When planting trees is a curse

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Forests have been blacked out in the economic assessment of the country. The Economic Survey does not even list forestry as a sector, for which accounts are prepared. Instead it is lumped together with agriculture and fisheries. In other words, there are no estimates of the productivity of this sector, which encompasses over 20 per cent of the country’s land area.

This is because the focus of forest managers is on conservation and forest productivity is nobody’s business. The forest survey report says forest cover in the country is stable but growing stock of forests has decreased between 2005 and 2009. Currently, we import more and more of forest produce, from pulp to timber. It is for this reason that revenues from forests are declining in state budgets, which creates pressure for their diversion to more productive uses.

This is clearly untenable. We need forests to be used for productive purposes. But we need to ensure that this time, unlike in the past, it does not lead to rampant deforestation and over-extraction.

We need to re-position forests as integral to the economic growth of states. This means we need to learn to plant trees, and also to cut and then replant. We need, quite literally, to make money on our forest wealth. But we need to learn how to do that without destroying the forests.


In the pre-1980 period, before the advent of the forest-environment conservation era, the emphasis was on extraction. India lost large areas of forests to commercial interests. The pulp and paper industry was given forests at throwaway rates and timber logging was rampant. The needs of local people for firewood and grazing cattle put pressure on forests. In the mid-1980s, the first remote-sensing exercise on green cover showed large forests had been lost to development and subsistence pressure. At this time, the only concern was conservation and protection.

So, during this period the Forest Conservation Act was enacted to centralise all decisions on forest diversion for non-forestry projects like dams and mining. In the mid-1990, the Supreme Court issued directives on tree felling in forest areas. It then followed up with orders that defined “forests” based on its “dictionary meaning” irrespective of the ownership of the land. In other words, any area with tree cover would be classified as forest and brought under the ambit of forest protection laws. In addition, the forest departments of different states made it virtually impossible to get the permission to cut or transport felled trees—even if these are privately grown. In fact, it has now become so difficult to cut trees on individual lands that people would prefer not to grow trees at all.

All this has meant that we have been able to stem the rate of deforestation. There is no doubt about this. But this is only half achievement. Forests in India are still under huge pressure and shrinking over time. First, the rate of diversion of forest land for development projects has been unprecedented in the past five years. This diversion also happens because there is no value seen in forests—other than the cost that has to be paid for diversion of land by the project proponent. Instead there is value attributed to the dam, road or mine for which the land is needed. So, the pressure on forestland is bound to increase. We must also note that forests are the last remaining swathes of public land in the country and acquisition of private land will become even more expensive and contentious in the future.

Secondly, local needs and illegal extraction exert pressure on forests. Today, it is an inconvenient truth that the poorest people of India live in the richest forests. The management of this green wealth has not brought any benefit to local people. While deforestation and forest diversion will grow, we do not have any viable strategy for re-greening these areas. So, we will lose bit by bit.

How do we change this? One, we need to urgently value the economic, ecological and livelihood potential of forests and to incorporate this into national accounts. We need a robust methodology to bring the tangible (what we can measure) and intangible costs together. As yet there is much talk about green accounting but methodology is weak. For instance, there is no real assessment of minor (non-timber) forest produce. Other assessment of forests’ contribution to livestock or the hydropower sector is inflated or non-existent.

Two, we need to use this methodology to pay for standing forests. The 12th and 13th finance commissions allocated funds for standing forests but they are a pittance. We then need states to transfer payment for standing forests—protected for biodiversity or watershed or other purposes—to local custodians. This will build local economies and local support for forest protection.

Three, we need to use robust accounting methodology to increase the productivity of the remaining forestland. But we know that the business of cutting and planting trees cannot be successful without people who live in the forest. So, this becomes the new opportunity for employment and economic growth. The way ahead is to build inclusive economies using green wealth.

Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Compensatory Afforestation in India

India State of Forest Report 2011

Details of Proposals Seeking Prior Approval of Central Government Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980 for Diversion of Forest Land Pending Before the Government of India

Green India Mission: India’s REDD+ action plan to disempower and evict forest communities from their own homelands

Judgement of the Supreme Court of India regarding the true scope of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980 and the meaning of the word "forest" used therein, 12/12/1996

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  • Excellent article. Forests

    Excellent article. Forests stabilize climate and the best solution for economic growth. In this connection we need to follow Chinese policy on Forests:

    Rehabilitate and protect forestry ecosystems
    Construct advanced forest industrial system
    Developing flourish forest eco-cultural system
    ----To increase forest multi-products & services
    ----To meet the multi-demands of the society
    ----To alleviate poverty and improve livelihood

    Forest Financing in China

    1998-2009, total financing increase from 13.53 billion yuan to 137.79 billion yuan
    Annual average increase is about 23.48%

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Swami Prem Parivartan is a

    Swami Prem Parivartan is a committed forester whose only passion is to plant trees!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Partly agree with the

    Partly agree with the editorial.

    Today, forests being government controlled resource are almost free for all. The rich, educated and learned group is bigger exploiters of these resources as they know the ways and means to do so and better come out of any trouble. Of late, out of many, only a few of high profile people could be tried for offences under wildlife acts where it is relatively easy to proove than in tree felling, forest offences matters etc. Even encroachment and mining in forest areas is the order of the day

    Even government of the day also considers these as easy mean to please people to garner votes than actually they try to preserv them for prosperity. The recent enactment of some laws like forest right act is an example of it. Lastly why, there has to be fight and polictical alignment for prize posting, if there is no ineterst of politicians and posted staff to maky hay out of nothing.

    The forestry sector needs a total overhaul on the pattern of some other countries where we need to separate conservation areas from preservation areas with overlapping objectives of providing goods from every forest. All our consevation forests are treated production forests as some products are laways removed from the may be on the name of local rights and all the production forests are claimed as conservation forests for our convenience. This strategy can not last longer

    Finally, administratively, forestry organisation has become obsolete. Frankly speaking we have created an organisation structure which cares for only IFS cadre and not for the subordinate staffl If someone realy make indepth study, will find that the top has become so heavy with ratio of lower staff becomming highly negetavely skewed. Presently we should have morel ower staff to protect forests than higher officers which fight for posting than actual profession. Teh professionalism in forestry has also down despite so many specializations available now.

    There is more to right but I dont want to make it as an article itself



    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Productive conservation is

    Productive conservation is the answer to forest survival. We are trying to get adivasi farmers clubs interested in this approach. The odds are heavy against any significant revival of forests. Degradation of forests seems the easier way leading to ultimate destruction. But we must show the way: productive conservation.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Dear Sunita Narain, Many

    Dear Sunita Narain,
    Many thanks for the editorial on the economics of forests.
    I would like to add a few aspects on the topic.
    First and foremost is the National Forest Policy 1988 which sets the objectives of managing forests and forest areas in the country. As mentioned in the editorial, the focus of managing forests has shifted from Timber production orientation to conservation orientation. As a result, the focus of the vast technical resources in the forestry sector also shifted from productivity enhancement to conservation. Thus productivity enhancement expertise has shifted to the private sector who have been left to no choice than arranging their own raw material requirements initially from cheap imports and lately from private farms (Farm forestry and Agro-forestry). While this is a healthy and thus welcome development, there is also need to bring back the focus on enhancing timber/wood production and productivity from natural forests. This is important for a developing economy in which the demand for timber and wood is increasing where as the production and productivity is declining.
    According to my guesstimate there is consumption/demand for 100 million cu.m of timber in the country. The official production form the forests in just 1.9 million cu.m. As per FSI report 2011 the Tree-outside-Forests (TOF) contribute about 46 million cu.m. The country imports roughly 7 million cu.m of timber (Second largest importer in the world after China). This leads to a huge gap between the consumption/demand and the supply of approx. 45 million cu.m. Where from this gap is being fulfilled! Is is met from illegal felling! No body has clear answers.
    Out of roughly 5% of forests under PAs, why is the productivity in other forests, which constittute15% of Country's land area, much less than the global average! Can these be treated as Non-Performing Assets!
    There was a proposal for Public-Private-Partnership for utilizing these less than average productivity forest areas for increasing production of wood of desired species with involvement of local community.
    The country has incurred an outflow of US $2.6 billion for imports of wood/wood products in 2012-13 (adding to CAD current account deficit) and with increasing domestic demand and the international price of wood/wood products, the import bill is bound to increase in the years to come.
    There is urgent need to focus on enhancing the wood production in the forest areas as well as developing the Agro-forestry sector in the country.

    With regard to greening the GDP, there is definite need for accounting of the forest resources, valuation of ecosystem services and then computing the Natural Capital every year and including the same in national GDP.
    faculty IIFM
    (views expressed are personal)

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Although no doubt well

    Although no doubt well intentioned, I am afraid that this article might send out a confusing message.

    The main reason for this is that it appears to assume that trees specifically planted and grown in order to produce timber can be included as a part of India's natural forests.

    In turn this might lead the reader to believe that mono-culture tree plantations can provide the same social and ecological services and economic value as real forests.

    However this is anything but the case, and it is as a result of how timber plantations (fake forests) have been confused (often deliberately) with real forests that are ecologically, hydrologically and culturally invaluable, that such forests have been / are being over-exploited or destroyed in return for short-term monetary gain.

    If fully accounted for, the costs of the negative ecological and social impacts of a typical industrial timber plantation will far exceed the financial return that selling its wood might generate.

    To correctly value bio-diverse forests will require a very different and far more complex process from that used to calculate the potential price of the amount of timber or charcoal that can be extracted from an alien tree species plantation.

    Therefore those who earnestly seek to protect and to preserve India's remaining forests should be very clear that real forests should not be viewed as a commodity that can be used to support market-based trade in carbon credits, biodiversity offsets and ecosystem services; that will only benefit those nations and corporations already most responsible for global pollution, over-consumption, and climate change!

    Wally Menne

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • .we need to learn to plant

    .we need to learn to plant trees, and also to cut and then replant.

    The Forest departments have been doing this ever since they were set up and the people have been doing this for millennia. In the last 4 decades or so the forest departments have been planting trees on a mind-boggling scale. For the country, the figure could be anywhere around several hundred thousand square kilometres. Apart from this, crores and crores of saplings are distributed every year in rural India to whoever shows any interest in planting trees. If a very conservative 20% of all this planting survived, India would have been GREEN quite long ago. Not included in the above is the ÔÇÿnatural regenerationÔÇÖ of forests which is presumed to be a forte of the ÔÇÿscientificÔÇÖ forester with any number of ÔÇÿsilvicultural systemsÔÇÖ crafted to induce natural re-growth of forests! So, obviously the problem lies elsewhere.

    While the issue of survival of plantations, within or outside forests, remains unaddressed (deliberately?), some basic questions about accountability and professional competence need to be asked first. If survival of plantations has been consistently poor (and declining) over the last fifty years, how has the problem been analysed, understood and strategy changed? One is likely to draw a blank for an answer. Have plantation techniques and management changed over the years to remedy the very low survival of trees? Another blank!

    It would appear that unless these and many related questions are asked in the first place, there is little hope to arrive at a workable answer. No amount of planting and re-planting, ÔÇÿwithÔÇÖ the people or ÔÇÿwithoutÔÇÖ them is likely to arrest leave alone halt the deforestation of India.

    Of course, as in any other Development/ Conservation discourse, economies of scale also apply to corruption. While factoring the economic value of forests into the economy may lead to increased investment (it has not happened so far in states like Himachal where economic valuation of forests has been done twice in the last 14 years), the outcomes could still be very disappointing with BAU.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • In addition to this, Hindu

    In addition to this, Hindu Mythology promotes tree plantation. As per Garud Puran everybody should plant at least 2 trees in their lifetime to get shadow of these trees during their journey from earth to heaven.

    If State Govt. anoounces a scheme "ADOPT A TREE" by charging every year certain amount from the person who wants to adopt a tree (charges for tree plantation, gardener who will be taking care of this tree, water and other maintenance charges). Land will be freebies between roads, along road sides, parks etc. Then most of the people will surely adopt this.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Hi Sunita, I have heard "best

    Hi Sunita,

    I have heard "best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago". so cutting down trees does not make much sense.
    Making forests sacro sanct also will not help.
    But we should boldly say, no more forest land should be diverted to development thirst.

    what we need to encourage is wood plantations along with cash crops.for example pairing Pepper with Teak.
    Government should pitch in and give subsidy for such models.Kerala government has started such a scheme to encourage people to grow trees.


    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • I agree with many of the

    I agree with many of the observations made by Mr Ramesh. Like in other All India services and their parent departments, the Indian Forest Service sees itself as apart from the forest departments. It is also deviously always trying to adorn the mantle of a Civil Service. Consequently, despite scores of opportunities to specialise in forestry and/or wildlife areas, the IFS remains neither here nor there. As for the field staff / ranks in the forest departments, they remain atrociously trained, chronically understaffed and consistently neglected.

    It is a wonder then that despite greatly increased spending in the forestry sector because of and thanks to CAMPA, we have neither effective conservation nor respectable productivity in our forests?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Yes, forests need to be

    Yes, forests need to be converted into a productive asset.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • The editorial by Ms.Narain is

    The editorial by Ms.Narain is most timely.I would like to add that biomass from forests and agriculture is foremost renewable energy although most energy experts swear only by solar and wind energy.We need to think of plantation forestry outside natural forests since our dry lands are used very inefficiently.Once a tree is established it takes care of itself without any artificial inputs. Also forests are not just wood.They also produce an immense amount of leaf biomass which can produce copious manures.In fact the leaf biomass produced is generally much more than the wood.The plantation forests can also avoid monoculture since we need to extract timber, firewood,medicines etc from forests.Its additional benefits by way of employment generation,carbon sequestration, ground water recharge are also significant.I wonder where are our planners?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • You have mentioned that

    You have mentioned that "crores and crores of saplings are distributed every year in rural India to whoever shows any interest in planting trees". That really grabbed the attention.

    I along with my friends have interest in planting and saving Avenue trees in Bangalore Urban set up,as we saw few years back avenue trees where planted now the grown trees(especially Silver Oak) is chopped by localities for its economic benefit and there are no new saplings planted in this area.

    And another question that rises is if government or forest department is planting this trees does it give rights to localities to cut it for commercial or any other purpose.

    And finally our request to Vinay Tandon is how do we(a student group) approach to the process of planting avenue trees in Bangalore and protecting them.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • very well said... Forests

    very well said... Forests can only be protected if they are seen as invaluable resources that sustain life and not just as commodities for timber extraction

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Sir/Madam "Cutting a tree is


    "Cutting a tree is like killing a person, which effect the entire environment & it is a serious offence. I would like to bring to you notice that recently at Karnataka & Tamilnadu border this is the illegal business from Kolathur & Kovindapadi, Mettur Taluk, Salem District which make huge money to the smuggler, with the help of forest department & Check post official.

    The culprit use to cut trees (including Sandal)at Karnataka border near Madehswara Hill and bring to Tamilnadu via Kovindapadi during the odd hours at night, through the vehicle (Mahendra Pickup) no. TN 52 Z 3528 owner named Subramani from Kovindapadi is involved in this illegal business, if needed you can also vigil the same between 1.00 AM to 5.30 PM in and around Kolathur regularly.

    These is punishable by ceasing the vehicle, so that other vehicle will not involved in the smuggle.

    The forest department/Check post officer is in the hand of culprit who offers money repeatedly.

    There is a witness for the offence.

    Hence, I request you take necessary step to control the smuggle and save our environment.



    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply