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Lutyens’ Delhi a jungle? Experts refuse to buy govt claim that forest cover grew by 2,261 sq km

New Delhi: The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change released its biennial Indian State of Forests Report (ISFR) on 13 January, which claimed India’s forest and tree cover had grown by 2,261 sq kilometres and now covers 24.62 per cent of the country’s geographical area.

But several experts say the ministry’s claims of increased forest cover should not be taken at face value because of flaws in methodology, both in measuring the forest cover and calculating the increase.

The report is the outcome of an exercise conducted by the Forest Survey of India to track India’s progress in achieving its goal of extending forest and tree cover to 33 per cent of the country’s geographical area — a goal outlined by the National Forest Policy of 1988. In 2019, India had a cover of 24.56 per cent.

“The increase has to be located in the fact that we do not have a precise legal definition of a forest,” said Arpitha Kodiveri, environmental lawyer and postdoctoral researcher at the New York University School of Law. “What this results in is everything is counted as a forest.”

She added: “The legal implication of such a report is the manipulation of not having a legal definition of a forest. It’s important to sit with ecologists to figure out what constitutes a forest in order to arrive at a truer picture of deforestation, which also gives us a good analysis of the effectiveness of the laws we have to protect forests.”

ThePrint reached Anoop Singh, the director general of the Forest Survey of India, which falls under the ministry, on email Thursday morning, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.

‘Narrow’ definition of forest cover

In India, there is no one clear, legal definition of a forest that is uniformly applicable across the country and various government policies, because forests and protected areas in different parts don’t always share the same characteristics. In 1996, the Supreme Court had said that all forests — whether reserved, protected, or otherwise — would be defined by their “dictionary meaning”.

The ISFR makes its calculations based on the satellite imagery of forest cover, which it defines as “all lands more than one hectare in area with a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent”, including man-made plantations of bamboo, palm, and orchards.

There are four categories based on tree canopy density — very dense (tree canopy density of 70 per cent and above), moderately dense (tree canopy density of 40-70 per cent), open forest (tree canopy density 10-40 per cent), scrub forest (tree canopy density of less than 10 per cent) and non-forest lands.

The current estimates are based on satellite imagery where each pixel represents an area of 23.5 square metres.

“The resolution of the satellite images is very coarse and each pixel (of an image) would show up as a green patch which cannot clearly detect what pattern of growth exists on the ground. What they are currently capturing is patches of thick vegetation and classifying those as forest,” claimed Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, Senior Program Manager of Geo Analytics at the World Resources Institute India.

According to Palanichamy, rubber and coconut plantations along the coasts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were counted as “very dense”, “moderately dense” and “open forests” in the ISFR, depending on the density of coverage.

The inclusion of plantations in the definition of forest cover puts them on an equal footing with natural forests, even though the latter are known to be more biodiverse and better at sequestering carbon. An implication of this is that diversion of natural forest for infrastructure projects can be “made up” for with plantations.

Kanchi Kohli, senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research, said the current matrix of forest cover offers a “skewed” picture of India’s vast and varied ecosystems.

“Forest density is important only if you need a matrix to understand and calculate carbon sinks and stocks. But ecologically, a scrub forest or open forest is just as important as a very dense or moderately dense forest, and they can’t be compared,” she said, adding, “Canopy cover doesn’t give you a sense of biodiversity and wildlife present in a particular ecosystem, which could actually offer a clearer picture of how healthy those ecosystems are, as opposed to counting how many trees exist on a patch of land.”

‘Unverifiable’ data

Wildlife biologist and ecologist M.D. Madhusudan pointed out that the Forest Survey of India has never publicly released the ISFR maps on forest cover, making it difficult to verify. In a Twitter thread, he also demonstrated that ISFR reports retrospectively change forest cover figures, attributing it to changes in technology and methodology.

Through another set of maps, Madhusudan was able to observe forest loss where the FSI’s ISFR recorded gains, such as in Sonitpur, Assam. He also claimed that trees around Lutyens’ Delhi were counted by the satellite images as “moderately dense” and “open” forests, whereas they were not forests at all.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: India sees small rise in forest & tree cover, but 1,020 sq. km of deforestation in Northeast

Source: The Print

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