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More than half of India’s forest cover increase is only an accounting error

India’s forest cover has increased by only about 2,000 sq km over 2010-2012 (a 0.3 per cent increase) and not by 5,871 sq km, which the recently released “Indian State of Forest Report 2013” claims.

A two-line footnote on page 17 of the report lays it bare – though in small print. The 3,810 sq km of increase in the forest cover in West Bengal is really not an increase. It is only an accounting correction in the 2010 data, which had not captured the forest patch in West Bengal due to poor quality satellite data. In other words: West Bengal did not make a historical leap in its afforestation efforts to suddenly grow forests of 3,810 sq km. Just that officials at the Forest Survey of India (FSI) had missed mapping the ‘patch’ in 2010 and have corrected this fact in their records in the recent assessment. It’s a forest that disappeared on paper and has now been added back on paper.

An earlier report in Business Standard had mentioned this development (mybs.in/10dda), but this was lost in the din of Budget week .

Is it possible to get data on such a large area – more than twice the size of Delhi – wrong? That merits a separate discussion on the quality of work at FSI. But, without the raw data in public domain, let us assume FSI did make an “honest technical mistake” earlier. But it’s hard to imagine that nobody in FSI or in its parent, the unioin Ministry of Environment & Forests, knew the significance of simply adding back the number in the latest report to reflect it like a dramatic leap in the forest cover over two years. Someone did need to put it as more than a footnote in small print in the report. Instead in the executive summary, the authors boldly proclaim that the forest cover of India has gone up by 5,871 sq km and we know that most people who shall quote the report and use its figures shall stick to this number. Predictably, the Union environment, forests and climate change minister, Prakash Javadekar, was happy to announce this number in public.

The report does for the first time talk about where the increase in forest cover is taking place. It is taking place largely outside lands that are designated as forest lands on land records. This suggests that these are not healthy forests which can hold rich biodiversity but probably mere plantations. The quality of these new forests are suspect replacement for the decently well-wooded forests the country is losing. The report shows nearly 2,000 sq km of moderately dense forests either degraded, got thinned down or just chopped off in the two years under assessment.

Plantations per se are not bad. India needs to revive its forestry sector to grow more trees and learn to cut and use them prudently instead of depending upon wood imports for its use. But plantations are no replacement for forests. India’s forest lands have been diverted away for industrial use at annual rates unprecedented since 1980, when the Forest Conservation Act was put in place.

The Statistical Year Book 2014 of the government claims that in the 11th Five Year Plan period about 1,000 sq km of land was turned green through an afforestation programme that cost the country nearly Rs 2,000 crore. To add to this matrix, an amount of Rs 30,000 crore has been collected since 2006 from industry for additional compensatory afforestation. The Comptroller and Auditor General, in its scathing report of 2013, has noted only seven per cent of the targeted 103 sq km of afforestation was achieved against this sum (up to 2012) – much of the money is lying idle and badly accounted for.

The mathematics behind India’s greening targets and the money used (or misused) over years is unlikely to hold against any accounting tests of integrity. How much money does India need to green a one-hectare plot? What is the basic minimum survival rate of this afforestation, failing which should require an investigation into possible fraud? Instead, as CAG found out in 2013 and now the Indian State of Forest Report 2013 shows, the spectre of data fudging may be looming large in the forests sector.

The levels of accountability revolving around the health of India’s forests have now come under close scrutiny. Now, the government has decided to spend Rs 46,000 crore on the Green India Mission to afforest 10 million hectares. Rs 13,000 crore of this would be spent by 2017 under the 12th Five Year Plan. This is almost three times the sum the country has spent on afforestation between 1952 and 2012. Experts are naturally wondering if this money will be spent in the same fashion as the existing afforestation funds have been.


ARE WE REALLY GREEN?

  • Country’s forest cover has increased by only about 2,000 sq km over 2010-2012 (a 0.29% increase) and not by 5,871 sq km, as the recently released “Indian State of Forest Report 2013” claims
     
  • The 3,810 sq km of increase in the forest cover in West Bengal is really not an increase. It is only an accounting correction in the 2010 data, which had not captured the forest patch in West Bengal due to poor quality satellite data
     
  • The Statistical Year Book 2014 of the government claims that in the 11th Five Year Plan period about 1,000 sq km of land was turned green through an afforestation programme that cost the country nearly Rs 2,000 crore
     
  • Additionally, an amount of Rs 30,000 crore has been collected since 2006 from industry for additional compensatory afforestation
     
  • Comptroller and Auditor General in its report of 2013 has noted only 7% of the targeted 103 sq km of afforestation was achieved against this sum (up to 2012) – much of the money is lying idle and badly accounted for

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