On Wednesday morning, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar gave India one more reason to think of him as among the country's worst environment ministers till date.

As the Indian Express reported, the minister sent out an intra-ministry letter on July 16 asking bureaucrats to replace the term "diversion" of forest land with "reforestation" in their communications. When asked about this, Javadekar told the Express: “For every diversion of forest land for a project... compensatory afforestation on equal area of non-forest land is a must. So ultimately, it is reforestation only. This is all about thinking positive and using the right expression.”

The power of positive thinking apart, what Javadekar said is wrong. Compensatory afforestation is not working in India.

Any project coming up on forestland – hence requiring a "diversion" of forestland to non-forest uses – needs to create a fresh forest in its place. This could either be done by afforesting an equal area of non-forest land, so that the country's forest cover doesn't go down, or by regenerating twice the area of degraded forestland. Project proponents do not create these forests on their own – they pay the environment ministry a net present value of the forest lost, and the ministry then plants saplings to grow fresh forests.

In practice, this is not working. Take the Comptroller and Auditor General's scathing report in September 2013 on compensatory afforestation. Between 2006 and 2012, it says, the state environment departments were to get 103,382 hectares of non-forest land for afforestation from the revenue departments but all they got was 28,086 hectares. Of this, the CAG report says afforestation was done on “an abysmal 7,280.84 hectare constituting seven per cent of the land which ought to have been received”.

That is the first reason why compensatory afforestation is not working. An equivalent amount of land is not being converted into forests. This is partly because India is a land-starved country. It is not easy to find non-forest land which can be converted into a forest. This problem becomes even more acute if one wants to create a new forest in the same geography.

In response, India's compensatory afforestation guidelines allow companies to, theoretically, restore degraded forestlands. To see how this works, go to this government of India website which puts up details of compensatory afforestation. Random sampling by Scroll threw up more instances of afforestation in forestlands than in revenue lands.

If that is the larger national trend, then the country is losing forestland. Forests are being taken for non-forest use while afforestation is being done on existing forestlands.

A questionable idea

Compensatory afforestation hinges on the premise that it is possible to create natural forests. This is a questionable premise to start with – natural forests have extraordinary webs of interdependent species that co-evolved over millions of years.

Take a plantation site called 997 Sirsala. Sited in the Rajpur range of Madhya Pradesh, the state forest department is afforesting tracts of degraded notified forests to compensate for the forests lost while building a four-lane highway in Badwani district. A total of 21,600 saplings are being planted here. Five species in all. Of those, 12,000 saplings belong to a single species – teak.

This is a country-wide problem. In 2012, while working on a story about how India is cooking up her forest cover numbers, I spoke to a senior forester in Rajasthan. "Forests in the area we lost used to have at least 30-40 native species [of trees]," he said. "But we do not plant more than 9-10 species."

The forest department, he said, plants fast-growing species to meet demand for fuel-wood and its afforestation targets.

In other words, even when it works, compensatory afforestation changes the nature of India's forests. In a scientific paper titled "How good are managed forests at conserving native woodpecker communities", biologist Raman Kumar compared woodpecker species and numbers in four landscapes: natural sal trees, old and managed sal forests, young and managed sal forests, and teak plantations. He chose woodpeckers as they are "reliable indicators of forest health and avian biodiversity". He found natural sal had the highest woodpecker density, teak plantation the lowest.

Biologist TR Shankar Raman cautions that degraded forestlands might be a misnomer. “These may not actually be degraded forests,” he said. “Instead, these may be other ecosystems like thorn forests or regenerating secondary forests which are often more biodiverse than plantations.” He also pointed out instances where the ministry had planted trees like eucalyptus that were entirely alien to the natural ecosystem.

Seen that way, forest diversion destroys not one, but two tracts of forestland.

India's forest map

By not insisting that afforestation be done in the same ecosystem, the government's compensatory afforestation is changing the distribution of forests in India. As the CAG report notes, seven states – Gujarat, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Meghalaya, Punjab and Rajasthan – had done no compensatory afforestation during the study period.

Instead of planting trees, activist Kanchi Kohli reported in A Pocketful of Forests, her 2011 book on compensatory afforestation in India, central and state environment bureaucrats are using the funds for other purposes.

Goa, as Kohli writes, used 69% of its compensatory afforestation allocation on buildings, vehicles and computers. Similarly, Andhra Pradesh wanted to spend 43% on construction activities, Sikkim 53%, Himachal Pradesh 53% and Tamil Nadu 67%.

This means money meant for creating forests – a dubious idea to start with – is being blown on buildings, jeeps and laptops.

The outcome

India is losing her natural forests. For the longest time, this was hard to prove. The environment ministry kept fudging its numbers, suggesting India's forest cover is over 770,000 square kilometres and rising.

A new methodology, followed by the Forest Survey of India's 2013 report, suggested something starkly different.

India's forest department, it said, has 771,821 square kilometres under its jurisdiction. Of that, forests cover 530,779 square kilometres. Seed forests, originating from seeds that naturally germinated in that area, account for less than half the area at just 334,391 square kilometres.

This means the natural forest cover in India has shrunk to less than 10% of its land, a little smaller than Rajasthan.

Instead of fixing this, the environment minister wants to bury his head in sand.