Every two years, the Dehradun-based Forest Survey of India conducts an audit of the country’s forest wealth, The India State of Forest Report (ISFR). Ever since these surveys began in 1987, most such exercises have recorded an increase in India’s forest resources. The 15th IFSR, released on Monday, is in line with this trend. It shows that India’s forest cover has registered a marginal increase of about one per cent between 2015 and 2017. According to the Environment Ministry, “India has shown an increasing trend in forest cover as against the global trend of decreasing forest cover.” Such self-congratulation is, however, misplaced. In fact, the survey itself notes that much of the increase “in the forest cover can be attributed to plantation activities both within and outside recorded forest areas as well as in the interpretation of satellite data”. Herein lies the methodological problem with the IFSR.
Since its inception, the audit has been recording plantations, including commercial monocultures, as forests. Such green wealth does have ecological functions. It helps retain moisture, holds soil and captures carbon to an extent. But it is common knowledge that plantations or other patches of greenery cannot sustain populations of endangered animals — the tiger, for example — trap rainwater to give birth to rivers or control floods. Several studies have shown that such monocultures (one, two or, at the most, three tree species) are no substitute for biodiverse ecosystems. A study published in the journal Science in 2016, for example, found that the capacity of the green areas in Europe to absorb carbon dioxide has come down significantly despite the continent recording an increase in such areas over the past 250 years. The study attributed this failure to the use of non-native plantations in the afforestation programmes of most European countries.
The IFSR notes a more than one per cent increase in very dense forests. But this figure should be seen along with other statistics in the report. The survey this time has evaluated 44 more districts compared to the last such exercise in 2015. This difference in the area assessed should be reason enough for caution while measuring the success of the country’s afforestation programmes. But even more sobering are the figures from the Northeast. Since 2011, the region has lost more than 2,400 sq km of forests. Given that climate change mitigation programmes in the country emphasise the role of forests in the Northeast as carbon sinks, this loss should spur efforts towards effective conservation projects. Along with that, the country also needs a sound methodology to measure its forests.