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India State of Forest Report 2021: What to Believe and What Not To

Jan 20, 2022 1:48 PM 8 min read

Last week, the Ministry of Environment released the latest India State of Forest Report (ISFR).

The ISFR (link) is a biennial report compiled by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). The latest iteration (the 17th in line) details information for 2019-2021 (the last ISFR was published in 2019).

India is one of the handful of countries that publish such exhaustive reports on green cover, which are in turn used as the reference for forest management and environmental planning.

The headline figure is "forest cover" which, according to the ISFR, has been steadily climbing over the years. The full picture, however, is not as green.

Key Takeaways of ISFR 2021

  • India’s forest cover is now 7,13,789 square kilometres = 21.71% of the country’s geographical area.
  • Forest cover has increased by 721 sq km, from 21.67% in 2019. 
  • The highest increase was registered by Telangana (3.07%), Andhra Pradesh (2.22%) and Odisha (1.04%). Meanwhile, the Northeast saw a decline in forest cover, especially in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland.
  • India’s mangrove cover has risen by 17 sq km to a total of 4,992 sq km.
  • 35.46 % of the forest cover is prone to forest fires.
  • By 2030, 45% of the country’s forest cover can become “climate hotspots” (areas expected to be affected by the climate crisis).


Devils in the Details

Now, the headline figure vis-a-vis forest cover is up again in the latest ISFR. Which is considerably good news, right? After all, India has a goal to ensure 33% forest cover, both to meet its climate commitments and to preserve its rich (but depleting) biodiversity.

If only it were that simple. Dig deeper into ISFR’s reports and methodologies and you’ll find that the FSI has overshot its mark one too many times

GoI’s forest folly can be broadly classified under four headings: (1) how it defines “forests”, (2) how it classifies forests, (3) the unrestrained revisions, and (4) the very accuracy of its forest data.


Dubious Definitions

Firstly, what are “forests”? FSI defines a “forest” as all lands more than one hectare where the tree canopy density (essentially, how much of the land is covered by trees) is more than 10%.

What is the problem with this? For starters, it’s extraordinarily broad. It literally includes all lands, as long as a tenth of the land is covered by some form of green cover. Regardless of ownership, land use, or legal status. Regardless of the species of plant/tree covering the area.

Lush tea estates in Assam, agricultural landscapes in Tamil Nadu, big parks in Kolkata, even small tree-clad pockets in the Thar Desert - all of these have been counted as “forests” by ISFR. Even the bulk of Lutyens Delhi, famous for being a green oasis in the NCR, apparently consists of open or moderately dense forests!

Think about that for a second. The authorities can permit the conversion of a lush Himalayan landscape into a plantation for, say, tea. All the trees would be cut down, the wildlife driven away, and the soil exploited for plantations. The area would essentially become another village or town but simply because it would be covered by tea plants, it would still be counted as a “forest”.

The definition of “forest” wasn’t always this generous. The earlier definition (before 2001) only counted "large continuous wooded lands as depicted by green wash on Survey of India toposheets" as forests. Areas outside these "were presumed to have other land uses and/or under private ownership".

Under the new etymology, meanwhile, GoI is literally not seeing the forest for the trees

India State of Forest Report 2021: What to Believe and What Not To

Classification Conundrums

Let's accept the ISFR findings at face value and agree to the notion that "forest" cover is indeed increasing. This brings us to the next caveat - what kind of forests are expanding?

The Government classifies forests into four categories: very dense (tree canopy density >70%), moderately dense (40-70%), open forests (10-40%), and scrub (<10%).

What did the latest survey find? Overall forest cover increased. But it was not uniform across categories.

Very dense forests (3.04% of overall forest cover) increased by 501 sq km - which makes sense, since most of these lands are in national parks and biosphere reserves, with human activity limited or barred altogether.

What is worrying, however, is what's happening in the next three categories. Moderately dense forests (9.33% of total cover) suffered a 1,582 sq km decline. This coincided with 2,621 sq km and 5,320 sq km increases in open forests (9.34% of total cover) and scrub area respectively. Read together, this points to a net degradation of forest cover, even if the area under "forests" has gone up.

Basically, there's more green cover, but less greenery overall. It's as if the Nifty index decided to replace its 50 large-cap companies with 100 small-cap ones. There are now more names on the bourse, but the overall market cap is likely to be much lower than before.

How you classify forests matters. Natural forests, unlike parks in South Delhi or coffee plantations in Chikkamagaluru, are not homogenous terrains. They are dynamic ecosystems that house hundreds of species of flora and fauna in a hectare and are also priceless as carbon sinks. Clubbing commercial farmland alongside alpine Himalayan pastures is doing disservice to both data and logic.

FYI: The above two points are the reason why the occasional viral articles on NASA data purportedly showing “China and India leading the way in greening” are misleading: “The greening in China is from forests (42%) and croplands (32%), but in India is mostly from croplands (82%) with minor contribution from forests (4.4%).” (Link to actual report.)


ISFR 2021 says India’s forest cover is 21.71% + that this has gone up since 2019 (when it was 21.67%). However, if you read the original version of ISFR 2019, you’ll notice that it says 25.56% of the country is covered by forests and trees.

This isn’t a clerical mistake or typo. FSI routinely revises data from earlier ISFRs, citing “technical reasons”, “technological upgradations”, or “interpretational errors”. While data corrections to ensure accuracy should be applauded, the scale and frequency of these revisions are alarming.

Take the 2001 ISFR. It claimed a forest cover increase of 45,000 sq km in only two years (for context, that's about the size of the entire state of Punjab). This was apparently warranted because (1) the workflow was fully digitised for the first time and (2) this was when the definition of "forest" was changed to the one we have today.

India State of Forest Report 2021: What to Believe and What Not ToOkay, but in 2001 GoI changed the metrics so some revision was excusable. But every ISFR has included several revisions, and some of these have been ridiculously substantial. Like in 2005, when the cover estimate was reduced by 22,000 sq km. Or in 2009, when it was increased by 13,000 sq km. Or this year, when 2019’s figures were thrown out, reduced, and were apparently lower than the figure for two years later!

FYI: ISFR is a publicly funded exercise but its maps have never been released in the public domain (to the dismay and disadvantage of independent researchers). This is not only detrimental to fact-checking and critical analysis but also completely antithetical to the progressive stance taken in the renewed geospatial map policy.


Precision Perfection

This is an extension of the third point. Because India’s environmental data is all over the place, international experts have expressed doubt over its accuracy in the first place.

In 2019, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change voiced concerns about India’s forest data, citing in large part the frequent and extensive revisions (besides being “questionable” and  "partially transparent and not complete and therefore not fully in accordance [with the international] guidelines").

There have been frequent shifts in the base year, changes in the back-series, omissions in data submitted to the UN, mismatches between submitted data and official data, availing non-official (aka non-FSI) sources etc. A Business Standard analysis put it thus: “Different [sets] of numbers for forest cover and change in forest cover for the same years have been claimed at different times in different reports.”


Okay… But Why?

Why are India’s forest reports - a most welcome and important exercise - such a constant source for loopholes and criticism?

A simple explanation might be bureaucratic bedlam or official indifference. But surely, even the tardiest bureacrat would be loth to keep repeating the same mistakes again and again despite relentless third-party efforts for correction?

Another excuse may be India’s goal of achieving 33% forest cover (to say nothing of our other lofty environmental goals). Claiming or pretending that forest cover is increasing even when the truth is more complicated than that may offer solace to some. But it still doesn’t explain all the inadequacies…

Another explanation could be that we simply don't have good enough technology to map our forests and demarcate them accordingly, which is why our data is so inaccurate. Saying so would be (1) embarrassing for a wannabe-superpower and (2) untrue. Satellite mapping is very advanced today, with maps by, say, ISRO’s National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC) well-equipped to differentiate between tea plantations and natural forests, at the very least.

India State of Forest Report 2021: What to Believe and What Not ToSo, why can’t we get our ISFRs right?

One: India is a developing country with a vast population and limited natural resources. Infrastructural development often takes place at the expense of natural biodiversity. Unfortunately, the two are not always mutually exclusive. Case in point: India needs to cut down palm oil imports and get back to being an edible oil exporter. That's critical for both financial and strategic reasons. But doing so would require large tracts of land to be cleared in the Northeast for oilseed plantations. Which would be devastating for an ecologically sensitive region. (But of course, the ISFR will still consider the deforested land as a “forest”.)

Selling environmental degradation publically is an impossible task. All Governments love to build dams, but you won't find any politician singing paeans to deforestation. After all, forests are a public good. And this at a time when India has espoused to embrace carbon neutrality and countries (sans India) have promised to end deforestation altogether as per their COP26 commitments.

It’s way easier to tweak the very way you define “forests” and paint a misleading picture rather than take concrete steps to actually boost green cover.

Two: Inflated forest data may also seem beneficial for the global trade in greenhouse gas emissions from forestry and land-use change as prescribed under the Paris Agreement. Commonly called REDD+, this system enables developing countries to earn "carbon revenues" from alleged increases in forest cover.

Three: There is also widespread international ambiguity over the definition of “forests”. The UNEP estimates there are over 800 definitions around the world! The Food and Agriculture Organisation defines a forest as "land spanning more than 0.5 hectares with trees higher than 5 meters and a canopy cover of more than 10%”. Which might seem close to the FSI definition, but it excludes land that is predominantly under agricultural or urban use.

That said, global ambivalence cannot excuse Indian double-speak. After all, we had a more agreeable definition of “forest” before it was magnanimously changed.


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