N C Saxena

  • 14/06/1997

N C Saxena NO FIRM data are available to account for the extent of loss of forest cover in India or the annual rate of deforestation. In fact, estimates vary so widely that a degree of combativeness frequently prevails. Remote sensing data revealed massive loss of forest cover during 1981-85 - to the tune of one million hectare (mha) a year - the Food and Agriculture Organisation"s (FAO) figures for the same period, however, suggested a loss of only 300,000 ha a year.

For au earlier period (1975-81), the World Resources Institute (in its book World Resources, published in 1990) painted an even more dismal picture by citing deforestation of 2.3 per cent, corresponding to a loss of 1.5 mha a year. Had this rate continued till now, India"s forest cover would have shrunk to just 40 per cent of what it was in the early"70s.
Who is right? For the period 1985-1993, for which biennial remote sensing results are available, the figures are even more puzzling. The FSI"S interpretation is almost a stable forest cover, whereas the FAO figures show an increased rate of deforestation from the earlier figures of 3-6 lakh hectares annually!

Part of the problem is definitional. The FSI data refers to tree cover and includes plantations on farm and degraded lands (whatever could be observed by satellite), whereas the FAO calculates the rate of deforestation only on natural forests, and discusses the figures of plantations separately (these are based on government data and obviously do not take into account mortality).

When the area under plantations is added to that under natural forests (see "Increasing wood lot" in "Dark truths and lost woods") the FAO data show that the tree cover in India during 1981-90 increased from 58.30 mha to 64.96 mha! Without going into the technicalities of the two sets of data and coming up with a firm estimate about the increase or decline in tree cover, one would like to advance three arguments.

First, the alarming picture that has generally been presented in the media about a steep decline in India "s tree cover is certainly not true. This optimistic conclusion is supported by a World Bank document on India which states, "Forest canopy cover has held up surprisingly well under these depredations. Four biennial estimates of forest surface cover during the 1980s and early 1990s show little variation over roughly last 10 years despite net removal before reforestation/ afforestation of about 3.3 mha worth of wood annually. The proportion of forest cover accounted for by dense forest (that is, crown cover 40 per cent and above) has also increased from 59.1 per cent in 1985-86 to 60.2 per cent in 1987-89. Trends in "Forestry and Logging" output and prices over the last 30 years suggest that there has been some curtailment of the exploitation of forest resources since the mid-1970s." One explanation of the improved scenario could be the general ban on tree felling which many states have clamped since the late 1980s.

Other factors like imports, spread of Prosopis shrubs in regions where the sale of its twigs has emerged as a cottage industry for women and children, and the success of farm forestry may have helped in reducing the pressure on forests. The success of joint forest management (JFM), a programme for forest protection with peoples" participation, in certain other areas like Arabari in West Bengal may also have led to an improvement in forest cover.

Second, even if one does not include plantations, the rate of deforestation in India, according to the FAO data, is quite low when compared with other Asian countries. Judging from the standards of other developing nations, India is a success story in forestry. Third, the word "plantations" has acquired a negative connotation in the vocabulary of environmentalists. This is understandable because in the past plantations were raised after clear felling mixed forests which, besides affecting biodiversity destroyed the livelihood of the poor who were dependent on such forests.

For instance, virgin natural evergreen forests in the Western Ghats were dubbed as "miscellaneous forests of low value", and were gradually replaced by teak during 1925-85. The teak was raised by clearfelling, followed by burning the debris in situ to prepare a favourable site for its planting. About 50,000 ha of teak and, 30,000 ha of matchwood and softwood plantations were raised in just one district of Uttar Kannada, Karnataka, after Independence. The figure of 55 mha of natural forest cover as reported by FAO, may look gratifying, but these are mostly secondary forests, which have, been grown several times and subjected to felling under different silvicultural regimes. No firm data are available to account for the extent of loss of forest cover in India or the annual rate of deforestation

The alarming picture about a steep decline in, India"s tree cover is certainly not true

Even if one does not include plantations, the rate of deforestation in India is quite low compared to other Asian countries

The figure of 55 mha of natural forest cover reported by FAO are mostly secondary forests which have been grown several times and are subjected to felling

The Union government sought to dilute people"s participation by introducing the concept of van mukhias to act as intermediaries on behalf of forest officials

The forest policy of 1988 is not working in the field. It is generally believed that the Forest Service has reservations about the policy and this has hindered its implementation. After 1993, commitment by the Union government to the new forest policy and Joint Forest Management has considerably weakened

The ministry of environment and forests has prepared a new forest bill designed to reduce people"s control over forests. About two-thirds of the forest area would not be available for management by the people


Regeneration versus planting
As regards plantations on degraded forests, while it is agreed that we must move generally in favour of natural regeneration, which is a superior and cheaper technique for improving productivity and biodiversity in forests, there are several circumstances where plantation cannot be avoided. Three such situations could be: creating a fuelwood reserve before beginning community protection, planting on lands incapable of regeneration, and where desired species do not come up as a result of protection.

Mere protection of a not-so-degraded area may transfer human and cattle pressure to some other area, as people have to meet their daily requirement of fuelwood and land for grazing. Therefore, production of biomass through quick- growing shrubs, bushes and grasses must be undertaken on degraded lands before the beginning of community protection, so that people"s demands are met in a sustained manner, while they protect forest lands in anticipation of more valuable non-transferable forest produce.

Green welth
How the Forest Survey of India assesses the forest resources
Year of report Year of imagery Type of imagery used Scale of imagery Method Forest area assessed as % of geographic area
1987 1981-83 Landsat MSS 1:1,000,000 Visual 19:52
1989 1985-87 Landsat Thematic Mapper (LTM) 1:250,000 Visual 19:47
1991 1987-89 LTM 1:250,000 Visual 19:44
1993 1989-91 LTM 1:250,000 Visual+Digital 19:47
1995 1991-93 IRS-IB 1:250,000 Visual+Digital 19:46
The issue of meeting the economic needs of the people for first few years, during which they have to reduce their dependence on the protected land, must be faced squarely. Although the success of many JFM experiments is generally attributed to leadership or pedple"s efforts, it is seen that in almost all such cases there was an alternative source of fuel available to them. In southwest Bengal, the task of people"s protection of degraded forest lands became easier because the farm forestry in that area had been highly successful, boosting fuelwood supplies and incomes for the poor.

In Eklingpura, Udaipur, where community protection has been highly successful, plenty of Prosopis shrubs in and around the village provide fuelwood to everyone almost at zero opportunity cost. On the other hand, in other village of the same district, Shyampura, which has no prosopis in, its vicinity, a local NGO that was trying to promote protection found it difficult to prevent unauthorised removals from the areas. These examples illustrate the importance of creating a fuelwood reserve before expecting people to start protection.

The other situation warranting planting is where land is so degraded that regeneration is slow, or root stock is absent because of which regeneration is impossible. There may be other barriers to natural recovery like the presence of weeds, unfavourable soil and climatic factors, a low presence of fertile trees and a lack of symbiotic microbial associations necessary for seedling establishment.

In extreme situations, where soil erosion has reached conditions characterised by gullies and ravines with little or no vegetation, natural regeneration alone may have very little or no impact on improving the vegetative cover. In such situations, there may not be sufficient incentives for the people to dedicate their time and labour for protection especially since the intermediate and final products may be available only after a lot of delay. Intensive soil working is required in such cases.

The third situation where planting may be necessary is Where, due to protection, species which grow do not coppice Well. As people"s demands cannot be curbed for a long period, some amount of harvesting becomes unavoidable after a few years of patient waiting. In case the species do not coppice well, harvesting leads to a non-sustainable situation, which in causes land to become denuded.

Tbc earliest forestry projects emphasised fuelwood and Fodder, and it was believed that these are the real priorities every where of the rural poor, although later research showed that the problem was more complex and required a varied approach. Some years later, farm forestry became the name of the game and every district was given ambitious targets in seedling distribution, ignoring constraints imposed by the specificity of farming systems.

This resulted in reporting of bogus figures to show unrealisable targets. Now JFm rules the roost. Whether it will succeed and where, may often depend on other rural development programmes or on efforts made to increase productivity of land other than degraded forests such as private lands, non-forest village commons, and forests remote from villages. If programmes to make these lands productive are taken up simultaneously with or prior to protection, these may meet the employment and income needs of the people during the period they are required to reduce their consumption from specific forests. Therefore, the village micro-plan should be comprehensive enough to include all elements of land management within a village, including crop lands.

A dead document?
Recently, the Union government sought to dilute people"s participation by introducing the concept of van mukhias who will act as intermediaries on behalf of forest officials and receive 10 per cent of forest revenues. Agarwal"s conclusion that the forest policy of 1988 is not working in the field is true. Many factors have limited its implementation. First, it is a non-statutory and advisory statement issued by the Government of India, not backed by law. Second, actual implementation of forest projects and policies is under the control of state governments who may have political compulsions different from that of the Union government. Third, what gets implemented in the field is generally what is provided for in the budget and funded, and therefore, many policy prescriptions requiring budgetary support may remain unimplemented, if not supported by matching funds.

Fourth, bureaucracy in India is fairly powerful and its own predilections may act as a filter to what is demanded of it by governments. Radical and swift changes in policies may, therefore, take more time in their implementation if these are found to be unconvincing by the officers. It is generally believed that the Forest Service emotionally identifies itself with the 1952 forest policy, but has reservations about the 1988 policy, and that this has hindered its translation into action.

After 1993, commitment by the Union government to the new forest policy and JFM has considerably weakened. These are merely being used as rhetoric to create a favourable public image and attract foreign funds. The ministry of environment and forests (MEF) moved a proposal to amend the forest policy to permit leasing of forest lands to industry, but it was not approved by the Cabinet for fear of reprisals from grassroot organisations. The MEF has also ignored the continuation of subsidised supplies to industry and step-moth- early treatment to forest dwellers. It prepared a new forest bill designed to reduce people"s control over forests. The most draconian provision of the bill is that village forests cannot be constituted from reserve forests, whereas JFM can not be applied on the reserved category.

Thus, about two-thirds of the forest area (46 out of 67 mha of forest is declared as reserve forests) would not be available for management by the people. At the same time, people"s rights of entry and usage in reserve forests will now be subject to carrying capacity, and can be "rationalised" by the Government of India. Further, sacred groves can be acquired by the government. The proposed bill also discriminates against nomadic groups, as it debars them from exercising any rights on forest lands.

N C Saxena is secretary, department of rural development

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