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What India’s INDC does not tell you about its forests

1 Dec, 2015
Posted in Blog, Climate, Climate change, Forests

Souparna Lahiri*

India’s INDC submitted to the UNFCC this October makes a commitment to the international committee including its statement ‘to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.’Behind this commitment lie a series of claims that it has also made in the INDC.

  1. India’s forest and tree cover has increased from 23.4% in 2005 to 24% of the geographical area in 2013.
  2. It has been successful in improving carbon stock in its forests by about 5%, from 6,621.5 million tons in 2005 to 6,941 million in 2013.
  • Initiatives like Green India Mission (GIM) aim to further increase the forest/tree cover to the extent of 5 million hectares (mha) and improve quality of forest/tree cover on

another 5 mha of forest/non-forest lands along with providing livelihood support.

  1. India is expected to enhance carbon sequestration by about 100 million tones CO2 equivalent annually.

That they are implementable is substantiated by the proposed allocation and raising of a whopping USD 12 billion of which USD 6.9 billion is devolved under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund (CAMPA).

An understanding of the current status of the India’s forests and how the data on forests is managed brings out a simple truth. That India’s INDC hides more than it reveals to the global community.

Reality of forest cover

In India, data related to forests and forest cover, and since 2001, tree cover, is compiled, assessed and analysed by the Dehradun based Forest Survey of India (FSI), an institution functioning under the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

According to the FSI, India’s recorded forest area as per the revenue records of land use is 768,436 sq. kms which is 23.38% of the country’s geographical area (GA).[2] The FSI in its periodic reports provide data on forest cover and since 2001 also provides data on tree cover outside of forests (TOF). Together, it provides a data of forest and tree cover which India’s INDC has so proudly shown to have increased to 24% in 2013.

The FSI includes all areas down to 1 hectare in extent and having forest cover (more than 10% canopy density) irrespective of whether they are within or outside the recorded forest areas to assess the forest cover in India. Therefore, forest cover data actually covers more than the natural growth forests including plantations of various hues and canopy cover of more than 10% outside the recorded forest area and does not in essence provides data on the change in the natural growth forests – which could indicate whether deforestation has stopped, decreased or growth of natural forests has increased.

For example, the 198 FSI assessment indicates that the forest cover was 640,819 sq km (19.49% of the GA) where as the 1999 assessment recorded a forest cover of 637,293 sq km of forest cover (19.39% of the GA) indicating a loss of forest cover to the tune of 0.10% of the GA. However, the 2001 FSI assessment shows a sudden increase of forest cover to the tune of 675,538 sq km (20.55% of the GA). While the increase in forest over in 2001 is attributed to the using of high resolution satellite data and digital technology, the net increase in forest cover does not indicate anything on the actual health of the natural grown forests located mostly within the recorded forest area.

The difference in data of forest cover of 2001 and that of the recorded forest area of the country also indicate that there is a vast swathe of recorded forest area in the country which is completely denuded of natural growth forests indicating massive deforestation even after the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in 1980 to stop deforestation of country’s forests.

Various statistics over the years indicate that between 1980 and 2007, 1,140,177 ha of forest land were diverted for non-forest purposes. Out of this around 311,220 ha were cleared between 2003 and 2007. The current Minister in Charge of the Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has himself made a statement in the Parliament that more than 184,000 ha of forests have been diverted for non-forestry purposes during the last five years. The annual loss of forests from diversion in India is estimated to be a staggering 35,000 ha and more. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) under the MoEFCC, in its meeting on September 30 this year was reviewing proposals which would account or a further diversion of 3,414.84 ha of forests.

Therefore, deforestation in India has not stopped and is continuing. But, to claim that India is one of the lowest deforestation countries ( as claimed in the INDC), these set of data on forest cover and now forest and tree cover together is being projected to hide the stark reality.

India’s wood stock and growing carbon stock

FSI, over the years, has been compiling the data on wood stock in India’s forests. However, it started linking the data of wood stock to that of growing carbon stock only from its 2005 assessment. FSI says that India’s carbon stock is estimated by synthesizing the data of the volume of wood stock calculated both within the forest cover and the trees outside forest cover (TOF).

In 2005, the wood stock derived from forest cover was 4602.038 m.cum and that from TOF was 1616.244 m.cum resulting in a total wood stock of 6218.282 m.cum. Where as in 2013, the total wood stock reduced to a total of 5658.046 m.cum. But, the FSI data on growing carbon stocks translate this actual reduction of wood stock in 2013 to that of 6,941 million tonnes in comparison to that of 6,621.5 million tonnes in 2005 showing an increase of 5%! There is no explanation on the part of the FSI to show why and how a reduced wood stock can result in increased carbon stock. This manipulated and somewhat dubious set of data is now being used by the Indian Government in its INDC to claim that it carbon stock from the forests has increased over the last 10 years.

Impact of India’s growth trajectory

India’s INDC has clearly stated that the country is going through rapid urbanization and paints a scenario of huge infrastructure and energy deficits. Translating the present Prime Minister’s slogan of ‘make in India’ in to reality will mean rapid industrialization also. But, the INDC has failed to account for the impact of this rapid urbanization, industrialization and developing of infrastructure, mining and energy projects on India’s forests.

In states like Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the concentrated solar parks and the wind power projects have already made their incursions into forest commons, destroying the livelihood of local communities. The loss of huge tracts of pristine evergreen and rainforests to mega hydro projects in the Himalayan states and the north eastern part of the country is continuing and it is estimated that a further deforestation of a minimum of 70,000 ha may happen if even half of the hydro projects in pipeline in the States of Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh are commissioned.[3]

India is justifying its continued coal mining by offsetting through a cess on coal mining to invest in renewable energy. In 2009, India’s MoEF had identified an area of 12,006 sq kms of forests containing 993 coal blocks as No-Go or inviolate areas for mining. Today, it seems that only 7.86 percent of that proposed No-Go zone will remain inviolate for coal mining.

The government has already tweaked the Gram Sabha (village council) consent that is mandatory for forest clearance as per the Forest Rights Act 2006 for linear projects like highways and corridors. Similar destruction is on the anvil in the north eastern states for continued extraction of oil and natural gas to be followed by shale oil. None of these impacts have been accounted for in the INDC.

Reforestation, afforestation and REDD+

Shri Prakash Javadekar, the Minister for India’s Environment, Forests and Climate Change, has in a recent statement[4] has set the tone for deforestation for development debate. He asked ministry officials to replace the word ‘diversion’ of forest land with ‘reforestation’ in all communications since “For every diversion of forest land for a project, a condition for clearance says that compensatory afforestation on equal area of non-forest land is a must. So ultimately, it is reforestation only. This is all about thinking positive and using the right expression.”

Therefore, unleashing this huge and ambitious reforestation and aforestation of 10 million hectares of land under Green India Mission and REDD+ programme through plantations. But, how have plantation programmes fared in India?

According to The Thirty-Sixth Report of the Lok Sabha[5] Secretariat Committee on Estimates (Fifteenth Lok Sabha) on ‘National Afforestation Programme’ (NAP), February 2014, the outcome of the NAP, launched in 2002, had been negative. Though a total of Rs. 3044 crore had been spent since the launch of the programme with a target area of 1.94 million ha, at the end of 2011, the total area under forest cover had declined by 367 sq km. The Minister himself, is reported to have commented that the survival rate of trees planted under various afforestation programmes in the country is only 10-20 per cent .

Various reports by the Controller and Auditor General (CAG) of Accounts have, for long, observed that plantations by forest departments in India more often than not do not exist on the ground. Even the internal audits by state forest departments have started to notice it now. And lastly, India has never been able to fulfill its compensatory afforestation targets. It is getting more difficult now as land outside forests is becoming unavailable. Unless, the government involves itself in to an organized land grab mission.

The ambitious Green India Mission and REDD+ programme is also high on the scale of finance. How is India going to mobilize USD 12 billion as claimed in its INDC? Off course, the projected USD 6.9 billion will come from the continued deforestation a la the compensatory afforestation fund which is accumulated from the money paid by the developers for every acre of forests diverted (read deforested) for their projects to take off, but greening 10 million hectares of India’s land will need more than the USD 6.9 billion committed by the Finance Commission.

The recent guidelines of the MoEFCC to turn India’s forests in to a PPP project could be the answer. According to these guidelines, 40% of the degraded forests will be handed over to the private sector. The very areas where majority of the forest communities are located and are life line for them providing livelihood opportunities.

The guidelines issued by the Forest Policy Division of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, admits that the public funds are limited and the Government is unable to ‘meet funding requirements for restoration of degraded forests’. In view of this inability, ‘degraded forests with forest cover not more than 10% are proposed to be made available to different agencies including industries requiring timber and other forest produce for their end use’. The guidelines further state that there is a need to look at various options including how various stakeholders including the private sector and industries can contribute in improving and restoring the forest landscapes of the country apart from meeting the country’s vital requirement of various products.

While the guidelines contend that the local community shall have full right to grasses and fodder growing on the 100% of the areas earmarked for PPP, the entitlements of the local community to other NTFPs will be restricted to only 10-15% of the earmarked area, thus violating the Forest Rights Act 2006 and Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act 1996 which not only recognizes collective and community rights over forest resources and their access to forests, but also confer rights to regulate non-forest activities, diversion of forest land and any other activity that adversely affects the wild animals, forest and biodiversity.

Therefore, India’s commitment to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tones of CO2 equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 is nothing but a veil to hide India’s continuing deforestation and privatization of India’s forests.

India’s INDC remains silent on that.

[1][1] Souparna Lahiri is associated with All India Forum of Forest Movements (AIFFM) and Global Forest Coalition (GFC)

[2] The FSI Reports can be accessed at fsi.nic.in

[3] Estimated by the author taking into projects in the pipeline

[4] Jay Mazoomdaar, Don’t say ‘diversion’ of forest land, say ‘reforestation’, say Prakash Javadekar, The Indian Express, July 29, 2015

[5] Upper House of the Indian Parliament