India’s Environment Ministry couldn’t have chosen a worse moment to dilute forest regulations. At a time when the country is suffering from a deficient monsoon and water shortages for the second year running, it should have been strengthening forest protection, recognising the key role forests play in hydrology and water supply. Instead, as news reports suggest, it’s doing the opposite.

While identifying which forests shouldn’t be converted to other uses such as mining, the Environment Ministry has decided to ignore parameters related to water. It rationalised this by saying there’s no relevant hydrological data – but this is both inaccurate and inexcusable. As a result of its disingenuous claim, vital forest areas are now likely to be cleared for mining or turned over to other uses.

The ministry’s action reflects India’s flawed forest governance at large, which allows ecologically and culturally irreplaceable forests to be squandered for destructive development projects.

Undermining forests

The attempt to establish objective parameters to demarcate inviolate forests – or, in other words, forests not to be converted to other uses – began as a reaction to the “Go, No-go” policy of the previous United Progressive Alliance government.

In 2009, the Environment Ministry, in a joint effort with the Ministry of Coal, had placed India’s forested areas under two categories – Go and No-go – and banned mining in the No-go zones on environmental grounds. An initial assessment demarcated a third of around 600 coal blocks as no-go, but pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Coal ensured this was reduced to less than one-fourth of the blocks. Unwilling to accept even this, the Cabinet Secretariat in 2011 constituted a Group of Ministers that scrapped this classification and decided to assign the task to an expert committee.

The Environment Ministry, in turn, constituted two committees, one to develop objective parameters to identify inviolate forests nationwide “where any non-forestry activity would lead to irreversible damage”, and the other to subsequently prepare geo-referenced maps of inviolate forests as well as areas available for forest diversion.

The first committee, headed by former Environment Secretary T Chatterjee, identified six parameters to be evaluated and scored (each to a maximum of 100) at the level of 1 km x 1 km grid cells across the country.

* Forest type, based on Forest Survey of India data, would be scored based on extent, range and uniqueness of natural vegetation types (giving high scores to very valuable or highly restricted forest types).

* Biological richness was to be scored based on the country-wide biodiversity characterisation carried out by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing.

* Wildlife values were to be scored on the presence of wildlife protected areas, such as national parks and wildlife sanctuaries and identified animal corridors.

* Forest cover was to be rated, using Forest Survey of India data, as an average of gross forest cover and weighted forest cover, the latter giving greater weightage to areas with higher canopy density.

* Landscape integrity was to be assessed from satellite images and maps based on the degree of forest fragmentation around the grid cell. Larger, more intact forest blocks would score higher than areas that had been fragmented by other intervening land uses.

* Hydrological value of forests finally would be assessed based on whether they served as catchments for perennial streams, hydro-power or irrigation projects, or water supply schemes, and in relation to their proximity to streams and rivers.

The T Chatterjee committee proposed to keep inviolate all grids that fell within wildlife protected areas, contained 1 square kilometre of very dense forests, or held the last remnants of rare forest types that cover less than 50 square kilometres in India. Emphasising hydrological value, the panel identified the need to keep inviolate forests that were catchments of perennial first order streams (which consist of small tributaries and flow into larger streams), or were within 250 metres of perennial rivers, wetlands larger than 10 hectares, and storage reservoirs.

Besides these, the panel recommended protection for other areas: all remaining grids that scored over 70 when averaged across the six parameters were to be kept inviolate, it said. Further, a mining block would be inviolate if a majority of grid cells within it were inviolate.

Though the panel’s six parameters were an attempt at being comprehensive, its scoring system and arbitrary cut-off of 70 meant that areas with valuable forests or other natural ecosystems could still slip through the cracks. For instance, a coal block that contained inviolate grid cells with the last remnant patch of a rare forest type or a critical wildlife corridor could still be cleared if the majority of its grid cells were open to ‘violate’.

Serious dilutions

Despite these limitations, the central government could have implemented the six-parameter approach, while remedying the loopholes through finer assessments, carefully redrawing boundaries of coal blocks, and taking on board stakeholder inputs to address issues such as livelihood needs of communities. Instead, the Environment Ministry, under the new National Democratic Alliance government and due to continuing pressure from the mining sector, has further diluted the committee’s recommendations.

First, the ministry clubbed biological richness and wildlife values as a single parameter based on data of the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing. This overlooks the fact that biological richness mostly considers parameters based on remotely-sensed vegetation maps on plant species, ignoring vital conservation concerns such as distribution of endangered animal species and wetlands. It also devalues biologically significant non-forest areas such as grasslands, scrub, and deserts – which are habitat for critically endangered wildlife species such as Great Indian Bustard and Jerdon’s Courser – along with wildlife protected areas and animal corridors.

Another serious dilution was the decision to ignore hydrological parameters. The ministry’s claim that the required data don’t exist contradicts the committee’s statement that “country-wide geo-spatial data on all the six parameters are already available”. The India–Water Resources Information System, developed by the central government along with research institutions, already hosts relevant public data on catchments, rivers and streams, surface wetlands and reservoirs, required for the hydrological assessment. Hydro-power and irrigation projects, too, record data on catchments and feeder streams across the country.

“Fairly good spatial data on basins and streams, existing and proposed water resource utilisation, secondary data for some sites, and instrumentation and techniques for rapid assessment of stream and river flows are already available,” said Dr Jagdish Krishnaswamy, a hydrologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore. “The claim that such basic hydrological data on perennial streams and surface waterbodies are not available today in India is unfortunate and unacceptable.”

In discarding vital scientific considerations and assessments, the central government’s intent is clear: opening up more forests for mining. Instead of 206 inviolate coal blocks as per the initial assessment, less than 35 blocks will be off bounds to mining due to the dilution of parameters.

By ignoring hydrology, the government is clearing the way for the destruction of forested watersheds and perennial rivers. Mining often results in heavy pollution of streams and rivers, making water unsafe for humans living within and far beyond grid cells or blocks. A 2002 study showed that iron ore mines within Kudremukh National Park had a profound impact on Bhadra river. As compared to upstream stretches, the average sedimentation load downstream was 25 times higher, with about 68,000 tonnes of sediment transported downriver in just 67 days during the 2002 monsoon. While this mine was shut down by the Supreme Court, other mines continue to pollute with impunity. A recent study from Meghalaya found that acid drainage from coal mines has wiped out fish populations in sections of River Simsang, affecting downstream ecology and fishing communities.

India’s forests urgently need better protection, assessments and monitoring, to safeguard water, wildlife, and livelihoods. Forest governance must pay attention to the multiple ways in which forests are valuable. Handing forests on a platter to private companies and industry will only create wider landscapes of desiccation and degradation.