More than 130 countries, including all of India's neighbours, committed to "halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030", but India didn't.

During the 26th Conference of Parties or COP26, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Glasgow, Scotland, 133 countries, which represent 90% of the world's forest cover, signed the Glasgow Leaders' Declaration on Forests and Land.

India, along with two other G20 countries — South Africa and Saudi Arabia — did not sign the declaration. This is when India already boasts of having increased its green cover.

FactChecker's analysis of the biennial India State of Forest Reports (ISFR) shows that between 2011 and 2019, the overall rise in forest cover in the country came at the cost of the moderately dense forests.

Major geo-resources like coal, iron and other mineral resources are all in the areas that harbour closed, species rich and dense forests. These areas are used to develop roads, laying communication networks and setting up hydropower plants in dense forests. "Signing such a declaration would necessarily require India to take a position that the levels of deforestation in the country are a cause of concern. Our domestic narrative has tried to present a contrary position that forest cover in the country has increased," Kanchi Kohli, senior researcher at Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research, told FactChecker.

To understand the trends of deforestation in the country, experts say it is also important to identify the loopholes in definitions and methodologies while assessing forest cover.

Definition Conundrum

To discern the trends in deforestation, it is necessary to first look at what falls under forest cover and tree cover. First off, the legal definition of 'forest' lacks clarity. The current definition is based on the 1996 Supreme Court judgement (TN Godavarman Thirumulkpad Vs Union of India), wherein the apex court interpreted that the word 'forest' must be understood according to its "dictionary meaning".

"This description covers all statutorily recognised forests, whether designated as reserved, protected or otherwise for the purpose of Section 2(i) of the Forest Conservation Act. The term "forest land", occurring in Section 2, will not only include "forest" as understood in the dictionary sense, but also any area recorded as forest in the Government record irrespective of the ownership," the judgement read.

In 2018, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science, Technology, Environment and Forests that they were working on the definition. "But once we define forests, saying that forest is a community of trees, then these alpine meadows, etc, would go out of that definition. Once we come up with the definition, it has to be so foolproof that it is not misused. That is our main concern," read the ministry's response to the committee, according to a Down to Earth report.

To add to the confusion, politicians, in the past, have used the terms forest cover and tree cover interchangeably and have called it green cover. But experts say it is imperative to distinguish between forests and green cover because it shows an incomplete picture of forests. "Green cover calculated by satellite imagery is driven by the idea of creating treelands or plantations. While this may support some local farmers, it is driven by the objective of inviting private sector investments for commercial forestry," said Kohli.

Tree cover and forest cover have separate definitions in the ISFR report. Tree cover is defined as all tree patches of size less than one hectare occurring outside the recorded forest area. This covers trees in all formations including scattered trees. Whereas, forest cover includes all lands with trees in more than one hectare or 10,000 sq meters of land (more than the size of two football fields) and in an area with tree canopy density of more than 10%, irrespective of ownership, legal status of the land and species composition of trees.

Forests are the further classified as: 1) Very Dense Forests (VDF) which means all lands with tree canopy density of 70% and above, 2) Moderately Dense Forest (MDF) are those with tree canopy density of 40% and more but less than 70%, and 3) Open Forest (OF) meaning all lands with tree canopy density of 10% and more but less than 40%.

Moderately Dense Forests Lose Density

India has a total forest cover (TFC) of 7.12 lakh square kilometres (sq kms), according to the biennial ISFR, 2019 released by the MoEF&CC. India, in the Indian Forest Policy of 1952, had set a target to bring 33% of its geographical area under forest cover. However, in the last nine years, India's TFC has increased by around 3% — 7,12,249 sq km (21.67%) in 2019 from 6,92,027 sq km (21.05%) in 2011.

This growth has mainly happened in open forests, which includes commercial plantations. But moderately dense forests, which is usually the area close to human habitations, have taken a hit. While the area under OFs has increased by 5.7% since 2011, the area under MDFs has decreased by 3.8% or 12,264 sq km — 3,08,472 sq km in 2019 from 3,20,736 sq km in 2011.

On the other hand, area under VDFs, which absorb the most amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has increased by nearly 19% in the last nine years. But this growth has been at a snail's pace — 1.14% since 2017 as compared to a 14% increase between 2015 and 2017.

Environmentalists believe this growth can turn slower as the Indian government is contemplating changes to the existing Forest Conservation Act, 1980. This, they say, is also one of the reasons to opt out of signing the Leaders' Declaration at Glasgow. "The current proposal of the environment ministry favours deforestation and diversion of forests for non-forest purposes. It hopes to attract large-scale investment for tree plantation as compensation for both deforestation and achieving climate action plan targets," said CR Bijoy, an environmentalist and activist with Campaign for Survival and Dignity, a national coalition of Adivasi and forest dwellers' organisations.

All northeastern states except Manipur have witnessed their MDFs shrink. Although Assam's overall forest cover has risen, the area covered by MDF has decreased by 1,125 sq km between 2011 and 2019. This is followed by Arunachal Pradesh (962 sq km), Sikkim (609 sq km), and Meghalaya (508 sq km).

CR Babu, Professor Emeritus, Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems, University of Delhi, said shifting cultivation, known as Jhum (an indigenous agricultural system where fields are cleared by burning the area for cultivation), is practiced on a large scale which makes it difficult for regeneration of forests. Apart from that, infrastructure development, particularly road construction, is responsible for the shrinking natural forest cover, he added.

In all, most Union Territories (UTs) have seen a rise in forest cover. But, here too, it has been at the cost of deforestation in the MDFs. The rise in overall forest cover is because of the rise in plantations in the OFs, said environmentalists. While Andaman and Nicobar Islands have seen a marginal rise of 0.28% between 2011 and 2019, the UT has lost its moderately dense forests by 71% or 1,732 sq kms. This is followed by Dadra and Nagar Haveli (34 sq km) and Puducherry (17.6 sq km).

This pattern of overall gain yet loss of moderately dense forests can be seen across regions in the country. West Bengal (3,907 sq km), Kerala (3,844 sq km), Tamil Nadu (2,739) and Odisha (2,716) and Karnataka (2,381 sq km) gained significant forest cover between 2011 and 2019. Whereas, Telangana (1009 sq km), Madhya Pradesh (218 sq km), Uttarakhand (193 sq km), Chhattisgarh (63 sq km) have seen their forest cover shrink. But, despite a massive increase in overall forest cover, West Bengal's MDFs have shrunk by 486 sq km. Moreover, Chhattisgarh, (2,713 sq km), and Uttarakhand (1,362 sq km) which have already seen a loss in overall forest cover, lost most area under MDFs. This is followed by Madhya Pradesh (645 sq km), Uttar Pradesh (479 sq km) and Jharkhand (230 sq km).

Best States are the Worst Hit

Madhya Pradesh (77,482 sq km) has the largest forest cover in the country, followed by Arunachal Pradesh (66,688 sq km), Chhattisgarh (55,611 sq km), Odisha (51,619 sq km) and Maharashtra (50,778 sq km). But when it comes to percentage of geographical area occupied by forests, northeastern states such as Mizoram (85.41%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.63%), Meghalaya (76.33%), Manipur (75.46%) and Nagaland (75.31%) top the list.

Being covered in green apparently meant most green to lose here since, except Assam, all northeastern states have seen a significant decrease in forest cover. Mizoram accounts for the highest loss of forest cover — 1,111 sq km between 2011 and 2019. This is followed by Nagaland (832 sq km), Arunachal Pradesh (722 sq km) Tripura (251 sq km) and Manipur (243 sq km).

Overall, the tree cover in India has increased by 4.6% from 90,844 sq km in 2011 to 95,027 sq km in 2019. Maharashtra (10,806 sq km) has the highest tree cover and is followed by Madhya Pradesh (8,339 sq km) and Rajasthan (8,112 sq km). Although Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have seen a rise in tree cover, Rajasthan's tree cover decreased by 160 sq km.

Gujarat (925 sq km) has faced the highest loss in tree cover between 2011 and 2019. The western state is followed by Bihar (366 sq km) and West Bengal (329 sq km). Similarly, tree cover in four UTs has decreased with Lakshadweep's falling by 94.2% — from 5 sq km of the 32 sq km geographical area in 2011 to 0.29 sq km in 2019. Further, Daman and Diu and Puducherry have witnessed a reduction of 44.4% and 26% in their tree cover between 2011 and 2019.

Excessive Tree Plantations

Equating plantations to natural forest cover is another issue that threatens ecological biodiversity, experts said. The FSI provides the extent of forest cover which includes many monoculture plantations and areas which harbor essentially monocultures like Prosopis juliflora, Acacia melanoxylon (wattle) and monocultures of fire wood and paper pulp yielding plantations and other timbers of industrial value. "These plantations cannot equate natural forest ecosystems. Even most of the reforested and afforested areas do not represent natural forest ecosystems," said Babu. "The enhanced forest cover in some states is due to plantations and not due to enhanced natural forest ecosystems/regeneration of native forests."

For instance, he said that Bengaluru has 97% exotic species and the so-called city forests are "invasive alien species of plantations". Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh the enhanced forest cover is due to commercial plantation. Further, In Delhi, the Ridge forests are a massive biological invasion of Prosopis juliflora, another plantation which is an ineffective filter for air pollutants like PM 2.5 and PM 10, he explained.

He further said the plantations of one or 3-4 species may sequester carbon (long-term storage of carbon) but the efficacy of permanent fixation of carbon (a process of inorganic carbon being converted into organic compounds by living organisms) in the soil in the form of humus is low. So, the impact of the increase in tree cover through plantations may not be an effective and efficient mitigation and adaptation to climate change.

Besides, tree plantations may not improve forest cover or provide livelihood benefits, according to a September 13, 2021 study in Nature Sustainability journal, titled, "Limited effects of tree planting on forest canopy cover and rural livelihoods in Northern India" conducted by a team of Indian and US researchers.

The study highlighted that tree canopy density did not improve after a large-scale plantation drive was conducted in Himachal Pradesh's Kangra district in 1965. "We find that tree plantings have not, on average, increased the proportion of forest canopy cover and have modestly shifted forest composition away from the broadleaf varieties valued by local people," it read.

Re-examining the FSI's methodologies in surveys and not amending the Forest Conservation Act could help improve India's forest cover, experts suggested. "The state of forest report changed its methodology to include trees outside forest areas to be calculated as forests," said Kohli.

Secondly, she said that it is important to understand the limitations of the targets, which are focussed on creating carbon sinks mainly through raising plantations. "Several aspects such as biodiversity, water, food security and other important values for which forests should be recognised are completely missing from how targets are designed," Kohli added.

FactChecker had emailed and called Rameshwar Prasad Gupta, Secretary, MoEF&CC, to ask about the deforestation trends in the country but had not received a response by the time this article was published.