In early May, the Karnataka government announced its plan to denotify two-thirds of its deemed forest land. As part of this, 6.64 lakh hectares of forest out of 9.94 lakh hectares will cease to be forest land, leaving less than a third of the forest land – 3.3 lakh hectares – as deemed forest in the state.
The intent to cut back on deemed forest cover comes close on the heels of the state opting for a raft of measures to increase its green cover to meet India’s climate action goals.
Under the Paris Agreement, India’s nationally determined contributions included creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion CO2 equivalent, mainly through enhanced forest cover. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change identified Karnataka as the second most potential state for an additional carbon sink of 112.95 million tonnes CO2 equivalent by 2030.
In what seemed like a bid to achieve this, the Karnataka government allocated Rs 100 crore as green budget early this year “to compensate for the natural and human interventions in the forests”.
The state is also coming up with a comprehensive plan to further its green goals, according to M Balasubramanian of the Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources-Institute for Social and Economic Change who is being consulted on it.
Within a few months of announcing the budget, the government decided to denotify two-thirds of its deemed forest land. Deemed forests refer to land tracts that appear to be a “forest”, but have not been notified so by the government or in historical records.
Preserving natural forests
It is not the first time that Karnataka is giving away its forest land for conversions. From 2015 to 2017, 3,095.17 hectares of forest land were denotified in the state.
TV Ramachandra, Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, calls it a “foolish decision” and is particularly concerned about the sacred forests in certain districts of the state that come under the jurisdiction of the revenue department which makes them highly vulnerable to the decisions of the district commissioners, which may not always be in favour of protecting the forests.
He says, preserving these sacred forests is important in Karnataka since less than 18% of its forests come under statutory protection. Restoration of fragmented sacred groves in these areas has been found to increase carbon stock and carbon sequestration rates to levels comparable to that of tropical forests.
Retaining deemed forests is extremely important to maintain a healthy hydrological regime in the area. A study conducted by Ramachandra and team in Shimoga district found that the watershed of a river plays a vital role in sustaining the hydrological regime of that region.
Additionally, the water retention capability of a riverscape increases with the presence of vegetation of native species which, in turn, helps sustain the local, societal and ecological demands of water. The study also found that the loss of vegetation in certain areas has led to increased human-wildlife interactions and decreased the number of native pollinators which further damaged biodiversity.
While the revenue minister has reiterated that at least a portion of the reclaimed land will be given for agriculture to help the poor farmers, research has shown that farming improves with better watershed management that’s possible if the natural vegetation is conserved.
The study assessed people’s livelihoods in various catchments and the result showed that the income of farmers in the catchment with higher vegetation was more than double that of farmers in the catchment of seasonal streams.
Agriculture sector emissions
Experts believe clearing forests to make way for agricultural lands is not the wisest thing to do if Karnataka is serious about its green goals. The agricultural sector has a significant carbon footprint and accounts for more than 25% of worldwide anthropogenic greenhouse-gas emissions like carbon, methane and nitrous oxide.
There are other damages to the forests to account for.
In fact, an economic assessment of forest ecosystem damages from climate stressors in five years between 2015 and 2020 in Karnataka revealed that the forests of Karnataka incurred an economic loss of Rs 3,831.28 crore by way of loss of timber provisioning services (Rs 988.73 crore), carbon sequestration services (Rs 2,188.90 crore), soil erosion prevention services (Rs 499.47 crore) and pollination services (Rs 23.12 crore) from various climate disasters, forest conversion and fires.
Principal investigator of the report M Balasubramanian, of the Centre for Ecological Economics and Natural Resources-Institute for Social and Economic Change, told Mongabay-India that the investigation was done only on a few services due to limited data availability. “If we had taken all the indicators into consideration, the loss would be more than Rs 25,000 crore,” he said.
According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services assessment report, 2018, land degradation is one of the prime reasons for the loss of ecosystem services in the world. The report says that soil organic carbon, an indicator of soil health, has seen an estimated eight percent loss globally 176 gigatons of carbon, or Gt C, from land conversion and unsustainable land management practices over the last two centuries.
A further loss of 36 Gt C from soils is predicted by 2050 from the expansion of agricultural land into natural areas and inappropriate land management among other anthropogenic interventions. The report warns that further land degradation can lead to a host of problems including increased chances of zoonotic diseases, loss of cultural identity of communities, economic loss and increase economic inequality among people.
The sixth assessment report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change too stresses the need to save natural ecosystems like forests and peat lands to effectively remove carbon from the air which is crucial in limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
The report suggests restoring natural carbon sinks, such as forests, is a relatively cost-effective and readily available carbon removal approach that offers a range of benefits to local communities as well. A country like India which cannot afford cutting-edge technologies for carbon removal should tap into natural solutions like forests which it is blessed with in abundance.
Bypassing Supreme Court ruling
Deemed forests, comprising about 1% of India’s forest land, have been a bone of contention for the state governments and many attempts have been done to denotify parts of them, mostly in the name of development. Deemed forests refer to land tracts that appear to be a “forest”, but have not been notified so by the government or in historical records.
In the landmark TN Godavarman Thirumalkpad vs Union of India judgement in 1996, the Supreme Court accepted a wide definition of forests under the Act and held that the word “forest” must be understood according to its dictionary meaning.
“Deemed forests continue to remain a grey area since the SC [Supreme Court] left it to each state to form an expert committee to decide what qualifies as one,” said Sneha Priya Yanappa, research fellow, Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.
Karnataka’s expert committee report reviewed by Mongabay-India defines deemed forests as – land having the characteristic of forests irrespective of the ownership; thickly wooded areas of the revenue department not handed over to the forest department; thickly wooded areas recommended to be handed over to the forest department; thickly wooded land distributed to grantees but not cultivated; thickly wooded plantations (various categories) of the forest department.
Sneha Priya Yanappa said the government decision is not as easy as it appears and has enough room for anyone to challenge this decision. “Since the Godavarman case, the deemed forests can be converted for non-forest use only with the consent of the Central Empowered Committee monitored by the SC,” she said.
It is this provision of the Supreme Court judgement that Karnataka is trying to bypass. However, it needs to be seen if the state’s decision will be challenged or if this would lead to it losing more forest land.
This article first appeared on Mongabay.