As a commoner, my minimum expectation from any official report prepared using my tax money would be to see that the report makes good sense. Good sense does not necessarily mean good news though. Even if the report reveals that the things are not really rosy but highlights what needs to be done to improve them, I would feel that my money has been well spent.
Ideally what would be expected of a report with a title like ‘India State of Forest Report, 2021’ (ISFR) prepared after two years of hard work by an apex national level organization called Forest Survey of India (FSI)?
Expectations from ISFR can be multifarious. But all of them can be broadly clubbed under a generic query ‘how are the nation’s forests doing’? Worded more specifically, it can be ‘how is the health of my nation’s forests?
This query is in relation to several media reports during the last two years and before which have spoken of things, some of which like forest fires; deforestation; diversion of forest lands for developmental projects; compensatory afforestation; conflicts over forest rights, etc., which are easy to follow while some which seem too technical like climate change and carbon sequestration by forests; the hydrological role of forests, etc require better understanding. Whatever I would like the ISFR to enlighten me on all of these.
Some of my statistically inclined friends might have an interest in the total extent of forests in the country and also state-wise and whether the extent of forests in the country has increased or decreased over the last two years that the report was prepared. I would be happy to find this information too in IFSR but my key expectation would be on the health of my forests.
Perusing the report I would also like to know if forests in my country are all of the same kind. If not then are some forests healthier than the rest and why? But above everything else, I would like to know how are we assessing the health of our forests?
I am told that a forest is an ecosystem. I am also aware that a forest carries vegetation of different kinds. Like, it has trees, shrubs, lianas, etc. It also hosts animals like mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and what have you. There are streams that originate from forests and during the colonial times’ forests were valued for the timber that they could produce and all the rest in them was considered less valuable if not exactly worthless. There are people called tribals or Adivasi who used to or continue to live in these forests.
Now let us see if the report is a good investment of taxpayers’ money?
A reading of the ISFR 2021 does convey that lot of hard work has gone into it. But what I gather from it is that on the health front, my forest is healthy if it is ‘dense’ and sick if it is ‘open’ as measured using remote sensing technology aided by some ground-truthing. At least this is what chapter 2, titled ‘Forest Cover’ seems to convey.
It also says that this exercise is being carried out every 2 years since 1987 in pursuance of national forest policy’s goal of having 33 percent of the nation’s land area under forest or tree cover. Nowhere does the report mention how this figure of 33 percent was arrived at nor explains how this translates into my nation possessing healthy forests?
Coconut & Mango Trees are not Jungle
What perplexes me more is when the report says that the term ‘forest cover’ includes all kinds of trees including bamboos, fruit-bearing trees (orchards) coconut palm trees, etc.
It leaves me confused, to say the least especially when someone told me the other day that there are 16 different kinds of natural forests found in India. But chapter 2 makes no mention of these different kinds of forests?
There is a lot of technical jargon, several tables, maps, etc, and the good news is that in the last two years the nation has gained 1,540 sq km in terms of forest cover. Does it call for celebration or a better explanation of the relationship between forest cover and forest health?
Of all the chapters in the report that seem most interesting and relevant to present times are chapter 9 on ‘carbon stocks in India’s forests’ and chapter 11 on ‘mapping of climate change hot spots in India’s forests.
It is comforting to note that over a decade (2011-2021) there is an increase of 541 million tonnes of carbon stock but it presumes a consistency of evaluation technique/s over the decade. Does it hold true? On climate hot spots while the report identifies hot spots by forest types and states with reference to 2030, 2050, and 2085 it is silent on reasons thereof or on mitigation and adaptation strategies.
No Word on Deforestation and FRA
The tech-heavy report does address the issues like forest fires (focus on real-time discovery), mangroves forests, bamboos, it is totally silent on the status and rate of deforestation in the country; diversion of forest lands for developmental projects, and the status of compensatory plantations in lieu of such diversions.
It also makes no reference to how the implementation of the forest rights act (FRA 2006) in the country has benefitted or harmed the health of India’s forests.
On the hydrological role of India’s forests, the report is conspicuous by the lack of even a mention of the same. Such absence is not a good return on my tax money, to say the least.
High time the government either revises the mandate of this survey or stops calling it ISFR.
First Published in The Dialogue Why Does The Forest Survey Disappoint Everyone, Except Forest Ministry? on 24 January 2022
Read another piece on Accountable Development by Manoj Misra titled “A Hope To Make Development Accountable To Planet In 2022” at IMPRI insights.
Read another piece on River pollution by Manoj Misra “Making Yamuna Flow Again” at MPRI insights.
Read another piece on Air Pollution by Manoj Misra titled “India’s Obsession With Coal And Delhi’s Air Pollution“ at IMPRI insights.
Read another piece on Climate Change by Manoj Misra titled “Climate Change: Let’s Talk Specifics, How About Water Budget?”
About the Author
Manoj Misra, a former forest officer is the Convener of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan (Campaign for a Living Yamuna), a civil society consortium.