Bengaluru: Once every two years, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) assesses the country’s forest resources, including the area under forest, tree and mangrove cover and the extent of wetlands. The survey, published as the India State of Forests Report, is the only one of its kind conducted by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC). But it is a simplistic view of the country’s resources, without details on the kinds of ecosystems, land diverted for developmental activities and fragmentation of forests, experts have told IndiaSpend.

“Our organisation [FSI] does not have the manpower to undertake a mapping exercise like this [for measuring fragmentation of forests]. Especially not within a span of two years… it’s a tall order,” said Subhash Ashutosh, Director General of the FSI, in an interview to IndiaSpend, when asked if there was scope to include these details into the survey.

As forests are being diverted for non-forest use, even in ecologically sensitive areas, mapping forest areas is important to understand the extent of India’s forests. In the first six months of 2019, of 240 proposals seeking diversion of forest land, the government of India only rejected seven--98.99% of forest land considered for diversion was allowed to be put to non-forestry uses, per an August 2019 analysis, IndiaSpend reported in December 2019.

As much as 29.5% of land classified as forests in India’s government records does not have any forest cover, according to the India State of Forests Report, 2019 (ISFR, 2019), released on December 30, 2019. Some of these lands have been diverted for road building and mining while some others could be agricultural land, IndiaSpend reported in January 2020.

IndiaSpend spoke with Ashutosh of the FSI about the ISFR, methodology of the FSI assessment, problems with the report and solutions for better mapping of India’s forests. Edited excerpts:

FSI calculates forest cover based on canopy density being greater than 10%. Is there any scientific basis to such an assessment?

This is based on the Food and Agriculture Organization’s guidelines. From the ecological point of view, in dry ecosystems, forests have a maximum of 30% canopy density and here, even 10% density is significant. So, considering all kinds of ecosystems and international standards, we have adopted this cut-off of 10-40-70 where areas with 10-40% canopy density are classified as ‘open forests’, 40-70% are ‘moderately dense forests’ and over 70% are ‘very dense forests’.

[In the ISFR, the cutoff of 10% is considered not only for dry ecosystems but applied across all ecosystems.]

Do you see a need to go beyond canopy density to get a thorough assessment of the various kinds of forest ecosystems in India?

Forest cover is just one parameter. There are others like growing stock and carbon stock and this time, we have included biodiversity assessments also.

[Growing stock refers to the health of a forest in terms of characteristics such as stem distribution and volume of living trees. Carbon stock is the carbon absorbed from the atmosphere and stored in a forest in tree trunks, soil, etc.]

Plantations, especially monocultures, do not provide the kind of ecosystem that forests do for harbouring wildlife, sequestering carbon and replenishing groundwater. For instance, oil palm plantations could be disastrous because they deplete groundwater. Given this, why does the FSI ascertain forest density only on the basis of canopy density when this would mean that plantations would also be included as part of India’s forest cover?

I agree that for wildlife and groundwater recharge, forests are better, but in terms of carbon sequestration capacity, many plantations are better than natural forests. It depends on the kind of forests and the species of plantations. Coming to oil palm plantations, the methodology we use depends purely on satellite-based remote sensing assessments. In this method, species identification is not possible.

But species identification by way of satellite-based remote sensing methodologies has been undertaken in India. Last year, researchers published a paper where they identified different land-use patterns like rubber plantations, cashew plantations, wet rice cultivation, etc. in the West Garo Hills in Meghalaya.

This was one region in the Garo Hills. Undertaking such an exercise across the country would be very difficult.

The term recorded forest area (RFA) is a very broad term and encompasses many different things. Is there scope to breakdown all the different components of the term into separate categories?

Yes, such information will help policy-makers and other people who are monitoring these things. Separately mapping ‘blanks’--areas within RFA that have no forest cover--will be beneficial. But again, we have limited resources and maybe this will have to be taken up as a separate exercise. The state forest departments have information about forests diverted for developmental activities.

Given that ecosystems like grasslands and wetlands are rarely given the kind of attention that forests are, is ISFR actively trying to recognise these ecosystems?

We have included data about grasslands and wetlands in the current ISFR. But again, we cannot be expected to provide detailed information on these ecosystems at a nationwide scale every two years with the kind of resources we have. Also, wetlands are not specifically within our mandate. There are other organisations, such as the Space Applications Centre, that have mapped wetlands before and are again doing an assessment now.

Forest fragmentation is a big problem in the country. Having many small patches of forests does not help biodiversity and ecological sustainability because we need contiguous forests. Is there scope to include details about fragmentation in the ISFR?

With fragmentation, forest quality declines. In our country, fragmentation is a problem and if it is increasing then it needs to be monitored. But our organisation [FSI] does not have the manpower to undertake a mapping exercise like this. Especially not within a span of two years…it’s a tall order. About 10-15 years ago, the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing had conducted a study on fragmentation. There is value in doing such a study once again.

Jhum is a form of multiple cropping that does not use chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Many studies have shown that jhum is better for biodiversity than monoculture. Then why is deforestation in the northeast attributed to jhum agriculture and increases in forest cover to monoculture plantations?

There are pros and cons to jhum. There is a lot of damage also because of jhum, especially because of shorter jhum cycles. Today, the cycle is about 4-5 years. Traditionally, it used to be around 30 years. There is a lot of loss of topsoil because of jhum. And a few sporadic studies cannot determine whether jhum supports biodiversity better than plantations.

While mapping, should jhum cycles be looked at in their totality--where vegetation is burnt, the land is cultivated and then left as fallow for a few years when secondary forests are allowed to regenerate?

Yes, some specific studies can be conducted on jhum but with our limited resources, I don’t know how much of this is possible. Maybe as a separate exercise--outside of forest mapping--this can be taken up.

You mentioned several times that there are “limited resources”. Can you please clarify what this means and if additional money is required?

Budget is not a constraint. The limitation is being able to engage sufficient manpower on contractual basis. For example, conducting ground-truthing for things like mapping forest fragmentation requires a lot of manpower and the problem with contractual manpower is that the workers leave suddenly if they find other opportunities and we get caught in re-recruiting processes.

For ISFR 2019, fuelwood, fodder, small timber and bamboo collection by people living along the forest fringes was assessed for the first time. Was it to dissuade the extraction of minor forest produce that is allowed by The Forest Rights Act?

No, not at all. The limited purpose of this assessment was to estimate the productivity of forests in India. It is to provide some data for developing strategies for sustainable forest management.

The manner in which ISFR 2019 is drafted with the usage of terms like “sustainable yield of timber from forests”, “forest inventory”, etc. raises questions about whether the ISFR supports the usage of forests as a source for timber that would entail significant logging activities.

Forests should be tracked for sustainable yield. In our country, timber is being extracted from very few areas but there is nothing wrong in extracting timber in a sustainable manner from forests. Wood can be a good alternative to steel and concrete.

What are your views on participatory forest mapping with urban and rural communities?

Mapping is a rigorous, scientific process with standardised methodologies. We can involve people in a limited manner only for ground truth-ing [sic] exercises or in case we need some crowd-sourced information that can be provided by people via mobile phone applications.

Do you see any scope for improvement in the preparation of ISFR?

If there is some flexibility in terms of periodicity…if the report is not required to be prepared every two years and we get more time, like four years, then we can give information about forest cover, plantations, trees outside forests in terms of broad species composition. We could also improve the mapping from a scale of 1:50,000 to 1:25,000.

[The scale shows centimetres on the map to kilometres on the ground.]

Getting access to country-wide ISFR data costs a few lakh rupees. Do you see a reason to make these data available free of cost?

If you can get country-wide data for a few lakhs, it should be considered as cheap. For smaller analysis at a smaller scale, you can get data for about 15,000 sq km for Rs 2,000.

Considering that the data are largely used by researchers for scientific analysis and also given that ISFR is an important report, shouldn’t it be available as open-access or, at least at a reduced fee?

Ok. I will propose this. Let the government take a call.

(Pardikar is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.)

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