If canopy-cover is more than 10%, it is a forest: insists Government

The Government of India has dismissed reports that India’s forests are declining at an alarming rate of 1% to 2.7% every year, pointing out that the definition of forests is quite broad in its dictionary.

Responding to a question by an alarmed Rajya Sabha member today, the new environment minister Jayanti Natarajan said that any area with 10% or more tree cover is a forest, as far as the government is concerned.

She said all areas, irrespective of whether they are villages, towns or farmland, is a forest in the eyes of the Government if the tree canopy (leaves and branches) cover more than 10% of the sky. Going by this standard, forests cannot be considered to be declining.

Three researchers, including two ndians and an Australian, had recently published an article exploding the Government’s claim that India’s forests are increasing in area. At various public fora and in documents, Government officials have patted themselves on the back by claiming that India’s forest cover is actually growing.

In a paper titled ‘Cryptic destruction of India’s Native Forests,’ the researchers pointed out that true forests, also called natural forests, are declining at an alarming rate of 1% to 2.7% every year in India as the population explodes.

They pointed out that the under the Government’s definition of forests, it includes sparsely ‘treed’ areas. Such areas, which include agricultural areas, or villages, cannot really be called a true forest as they do not serve functions such as supporting wildlife etc..

They pointed out that, out of the total 3.3 million square km area of the country, there was a sharp decline of natural forests from 514,137 sq km to 389,970 sq kms from 1995 to 2005. On the contrary, according to the Government’s Forest Surveys, the ‘forest cover’ increased from 660,337 sq km to 690,250 sq km.

Forest destruction, running into hundreds of square km in some projects, had been a major point of tension between Jairam Ramesh, Natarajan’s predecessor, and the industry, particularly those in mining. Ramesh had also pointed out that in around a third of the so-called forests of India, “when one looks up, one can only see the sky,” launching a new scheme to convert them into ‘real’ forests.

Natarajan, however, called the report “erroneous” for calling Government’s claims about increasing forest cover ‘misleading.’

“The forest cover assessment published by the Forest Survey of India takes into consideration all lands more than one ha. in area with a tree canopy density of more than 10% irrespective of ownership and legal status.

“This includes also all plantations undertaken within and outside the government forest. Hence, Forest Survey of India report of 2009 is reliable and is not misleading regarding increase in forest cover of the country as reported erroneously in the article,” she told the Rajya Sabha today.