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The Language of Forest Governance in India Is Far Removed From the People

The Language of Forest Governance in India Is Far Removed From the People

Photo: Marc Pell/Unsplash

Language, n. The music with which we charm the serpents guarding another’s treasure.

Language is a curious thing. Words and phrases can be left ‘open’ to interpretation, or misinterpretation, and used to serve the context that prevails. The context, usually, is in the interest and belief of the party in power.

We had understood a forest to be a naturally grown area of trees and associated species, as any layperson is likely to do, without bothering about its “legal” status. This was something the Supreme Court directed the state to do after the  T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad (1997) case, allowing the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), 1980 to be valid more extensively, without the limitations of ‘notified’ forests alone. Areas in government records recognised as ‘forest’ came under the ambit of the FCA, and ‘clearances’ were needed if they were to be diverted for non-forestry purposes. 

Apparently, this last judgment of the Supreme Court was prone to misinterpretation as well as hindered strategic development and infrastructure. There were many non-forest activities in the pipeline that required ‘forest clearance’. To rectify this aberration, an amendment to the Act has been introduced, called the Forest (Conservation) Amendment Bill, 2023. This Bill does away with the earlier view of forests – meaning the ‘dictionary’ meaning of forests – and asserts that only notified forests come under the FCA, and that too only lands notified as forests after 25/10/1980. 

The requirement for forest clearance in forest areas is enshrined in some sections of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, an Act sometimes known as Forest Clearance, as one had to refer to it before giving clearance for any land that was diverted for non-forestry purposes. To overcome this hurdle, some new sections are now inserted into the Amendment, such as:

1A. (1) The following land shall be covered under the provisions of this Act,
(a) the land that has been declared or notified as a forest in accordance with the provisions of the Indian Forest Act, 1927 or under any other law for the time being in force;
(b) the land that is not covered under clause (a), but has been recorded in
Government record as forest, as on or after the 25th October, 1980:

Provided that the provisions of this clause shall not apply to such land, which has been changed from forest use to use for non-forest purpose on or before the 12th December, 1996 in pursuance of an order, issued by any authority authorised by a State Government or an Union territory Administration in that behalf…

Various forest areas that will be exempt from the FCA after the amendment include forests within 100 km of India’s international border, forests upto 0.1 ha along roads and railway lines, and up to 10 ha in areas related to security-related infrastructure (including the paramilitary and those to combat left-wing extremism). Some of these diversions, like the last mentioned, are already going on in large parts of central India. Overall, such diversions, citing national and internal security, though most legitimate, could still be assessed for their biodiversity. Without this we will not know what we stand to lose, leave aside compensate for the loss.

Many environmentalists see this as a regressive step. The Bill ignores the fact that in states and areas with un-notified forests that host endemic, rare, endangered and threatened species, the provisions of the FCA are the only safeguards. If removed from the ambit of the FCA such lands can be diverted for non-forestry purposes without much ado. Across the Indian landscape, there are vast forest tracts that are recorded as forests but not notified; these include the Himalayan region, the central Indian region and the Western and Eastern Ghats, as well as small forest tracts across the country used as nistar by the local communities.

People have chopped down trees in the Western Ghats and replaced them with, among other things, tea plantations. Photo: Aayushmaan Sharma/Unsplash

What is forest cover?

Recently, India’s total forest cover was made known by the minister of environment, forests and climate change, Bhupendra Yadav, to be 7,13,789 square kilometres or about 21.71% of the total geographical area of the country. This is less than the prescribed national policy and commitment of 33%. It is an additional 1,540 sq km from the period 2019-21, which is good news. To understand how good the news is, we need to dismantle the various terms used in calculating the extent of India’s forest. We need to ask, “What is ‘forest cover’?”

According to the India State of Forest Report (2021):

“All lands more than 1 hectare in area, with a tree canopy density of more than 10%, including tree orchards, bamboo, palms etc., occurring within recorded forest and other government lands, private, community or institutional lands, are included in the assessment of forest cover.”

What is important to note here is that forest cover includes “tree orchards, bamboo, palms, etc”. Furthermore, forest cover (713,789 sq km) includes two categories known as “tree cover” (~957,000 sq km) and “trees outside forest” (~292,000 sq km), both outside Recorded Forest Area (RFA). Tree cover is a part, or subset, of trees outside forest. The latter refers to all trees outside Recorded Forest Areas, irrespective of the size of the patch; Tree cover refers to tree patches, or isolated trees, with areas less than 1 ha. To put it in context, in 2021, the forest cover outside RFA was 38.86 m ha, which the government wants to have removed from the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act 1980, and open up to all manner of development and infrastructure.

Where do certain qualifications, like < 1 ha, or terms like, ‘area of stand’, come from? After the Kyoto Protocol (COP 9), a technical ‘definition’ of forest found its way into Indian forestry. The precise structural definition was left to the capacities and capabilities of individual countries. This dealt with the following: a. crown cover percentage, (suggested tree crown cover 10-30%, India adopted 10% for itself), b. suggested minimum area of stand (area of stand 0.05-1 ha, India adopted 1 ha), and c) suggested minimum height of trees, potential of tree at maturity in situ 2-5 m, India adopted 2 m). It is notable that India, in its definition of forest, took the barest minimum in all the ranges.

Of the 21.71% of India’s total geographical area that is forest, the category Very Dense Forests cover only 3.04 %; Moderately Dense Forests and Open Forests cover, respectively, 9.33% and 9.34% of the rest. In the 5 northeastern states only 10.95% of the geographical area is covered by Very Dense Forest; and the last reports showed that there has been a decrease in forest cover in these states. The remaining forests in these states, especially Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, now come under the purview of the new FCA 2023 Amendment; much of these forests are situated within a distance of one hundred kilometres along international borders or Line of Control or Line of Actual Control, as the case may be, and are vulnerable to diversions proposed in the newly amended Bill.

By attempting to prevent one kind of misinterpretation the amendment encourages another. Terms like ‘public utility’ can mean anything as in common usage this pertains to roads, dams, powerlines, etc., none of which may be objected to if they require clearance of forest lands. Other threats that can be inferred from the list of non-forestry activities proposed include the

  1. vi) establishment of zoo and safaris referred to in the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, owned by the Government or any authority, in forest areas other than protected areas;
    (vii) eco-tourism facilities included in the Forest Working Plan or Wildlife Management Plan or Tiger Conservation Plan or Working Scheme of that area; and(viii) any other like purposes, which the Central Government may, by order, specify……

Tourism has wreaked havoc in many fragile landscapes like Ladakh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, most hill stations, and increasingly in central India. Despite the damage it causes very little effort is put in to give the usually added prefix “eco” its meaning. In fact, a major reason for human conflicts with wildlife, the accumulation of garbage, noise pollution and a strain on local sources of water is the growth of tourism. With the exception of a few protected (forest) areas, such commercialization of nature has been detrimental to both the environment in general and wildlife in particular. The ‘country’s rich tradition of preserving forests’, invoked in the Bill, is invisible when commerce is possible. With the now explicit loophole of allowing private parties to engage in this industry in forest areas, a door has opened to anything from land grab to timber smuggling. The ‘Statement of Object and Reasons’ states that the amendment will allow the “assigning of forest land by way of lease to private entities and for clearing of naturally grown trees for the purpose of reafforestation.”

Why would the forest department want to do that? Reforestation is about naturally grown trees, involving the collection of native seeds, their germination, and ultimate planting of saplings, all requiring a lot of expertise and monitoring. The complexities of natural forest ecosystems are far beyond our abilities to recreate; plant associations, fungi, various fauna, and the inter-relations of below-ground organisms, all play their specific roles. Tampering with any of these few such ecosystems that have evolved over thousands of years – in order to do some reafforestation – is not commendable.

Another reason mentioned in the Statement for the Bill is that it will help mitigate the effects of climate change, and fine-tune India’s commitments at the international level. It says:

“achieving the national targets of Net Zero Emission by 2070 and maintaining or enhancing the forest carbon stock have emerged at national and international levels. Further, keeping in view the aims and objective of the country to increase the forest or tree cover for creation of carbon sink of additional 2.5 to 3.0 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030, and to carry forward the rich tradition of preserving forests and their bio-diversity symbiotically by enhancing forest based economic, social and environmental benefits, including improvement of livelihoods for forest dependent communities, it is necessary to broaden the horizons of the Act…”

It might be worthwhile looking at the states that have increased their forest cover. As pointed out earlier, the term forest cover may also include ‘tree orchards, bamboo, palms, etc.’ Andhra Pradesh had increased its forest cover by 647 sq km; the state presently has 162,000 sq km under palm oil. Telangana increased its forest cover by 632 sq km; 510 sq km in the state are under palm oil. The figures for Odisha are 537 sq km of forest cover increase and 189 sq km of palm oil; for Karnataka, it is 115 sq km of forest cover increase and 360 sq km of palm oil. It is not to suggest that all forest cover is plantation but the definition of forest cover does obfuscate the distinction between natural forests and plantations. In addition, viewing our forests primarily as a carbon sink, has encouraged monocultures whose carbon stocks can be calculated, and then traded or flaunted about in carbon markets.

Aerial view of oil palm plantation. Photo: CIFOR/Flickr CC BY NC ND 2.0

Again, with regard to net zero and carbon stocks, it is puzzling that we need to make our existing legislation more conducive to clearing forests – rather than to conserve what we have – in order to plant anew. (More than 76 % of India’s geographical area is devoid of any forest). And would it not be better to lower our carbon emissions, meaning, cut down on our consumption? Despite our oft-proclaimed commitments to net zero and the NDC of 2.5-3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent, the amendment is silent about what we will not do, or abstain from.

There is ample scope, even without the proposed amendment, for massive silvicultural operations and reforestation on abandoned lands, such as in closed mine sites. In the erstwhile districts of Surguja, Korba, and the other districts of Chhattisgarh, there are old-growth sal forests, home to various fauna including elephants, that have been protected by the local people for generations. It is only in the last few decades that these forests have been encroached upon by companies – almost preempting the now-tabled amendment to the FCA – and disrupted the livelihoods of the ‘forest dependent communities’ referred to in the Statement.

A final point of concern is the many sacred groves in India, all of them created and protected by local communities. Most of these groves host endemic species and are spaces that give refuge to a variety of flora and fauna, and usually not in ‘notified’ forests and often extremely biodiverse. Some groves in central India have already been encroached upon and meddled with due to CAMPA projects and funds. There has been no consultation with the local communities whose groves these are, quite contrary to the Bill’s intention of ‘improvement of livelihoods for forest dependent communities’.

Those working with the village communities on the implementation of the Community Forest Rights (CFR), bring to notice many such areas of village landscapes, all examples of forest patches that host springs and wetlands, rare tree species, and seasonally visiting fauna. Such tracts of forests are given protection by the people – all in un-notified forest areas – and we would do well to consult the people before the Bill is made into an Act.

To conclude, what one sees as a trend, brought into focus by this amendment Bill, is a general dilution of all safeguards to our environment, including those invested with the Gram sabha, the most basic and grounded of our village institutions. Imperceptibly, the language of forest conservation, of Adivasi lives, and of rural India itself, has changed. The term ‘forest’ itself, apart from the dictionary meaning of “an area of vegetation in which the dominant plants are trees; forest constitute major biomes”, included several other meanings. In Tamil, kå refers to forest as well as a pleasure-grove and garden; kånal would be a grove or forest on a seashore, or a forest on a hillslope. In Malayalam, kånal could also mean a very dry jungle. In Durwa, meram refers to grass-land, and also open forest. The vernacular terms referring to a forest are as diverse as the kinds of vegetation, their locations and their qualities, all suggesting a richness of perception and experience of the biome itself. This diversity and plurality has been manoeuvred into a set of terms suited to negotiation, like net zero, carbon sequestration, and other words in the lexicon of climate change, all far removed from the people who live and depend on the forests they live in. If there is an instance of missing the woods for the trees this is definitely it!

Madhu Ramnath is a botanist, anthropologist and writer. He is the author of Woodsmoke and Leafcups.

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