On February 12, the Indian government celebrated a 1% increase in the country’s green cover. “Despite...tremendous population and pressures of livestock on our forests, India has been able to preserve and expand its forest wealth,” said Harsh Vardhan, the Union minister of environment, forest and climate change, while releasing the State of Forests Report 2017.

The biennial report stated that in 2017, India’s forest cover increased to 7,08,273 sq km, or 21.5 % of the country’s geographical area, as against 7,01,495 sq km two years ago. This was the net gain made over two years as while forests were cut down in some areas, they emerged in others.

The tree cover outside forests also increased from 92,572 sq km to 93,815 sq km in the two years, says the report.

Though Vardhan called the increase in green cover an achievement and credited the government’s key green schemes for it, a closer look at the report shows that the real state of Indian forests is not that rosy.

Details of the report show that the net gain in India’s forest cover could actually be masking massive deforestation as the areas that have turned green are not necessarily natural forests, but plantations. Data in the report shows that between 2015 and 2017 over 21,000 sq km of standing forests were completely denuded. This is 10 times the area of Delhi and Mumbai put together. However, in the same period, more than 24,000 sq km of completely denuded lands turned green.

There is a catch here. A natural forest does not grow overnight. Not even in two years. Even with direct human intervention – termed “assisted regeneration” – it can take completely denuded lands up to a decade to become moderately dense forests. Thus, experts point out that much of the new growth seen in India over the past two years is from plantations – monocultures of one species of trees or a handful of different species.

Masking the loss

But plantations are no replacement for natural forests. Natural forests grow over time. They grow organically or with human intervention to support rich biodiversity – a variety of trees, shrubs, grasses and animals. A plantation, on the other hand, can be a pure monoculture or a mix of certain species of trees and plants, but it almost always harbours low levels of biodiversity.

Official data shows that government plants the hardy teak, which takes decades to grow, or the softwood eucalyptus, which matures faster, more often than others in plantations.

This report, like the others before it, does not make public separate data for plantations and forests. Not providing separate data for plantations and forests in the report allows the government to divert public attention from the steady deforestation of India’s natural forests, as well as the diversion of forestland to industries.

According to an analysis by the Delhi-based environment group, Environment Impact Assessment Resource and Response Centre, the Indian government has, on an average, diverted 122 sq km of forests for development projects every year between 2014 and 2017. To put this in perspective, this is equivalent to forest land the size of 63 football grounds being cleared every day for three years.

All figures in sq km.

Flawed definition

A flawed definition of “forest cover” allows the government to claim growth in total forest cover despite large-scale deforestation.

The government counts as “forest cover” any area more than one hectare in size that has more than 10% green canopy. Apart from traditional or natural forests that meet the criteria, this definition also includes plantations like tea and coffee gardens as well as orchards.

“The estimation is flawed because it does not tell us what changes are taking place in what kind of forests,” said NH Ravindranath, professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru. “We do not get to know how our natural forests are faring or how agricultural plantations or orchards are growing.”

In 2012, Ravindranath had pointed out in his research that an increase in the area under plantations might be masking the deforestation of natural forests in India in official estimates. “I have pointed out several times that the government should give separate data on changes in natural forests and plantations,” he said. “I don’t know why they [the government] do not change the methodology.”

Data in previous State of Forests reports has shown that between 1999 and 2013, India may have lost close to 10.6 million hectares of forest cover from land that was originally marked as forest land on maps, also known as green wash areas. This amounts to about 70 times Delhi’s geographical area. This loss has been concealed by an increase in the green cover outside such traditional forests, which has resulted in a consistent increase in the country’s net forest cover over these years.

The new report

Though the latest report does not give a separate estimation of natural forests and plantations, a close look at the data gives an indication of the growth of plantations in the past two years.

The report classifies forest cover into three categories on the basis of their density measured in terms of canopy cover – the percentage of green cover on land as seen from satellite images. Dense forests are those where the canopy cover is 70% or more, moderately dense forests where the canopy cover is between 70% and 40%, and open forests where the canopy cover is between 40% and 10%. The remaining land is either classified as scrub land – forests that have degraded to less than 10% canopy cover – or non-forest lands, which do not have green cover at all.

According to the 2017 report, at least 148 sq km of completely denuded land was converted into dense forests between 2015 and 2017. Another 3,452 sq km of such land was converted into moderately dense forests, and 20,575 sq km into open forests.

“It is most likely that these are plantation growths,” said TR Shankar Raman, a scientist with the Nature Conservation Foundation in Mysuru. “Such quick growth in two years can only be achieved by certain commercially grown tree species. Some exceptions could be that shifting cultivation lands in the north-eastern states have regenerated quickly.”

A senior forest department official, who did not want to be identified, also confirmed that such quick growth is mostly driven by plantations.

On the other hand, the report shows that 404 sq km of dense forest, 6,003 sq km of moderately dense forest and 14,647 sq km of open forests have been completely denuded in two years. These could be either natural forests or plantations that have been deforested completely.

The report also shows that over 2,703 sq km of existing forests in 2015 have been degraded to scrub in 2017, while more than 6,300 sq km of scrub land regenerated into forests during the same period.

(Photo credit: AFP).

Real change or technology?

All these changes resulted in the report showing a net increase of 6,778 sq km in forest cover. Andhra Pradesh has registered the maximum increase of 2,141 sq km, followed by Karnataka (1,101 sq km), Kerala (1,043 sq km), Odisha (885 sq km) and Telangana (565 sq km). The report attributes the net growth in forest cover in most states to conservation measures taken up by the government and technological advancement in satellite imaging technology.

For instance, it says that Andhra Pradesh saw a net increase in forest cover because of “plantation and conservation activities both within and outside the recorded forest areas as well as improvement in interpretation due to better radiometric resolution of the recent satellite data from Resourcesat-2”.

But an increase in forest cover due to technological advancement in mapping technology does not mean there has been a real increase in forest cover on the ground – just that it is being mapped more accurately.

The report also does not specify how much of the increase in forest cover is real and how much is interpretational due to technological advancements.

According to the report, forest cover has decreased the most in the north-eastern states, led by Mizoram (531 sq km), Nagaland (450 sq km), Arunachal Pradesh (190 sq km), Tripura (164 sq km) and Meghalaya (116 sq km). These states have more than 70% forest cover and most development activities end up causing deforestation. Shifting cultivations by communities in these states also result in temporary deforestation but such forests regenerate in a few years.

The report lists rotational felling of trees by forest departments, diversion of forest lands for developmental activities, submergence of forest cover, agriculture expansion, biotic pressures and natural disasters as other reasons for the decrease in the forest cover.