlands (see graph: Tree tales). Between 1990-91 and 1995-96, some 5.571 mha of public lands were afforested and another 6.9649 billion seedlings (equivalent to an area of 3.48 mha) were distributed for planting on private lands. In recent years, however, this programme of farm forestry has received lesser attention from the government. As available figures clearly show (see graph: Bad report), the annual targets for farm forestry have been consistently going down.
A major reason for the decline in farm forestry was that neither the MEF nor the state forest departments made any efforts towards understanding the volume of the wood market in India or to influence wood prices in such a manner that farmers would not lose out financially.
With the liberalisation of pulp imports, many tree farmers plucked out their seedlings because of resistance from pulp mills and falling prices. The government too, did not stop its subsidised supplies and farmwood began to come into the market, thus depressing prices further. But why do the state of forest reports fail to show the area under plantations as distinct from the natural forest area like the FAO surveys, is indeed, a very disturbing question.
Says Rai, "This is because the assessment of forest cover is based on the interpretation of satellite data. Differentiating between natural forests and plantations is difficult because reflectance of the two is same. Moreover, young plantations, plantations of thorny species and those with yellowish or reddish leaves do not also give proper reflectance." Obviously good data collection mechanisms for assessing India's forest covers are needed in the government.
During the 1990s, several state government have started pushing the Joint Forest Management (JFM) concept. After the early successes of this concept in West Bengal during the 1980s in which people were involved' in the regeneration of degraded forest lands, the JFM programme was supported by the Union government and subsequently it spread to several states. According to the Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development in New Delhi, an assessment made by the organisation in 1994 had revealed that there were about 15,000 village committees involved in JFM covering some 1.5 mha (at an assumed rate of 100 ha per committee).
Since then, Andhra Pradesh has set up some 400 committees, Madhya Pradesh 6,000 committees and Rajasthan 1,700 committees while Uttar Pradesh has some 400 van panchayats (village forest councils). Thus, there are about 24,000 village committees today. This gives us the approximate area covered by the JFM scheme as 2.4 mha.
Forests regenerated under the JFM would not be considered as plantations, but as regenerated natural forests, although of a low quality. Unfortunately, the eagerness with which forest departments pushed farm forestry in the 1980s, was not displayed in pushing community-managed natural regeneration in the 1990s.
Otherwise, India would have been blessed with a two-pronged effort to increase its tree cover - one to bring about a natural forest cover in degraded forest lands, and the other to bring about plantations in degraded private and revenue lands.