The government policy is to plant lots more trees as part of India’s climate mitigation strategy, but experts worry about contradictory policies that may take away more forest land for factories and other projects
India will opt for “aggressive” afforestation to expand its tree cover as part of its climate change mitigation strategy, says Prakash Javadekar, Minister for Environment, Forests and Climate Change. But this comes amidst widespread concerns over forests being given the short shrift while clearing infrastructure, mining and other development projects; and over the quality and success of India’s previous afforestation efforts.
Javadekar told journalists recently that the Indian government would release Rs 33,000 crore ($5.3 billion) from the funds of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) that was set up in 2009 to promote afforestation and regeneration.
The ministry also proposes to make it mandatory to plant three trees for every tree cut for development projects.
The CAMPA money “will add to the regular budget for state afforestation,” Javadekar said. Though 24% of India’s land is designated as forests, around a third of it is degraded forests and can provide land for large-scale afforestation, he added.
India would thus be providing a larger carbon sink as part of its efforts to contribute to global climate change mitigation efforts. Afforestation is among the missions listed in India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change.
Javadekar’s announcement is in line with India’s pioneering efforts during international climate change negotiations for including a REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation Plus) approach that recognises and rewards efforts at adding forest cover, and not merely efforts to stop deforestation and forest degradation.
But it comes amidst growing concerns over the concept of compensatory afforestation, as well as over the new Indian government’s determination to give priority to development projects and override environment issues for projects on defence, and building roads along India’s borders. Javadekar repeatedly stresses that his ministry should not be seen as a “roadblock ministry” for development projects.
“The principle of compensatory afforestation relies on diversion of forest lands in the first place, and the CAMPA money will be available only when forests are diverted,” Kanchi Kohli, an independent analyst of forest issues, told indiaclimatedialogue.net.
Besides, added Kohli, several practical issues arise from compensatory afforestation schemes. One is the availability of land, with a severe shrinking of India’s forest land in recent years.
A second is the quality of afforestation, as most afforestation schemes in the past have been mainly plantations. “Plantations can never replace natural standing forest. A standing forest has multiple values – it is a natural carbon stock, but is also rich in biodiversity, and has social, cultural and economic values for forest communities. Plantations through afforestation have only a single purpose, which is to serve as a carbon stock,” said Kohli.
Critics also argue that little of the money earmarked for afforestation goes into raising tree cover. “A recent CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General’s) audit report shows the compensatory afforestation money does not translate into raising plantations, and instead goes into buildings, vehicles and computers,” Kohli observed.
Chandra Bhushan Singh, deputy director of New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment, said, “Compensatory afforestation must reflect, and be in tune with, local ecology and biodiversity.”
More important, given local forest communities’ dependence on forests for food, fodder, fuelwood and non-timber produce, community participation and a mechanism of ensuring community benefits, are a must in afforestation programmes.
“There also needs to be mechanism to account properly for the carbon sequestration and climate benefits,” Singh said.
Experiences with afforestation programmes in India show that most of the planted trees did not survive, added Singh. India initiated a joint forest management (JFM) programme involving the government’s forest department and local communities, but the local communities did not benefit from JFM and lost interest in it.
“Putting Rs 33,000 crore without redefining our forests and reforming the way our forestry is practised is meaningless,” Singh opined. “We also need a more nuanced definition of carbon storage and sequestration.”
On top of all this, there are serious concerns over the government’s recent measures to remove the need for approval under the Forest Conservation Act (FCA) for plantations that came up after 1980, the year when the FCA came into force.
A recent report of a high-level committee headed by former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian recommends that only forests with more than 70% tree cover can be designated as ‘no go’ zones for projects. It means, in theory, that any other land under the control of the state forest departments and with even slightly less than 70% tree cover can be used for industry and infrastructure without the need for special permission, analysts point out.
Additional concerns rise over dilution of India’s 2006 Recognition of Forest Rights Act, originally issued by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs to recognise the forest rights of and occupation by tribes and communities who have been residing in forests for generations, but whose rights could not be recorded.
The environment ministry is at loggerheads with India’s tribal affairs ministry over the issue of consent of local forest councils before forest land can be given for industries.
An October 28, 2014 letter of the environment ministry says no forests were likely to be recognised under the provisions of the FRA, in case of plantations notified as forests for less than 75 years prior to December 13, 2005. Nor would rights of dwellers in villages which have no recorded populations of tribes according to the 2001 and 2011 censuses be recognised.
Also, the local administrative head – district collector – suffices to certify whether an area is a forest or had officially recognised tribes.
The environment ministry’s notification drew the ire of the tribal affairs ministry which in a November 2014 letter pointed out that it was the nodal ministry to deal with forest rights. “Though the Ministry of Tribal Affairs is the nodal ministry of FRA, the environment ministry has been issuing advisories to the states relaxing certain provisions of FRA,” its note said. “The FRA does not provide any scope to any executive agency for any kind of relaxation of the applicability of the FRA.”
Afforestation programmes in degraded forest lands do not address issues of recognition of rights of people in degraded lands, observed Kohli.
“We need to relook forestry in its entirety. It’s not just about planting trees,” Singh observed.