Green puzzle

A cross-section of opinions in response to 'Dark truths and lost woods' (pages 31-41) by ANIL AGARWAL

By G Thimmaiah
Published: Sunday 15 June 1997

Green puzzle

-- ANIL AGARWAL has brought out the discrepancy between the extent of India's forest cover as reported by The State of Forest Report (SFR) and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and has also highlighted some of the changes that have taken place in the area under dense forest cover, natural forest cover and plantations. His note gives the impression that the data provided by the Forest Survey of India (FSI) are not so reliable and -at private plantations seem to have increased in area. But the truth lies some where in between.
Inadequate analysis The SFR published by the (FSI) deals with the assessment of various aspects of forest cover. It presents the data relating to the forest cover seen through satellite. But the report does not throw light on the forests managed and owned by state forest departments. It also uses the data received from state governments for purpose of comparison. From this comparison it has been observed that the area under forest cover as reported by state governments is more than that estimated by using data generated from satellite imagery.

The latest SFR (1995) shows that the total area under forest cover has slightly declined to 639,600 sq km from 640,107 sq km in 1993. The FSI does not give any explanation for this decline. The loss of forest cover may be on account of loss of tree cover in the private as well as state-owned forests. The FSI report for 1995 has shown a loss of forest cover in the northeast region to the extent of 783 kin. It would be proper to mention here that roughly 90 per cent of the forest lands in the northeast are privately owned. Though the SFR deals with forest cover, what is happening under the forest cover is not yet investigated through satellite imagery. It is well-known that today forests are under tremendous biotic pressure. It is, in fact, the open forests which register maximum change. This is obvious because both decrease and increase in density of forest cover leads to reduction and increase of area under different types of forest cover. Due to decrease in density, area under open forests is reclassified as scrub and an increase in density shifts open forests to dense forests category. Thus, areas under open forests are most vulnerable to change in density. On the other hand, decrease in density of dense forests may go unnoticed. For example, if density of forest cover reduces from 70 to 50 per cent, the area is still classified as dense forest. Moreover, additional area comes under dense forests from open forests because density improves from plantation activities and protection measures. The SFR is not based on satellite imagery but also on the changes that have been verified by extensive 'ground truthing. The changed maps for all the states and Union territories of the country between any two assessments are available at FSl on Survey of India toposheets on a scale of 1:250,000. Increasing demand for vegetation maps during the past few years by user organisations, particularly state forest departments, show their utility. Thus, the contention that the SFRS are a smokescreen on India's forests is an unfair observation.

Inconsistent reports

The discrepancy between the area under forest cover as assessed independently by the FAO and the FSI has been well brought out by Anil Agarwal. His observations imply that according to FAO'S report, the natural forest cover has declined between 1980 and 1990 to the extent of 3.389 mha, whereas there is a substantial increase in the plantation area. It has also been highlighted that the total plantation area in India is much higher than in most tropical countries like Indonesia and Brazil. Instead, Agarwal wants the area under natural forest cover to increase. He is asking for the moon. The SFR 1995 has not given any estimate on the plantation area because of the limitations of technology.

What is happening under the forest cover is not yet investigated through satellite imagery

On the basis of change in density, open forests get reclassified as scrub or dense forests, but a decrease in density of dense forests goes unnoticed

That The State of Forest Reports (SFRS) are a smoke screen on India's forests, is an unfair observation

Agarwal wants the area under natural forest cover to increase. He is asking for the moon

The SFR 1995 has not given any estimate on the plantation area because of limitations of technology

The loss of natural forest cover is due to a number of socio-economic factors. For example, the Indian Forest Act, 1927, provides for a penalty of Rs 500 for illegally felling trees which would fetch thousands of rupees

If the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) releases data to sensationalise the loss of forest cover, we have to question the objectivity of this organisation

A new scheme is proposed to contain illicit felling of trees in forests

The FAO claim, that the prescriptions of working plans (WP) have been adhered to, is an exaggeration. The prescriptions of WPS have become a theoretical exercise

- G THIMMAIAH Currently, the FSI is using IRS- I B data which is of lesser resolution and, therefore, many plantation areas may not be mapped. Further, it is not possible to differentiate between natural forests and plantations, particularly if they are contiguous as both of them give similar reflections. It is here that the Planning Commission may have to suggest to the FS1 to use advanced technology in the form of IRS- IC data and include plantation areas in their future SFRS.

Regarding the loss of natural forest cover, it would be proper to mention that it is the result of a number of socio-economic factors. Infrastructural facilities, as well as regulatory measures in almost all state forest departments are inadequate and need to be improved, if the rate of deforestation is to be changed. For instance, the Indian Forest Act was enacted as far back as 1927 and provides a penalty of Rs 500 for felling a tree illegally. People would be happy to pay a paltry sum of Rs 500 as fine for felling a tree which would fetch thousands of rupees.

Regarding the methodology used by the FAO and today by the FS1, FAO's estimate of forest cover is partly based on information supplied by the FSI and partly on its own technology sources. Our enquiry with the ministry of environment and forests (MEF) and also with the FSI reveals that they get the forest imagery from American satellites. I was also told that the FSI has disputed the FAO's estimates, which have given rise to discrepancy. The format used by the FAO is different from that used by the FS1, which has its own relevance for the country's needs. What is more important is that the FAO depends entirely on technology whereas the FS1 cross-checks the satellite images by 'ground truthing'. If the FAO releases the data to sensationalise the issue of loss of forest cover, we have to question the objectivity of this Organisation. The Planning Commission and the Government of India should take up this issue with the FAO.

Natural forests: under threat
Destruction of natural forests is a complex phenomenon. It is proposed to launch a new scheme to contain illicit felling of trees in the forests. It is true that the biomass withdrawal in the form of illicit felling for timber, fuelwood and fodder have not been scientifically documented by state governments. Therefore, the rate of deforestation as reflected by the data collected and published by different agencies may vary. The report prepared by the FAO containing total closed broadleaved area, closed broadleaved forest area, newly logged and previously logged areas as per 1990 data, are altogether missing in the FS1 report. The authenticity of the FAO figures cannot be checked immediately by 'ground truthing' in state forests and forests on private land. Therefore, the Planning Commission would like to suggest to the FSI that they improve their data on deforestation in their future SFRs.

The claim of the FAO report that by and large the prescriptions of working plans (WP) have been adhered to is an exaggeration. Soon after forestry sector development was shifted to plan funding, the financial resources became meagre and most of the forestry operations that were carried out with religious fervour - like creation and maintenance of fire lines and silvicultural operations - were given up. Consequently, the prescriptions of WPs have become a theoretical exercise. One of the important reasons for Indian forests losing their natural regeneration capacity is the failure to pursue silvicultural operations regularly. Besides pendency of the WP prescriptions, this problem has been further compounded by growing human and livestock population.

The main reason, other than the slump in the market, has been the increase in the number of small and marginal holdings in the country. Now, there has been a steady increase in the areas of public lands, including forest lands - from 0.550 mha in. 1990-91 to 1.123 mha in 1995-96. The main task of plantation activity on private and forest lands has been the maintenance and upkeep of seedlings. The inflated figures of target and achievement do not necessarily show seedlings maturing into full-grown trees. I agree with Agarwal that there is need to have a more reliable database from the point of view Of the MEF.

Joint forest management (JFM) has yielded reasonably good results and in recent years most state governments have come up with proposals for making JFM mandatory for the forestry sector. This is one of the important components of the Ninth Plan forestry programme to manage and aid forest protection. It may be observed from the table 'Treeless in tiger country' in Agarwal's paper that about eight protected areas have shown an increase in dense forest cover whereas 10 protected areas have shown a slight decline. The MEF is also seized or this issue and during the Eighth Plan period, the Government of India launched an eco-development programme with a view to involving local people living in and around national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves, in protecting the forests. The poaching of large fauna, particularly tiger and rhino, has shown some increase. But the elephant population has gone up. During the Ninth Plan period some more measures are being proposed to contain poaching of major animals as part of the Wildlife Protection Programme.

G Thimmaiah is a member of the Planning Commission of India

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