A controversial Bill to amend the Forest (Conservation) Act — that regulates the diversion of forests for construction and mining — was earlier passed by both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha without much debate. The amendments narrow the definition of areas under the purview of the Act and have consequently worried environmentalists, conservationists, and tribal groups.
Forests play a significant role in the vast mosaic of India’s social, cultural, and political landscape. They are sacred to some, essential for sustenance for many, a trove of exploitable natural resources for others, and an avenue for development projects for the powers that be. Over the past 15 years, India’s green expanses have witnessed a dynamic interplay of growth, decline, use, and restoration.
Since its enactment in 1980, The Forest (Conservation) Act led to massive afforestation efforts across the country. Between 2008 and 2023, about 9.3 lakh hectares of land have been used for compensatory afforestation initiatives. While these numbers appear encouraging, there is more at play than meets the eye. Compensatory afforestation provisions do not naturally translate into the actual replacement of wooded lands. With the new measures under the Forest (Conservation) Act — and rapid and ever-growing urbanisation, development, and industrialisation — the future of India’s forests remains uncertain at best.
In the past 15 years, over three lakh hectares of forest land have been diverted across states and union territories for infrastructural and industrial projects.
States like Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, and Odisha topped the list in forest land diversion.
For example, in Punjab, more than 61 thousand hectares (20 per cent of the overall diversion) of forest land was diverted, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Odisha diverting more than 40 thousand and 30 thousand hectares of land, respectively. This wasn’t just land being taken away. It was repurposed. Roads, mining projects, and irrigation facilities sprouted, marking the nation’s march toward development.
Interesting patterns emerged when we delved deeper into how this diverted land was employed. We found that mining and road development consumed a significant chunk. Nearly 58 thousand hectares were utilised for mining purposes. Road construction used more than 45 thousand hectares of forest land, reflecting India’s ongoing efforts to enhance its connectivity and transport infrastructure.
Green initiatives green enough?
Jharkhand topped the compensatory afforestation list by planting compensating trees on almost 1.5 lakh hectares of land. Rajasthan planted on one lakh hectares. Other states like Karnataka were a little behind, making commendable efforts to boost their forest cover. States like Punjab and Bihar have achieved or maintained a balance between forest diversion and compensatory afforestation. But on the other hand, states such as Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh face significant challenges, with substantial deficits between the areas diverted and afforestation efforts.
But planting saplings to compensate for felled trees is not the be-all and end-all. A 2022 paper in the International Forestry Review noted the “design of India’s compensatory afforestation policy is not in alignment with the global best practice principles of ecological restoration.” According to the paper, myriad problems surround these efforts, including weak community involvement, the selection of unsuitable sites, preference for hardy species, poor sapling survival, and weak monitoring.
In March 2021, Babul Supriyo, then Minister of State, Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, responding to a Rajya Sabha question, provided the survival rates of trees planted on roadsides as provided by various states and union territories. These afforestation efforts were carried out through funds deposited in Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) account, under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act, 2016.
These rates went from as high as 91-100 per cent in Uttar Pradesh to as low as 55-60 per cent in Chhattisgarh. Supriyo added that between 2016 and 2020, the average number of trees affected due to approvals for construction/expansion/repair of roads under various schemes of Central and State governments was 5,21,912 trees per year or 933 trees per proposal.
According to a March 2023 report, an RTI reply revealed that less than half of the funds under CAMPA were utilised in the last five years. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change noted that only Rs 18,624 crore was utilised out of Rs 51,768.76 crore released under CAMPA in that period.
According to the RTI reply, in 2017-18, Rs 2,310.9 crore of the funds were utilised by states and union territories. In 2018-19, Rs 2,624.6 crore worth of funds were utilised against Rs 3,303.4 crore in 2019-20, Rs 4611.4 crore in the year 2020-21, and Rs 5,776.4 crore during 2021-22.
The big picture
Looking at the broader picture and assessing the overall forest cover, the narrative generally appears optimistic. Despite the diversions and usages, many states maintained or even increased their forest expanse. According to the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Andhra Pradesh saw its green canvas grow steadily from 2015 to 2021.
However, not all was rosy. Some regions, like Arunachal Pradesh, faced a slight dip in forest cover, reminding us of the challenges in forest conservation. India’s journey from 2008 to 2021 is a lesson in balance cumulatively. India’s forest cover has increased from 7,01,645.79 square kilometres in 2015 to 7,13,534.18 square kilometres in 2021.
At the same time, India’s position in global deforestation is also to be noted. According to a 2023 report, India lost 668,400 hectares of forestry between 2015-2020, ranking second globally, right after Brazil. With a difference of 284,400 hectares in forestry loss between 1990-2000 and 2015-2020, India saw the biggest increase in deforestation. “As the country with the second-largest population in the world, India has had to compensate for the increase in residents – this has come at a cost in the way of deforestation,” the report noted.