The state of India’s forests on International Day of Forests

Even as the older generations of Indians worry about the gradual disappearance of the House Sparrows, Parrots and Vultures from the urban skies, a recent global study – Great Backyard Bird Count has indicated that India has the world’s largest number of bird species in its preliminary findings. Being one of the most biodiverse countries, India has over 8% of the world’s total known biodiversity.

Though, Indians are blessed with the largest variety of birds, we are still witnessing a rapid change in our surroundings and the wildlife around. Many environmental experts have concluded that there is a sharp decline in India’s biodiversity due to the fast clearing of forests in the country. The loss of precious forests has become a global problem and is causing climate change.

5.2 million hectares of forest land is lost every year with approximately size of an average football pitch every two seconds. According to one RTI filed by a group of environmentalists, India is also losing 135 hectares forest daily.

In November 2012, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution to observe the International Day of Forests on 21st March of every year so that the issue around depleting forest cover and its impact of climate can be raised to a global platform where politicians and people come together to raise awareness about conservation.

Coal is the major culprit

Among all the top reasons for deforestation, coal fired power plants are the biggest cause of CO2 in the world, making coal the major driver for climate change.  While forests cover one- third of the total land area, one-third of all CO2 emissionscome from burning coalin the world. Almost 1.6 billion are dependent on forests for their livelihoods worldwide out of which an estimated 350-400 million Indians are dependent on forests, according to the Ministry of Forests in a 2009 report.

In India, coal mining threatens over 1.1 million hectares of forest in just 13 coalfields of central India.  Interestingly, India gets most of its electricity from coal fired power plants. For energy starved country like India, coal mining forms the backbone of its development model and rather a problematic one too.

A decreased dependency on coal for energy will also lead to an increase in the forest and wildlife cover. Coal mining displacement leads to heavy displacement among the tribals in India who mostly reside in dense forests and are dependent on the forests for their livelihood.

According to a Greenpeace India report on Community Forest Rights (CFR) [1] in coal mining regions of India in 2012, the issue of livelihood of affected communities has remained primarily unanswered in the mining areas of India. People are resettled in an urban or mainstream setup, which is completely unsuitable for tribal or other forest-dwelling communities.  Monetary compensation for land is the only type of compensation offered in most cases.

In the Mahan forests of Madhya Pradesh where Greenpeace is campaigning to save the livelihoods of the people and the forests from getting axed by energy giant Essar , more than 5 lakh trees will be felled for coal mining. The Mahan forests are one of the oldest and largest Sal forests of Asia and if they are wiped out, over 50000 people who are dependent on the forests will lose their livelihood. The villagers have formed a civil society group – Mahan Sangharsh Samiti  (MSS) to drive Essar out of Mahan. Additionally they have received support from Minister of Tribal Affairs, KC Deo in their fight to keep their forests.

The stage two clearance for Mahan coal mine has already been granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in February this year. The fight has reached a critical mode and the villagers have launched a Van Satyagraha against Essar’s coal mining operations in Mahan.

Economic development and forests

Development plays a pivotal role in the political economy of India. Debates around forests in the Indian government are centered around billion dollar investments for coal mining, infrastructure projects and building dams. Very little attention is paid to an alternative model of development that looks at economic and environmental well being through sustainability.  A new way of thinking on economic development can be achieved when developing economies like India will make a sincere effort to measure their economic success with a more equitable distribution of resources and focus on the long-term environmental assessment of policies and development projects in the country.

Forests acts as a major source of renewable energy and natural sinks for CO2. The Amazon rainforest for example, absorbs more CO2 than it emits. The constant felling of trees in the primary forests in India due to industrial and commercial expansion has led to a significant damage in this system. Currently, lack of interest in environment at national and international levels and the lack of political will to understand the economic viability of an intact forest seems to drive the deforestation rate higher.

In India, the contribution of forestry to the gross domestic product (GDP) was only about 2% in 2011. The government has done little to promote the forestry sector and those who are economically dependent on it. The  United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has urged policy-makers to strengthen forest producer organizations.

According to FAO’s State of World’s Forests 2012 report, more than 60 % of the world’s major ecosystems are used unsustainably and more than 50 percent of all types of forest surrounding urban and semi-urban areas have been lost to other land uses. Forest loss are estimated to cost the global economy between USD 2 trillion and 4.5 trillion a year but this is not captured in traditional measures of economic progress such as GDP.

Indian Government vs forests

The recent political turmoil in the Indian government has seen the rise of India’s petroleum minister, Mr. Veerappa Moily take the additional role of the country’s interim environment minister. In just three months’ time since he held the office, he has given more than 70 speedy clearances so far. The forest area cleared under Moily is yet to be mapped.

Over 2.43 lakh hectares of forests have been cleared during the UPA regime from 2004 till the end of 2013. The political climate at present hints that the big political parties in India, who are siding with the corporate giants to come in power will continue to do so to stay in power.

In such a scenario, the fate of forests in India cannot be single-handedly decided by the Ministry of Environment that acts a rubber stamp for clearing forests but instead there needs to be a nodal agency protecting the forests from forces that seek to exploit their resources in an unsustainable manner.

Author: Pari Trivedi

Photo courtesy: Greenpeace India

This article originally appeared on 24 March 2014 as