The governance of forest resources as it exists today is clearly unsustainable. The expert committees, and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change are clearly functioning with a business-as-usual mind-set despite the very real threat of climate change and the urgent need to protect forests.
THERE is no doubt at this point that climate change is real, and India is struggling. This May has seen the highest temperature ever recorded, 49° C (120° F) in 122 years, leading to power outages, reduced harvests, and deaths. The second part of the Sixth report by the United Nations’ (‘UN’) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (‘IPCC’) released earlier this year has warned of more such frequent and extreme weather events impacting human health, ecosystems and food systems, which will contribute to a humanitarian crisis. Scientists, however, have recognized that forests play a crucial role in mitigating and combating climate change. Forests act as ‘carbon sinks’ that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and store it by transforming it into biomass through photosynthesis in a process called carbon sequestration. Further, the IPCC report on Climate Change and Land specifies that land degradation processes such as deforestation and/or wildfires also contribute to climate change because they release carbon dioxide, further exacerbating the problem.
Given the important role forests play, India has committed to increasing its forest reserves (carbon sinks) as reflected in its Nationally Determined Contributions (‘NDCs’) submitted in 2015 under the Paris Agreement of 2015. Target 3 of the commitments is “a carbon sink expansion target of creating an additional (cumulative) carbon sink of 2.5–3 GtCO2e through additional forest and tree cover by 2030.”
Unfortunately, in the follow up to the Paris Agreement – the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference held in Glasgow, India did not sign the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which aims to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030, and has been endorsed by 141 countries covering over 90 per cent of forests in the world. The argument against signing this pledge was that India’s forest stocks have continued to increase and therefore, India does not need to make an additional commitment. Is this claim true?
Based on the State of Forest Report, 2021 which is a bi-annual assessment of forest resources conducted by the Forest Survey of India, 21.71 per cent of the geographical area of the country -equivalent to 713,789 square km – is covered by forests. The total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.9 million hectares, which is 24.62 per cent of the geographical area of the country. India’s forest policy, enacted in 1988, stated that India must aim to achieve the goal of a minimum of one-third of the total land area of the country to be under forest or tree cover. Beyond its role in mitigating climate change, forests also conservatively support the livelihood of 275 million people, and have one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots.
India did not sign the Glasgow Declaration on Forests and Land Use, which aims to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030, and has been endorsed by 141 countries covering over 90 per cent of forests in the world. The argument against signing this pledge was that India’s forest stocks have continued to increase and therefore, India does not need to make an additional commitment.
Forests are governed by several legislation; however, the primary one is the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, which governs the use of forest land for any ‘non-forestry” purpose, that is, infrastructure or industrial projects. The Act devises a procedure wherein any proposal for the use of forest land has to be accepted by the state government, an ‘expert’ committee and then the Union Government, following which a forest clearance is granted and forest land is ‘diverted’ for non-forest use.
However, India’s forests are continuously disappearing. Between 2017 and 2020, 72,673.03 hectares (726 square km) of forest land has been recommended for diversion. The State of Forests report does not account for this legally mandated deforestation, or where this deforestation has taken place. Another recent study showed that India has lost 122,748 hectares of prime forest in four years.
The Forest (Conservation) Act was passed to “provide for the conservation of forests” and to check deforestation. Under the Act, any action which is a “non-forestry” use requires a prior approval from the government, that is, a forest clearance which permits this activity usually subject to conditions, the most prominent of which is that the project proponent provides funds to the state forest department for ‘compensatory afforestation’, where the department carries out afforestation in a non-forest land of equal size or improves a degraded forest land of double the size of the diverted land. The governance under the Act involves the proposal for any non-forest use to be considered by statutory advisory bodies viz. the Forest Advisory Committee or Regional Empowered Committees, with the latter primarily looking at linear projects such as roads, railways and so on. These Committees are purportedly made up of ‘experts’ who are independent members, along with government officials, and have to give reasons for the acceptance or rejection of a proposal. An analysis of these reasons is a good way to determine whether the use of forest resources is in consonance with India’s climate policy.
The minutes of the meetings held by the Forest Advisory Committee are publicly available; between 2020 and 2022, the committee met over 25 times – considering proposals on forest land relating to mining, oil drilling, building of roads and other infrastructure projects. An analysis of the reasons for granting approvals for these proposals and clearing of forests shows that climate change is rarely, if ever, considered as a reason for denying permissions. The reasons that reflect consideration of climate change have been for accepting a proposal, which involved using degraded forest land for compensatory afforestation for coal projects so that “critical coal-based power projects are not stuck due to non-availability of land for [compensatory afforestation]”. The committee is clearly of the opinion that compensatory afforestation is the best way to meet India’s NDCs and create carbon sinks.
However, experts clearly state that new trees and plantations cannot compensate for the loss of carbon stocks and other ecosystem services provided by old-growth forests in any realistic timeframe. Further, afforestation has been roundly criticized because it focuses on large-scale monoculture and single variety tree plantations, which do not take into account local biodiversity and ecological needs for wildlife and livelihoods. There are also concerns about how accurate information about afforestation is and the effectiveness of monitoring.
An analysis of the reasons for granting approvals for these proposals and clearing of forests shows that climate change is rarely, if ever, considered as a reason for denying permissions.
Granted that there are no legal mandates for the expert committees to consider climate change while granting forest clearances; however the Forest Advisory Committee refers to India’s NDCs and the National Forest Policy in meetings, which shows that they could consider them while making decisions. The Committee also has the statutory mandate to consider whether the state government, before making its recommendation, has considered “all issues having direct and indirect impact of the diversion of forest land on forest, wildlife and environment.” The purpose of granting such a wide discretion to an expert committee is to ensure that all considerations, including the impact of the forest diversion on climate change, are considered.
National Mission for Green India
The National Mission for a Green India is one of the eight Missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change (introduced by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change in 2010. The Plan recognizes that climate change must be addressed by “enhancing carbon sinks in sustainably managed forests and other ecosystems, adaptation of vulnerable species/ecosystems to the changing climate, and adaptation of forest dependent local communities in the face of climatic variability.” The Plan speaks in detail about improving the “quality” of forest cover and how the scope of greening “will go beyond trees and plantations to encompass both protection and restoration.” Unfortunately, the Plan also envisions an autonomous body to implement the mission, even though the current system of forest governance could achieve the objectives if the Ministry were to direct the Advisory Committees to consider the goals while making decisions about the use of forest land
The current implementation leaves much to be desired, with only five of fifteen states and Union Territories shortlisted for the Mission reaching the targets of the Plan. It is a mystery why the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has not utilized the existing framework for forest governance, which looks to conserve forests, to further the goals of the Mission, which also has the same goals.
Proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act
In October 2021, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change produced a consultation paper the proposed amendments to the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. However, it is clear that the concern in the amendments is merely to further ease the process of forest clearances, proposing exemptions for developing infrastructure along international borders, and allowing private forests to lease lands without a clearance as well as surveying for drilling without a forest clearance, among other things. The paper refers to the NDCs, but only to state that “extensive plantations and afforestation are encouraged in all possible available lands outside the government forests.”
Unfortunately, despite the National Mission and commitments made under the plan, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is perpetuating the same belief as the Forest Advisory Committee that compensatory afforestation and plantations are the answer to mitigating climate change, and not protecting natural forests.
Despite evidence to the contrary, the State of Forest Report, 2021 has reported that the country’s forest and tree cover had increased over the last two years by 2,261 sq. km, along with an increase in carbon stock by 79.4 million tonnes. The report, however, glosses over issues of forest diversion, and has faced questions regarding its definition of a forest in the first place, as it considers plantations and orchards as forests as well.
The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change is perpetuating the same belief as the Forest Advisory Committee that compensatory afforestation and plantations are the answer to mitigating climate change, and not protecting natural forests.
At best, the report is an attempt at green washing; at worst, it obfuscates the real picture of India’s forests on purpose, since there are serious questions about the methodology and verification of the data used in the report. Further, even assuming that there has been an increase in forest cover, the governance of forest resources as it exists today is clearly unsustainable. The expert committees, and the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change are clearly functioning with a business-as-usual mind-set despite the very real threat of climate change and the urgent need to protect forests.
If the Ministry is truly concerned about reaching its NDCs faithfully and combating climate change, it must grant clearances only after there is scientific evidence and studies about each proposal for diversion which accurately identifies what the impact on the climate will be. Otherwise, it is a fool’s belief that our policies are protecting our forests and our people from climate change.