Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while delivering the keynote address at the United Nations High-Level Dialogue on Desertification, Land Degradation and Drought on June 15, 2021, claimed that India's forest cover had increased by 3 million or 30 lakh hectares in the last decade.
"In India, over the last 10 years, around 3 million hectares of forest cover has been added. This has enhanced the combined forest cover to almost one-fourth of the country's total area," he said while delivering the address via video conference.
While the combined (forest + tree cover) does occupy almost one-fourth or 24.5% of the country's geographical area, neither the forest cover nor the combined green cover has increased 30 lakh hectares.
The Forest Survey of India (FSI) assesses the forest and tree resources of the country including wall-to-wall forest cover and maps it in a biennial cycle or once every two years. Its last report was published in December 2019 called the India State of Forest Report 2019 (ISFR). This is the only official source of this data because even the responses the government gave in the Lok Sabha in 2021 on forest cover quotes ISFR 2019.
According to this report, the total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.73 million hectares which is 24.56% of the geographical area of the country. So, this proves that PM Modi's "one-fourth" claim is correct. But when it comes to forest cover, his figure is higher than the official numbers.
Before we mention the figures, let's understand what is forest cover and tree cover. The FSI defines and measures tree cover and forest cover differently. 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.
On the other hand, forest cover includes all lands with trees in more than one hectare of area with tree canopy density of more than 10%, irrespective of ownership, legal status of the land and species composition of trees.
So, the forest cover of India, according to ISFR 2019, is 71.22 million hectares and in ISFR 2009 it was 69.08 million hectares. This is a difference of 2.16 million hectares or 21.6 lakh hectares, which is not at all what PM Modi claimed. This is a big difference considering the forest cover has, on an average, increased by 3.82 lakh hectares in the past 6 ISFRs or a decade. The 2019 report actually presents data that was collected in 2017 while 2009 report reflects the data was collected in the year 2007. The reports are usually released after every two years.
Now if the data for tree cover is also included for a combined green cover, it stands at 80.72 million hectares for 2019 and 78.36 million hectares for 2009. This again, is a difference of 2.36 million hectares or 23.6 lakh hectares and almost 6 lakh hectares less than the figure the PM quoted.
"On what basis has PM Modi made such a claim? Moreover, data on forest and tree cover needs to considered separately. Trees can grow in farms and other areas and cannot be equated with forest cover. So, combining these two figures is also wrong. Forest needs to be recognised as a distinct entity against trees which can be scattered all over the place," said Dr Madhu Sarin, an environmentalist associated with the Campaign for Survival and Dignity.
According to data from World Resources Institute's Global Forest Watch, India has lost 1.93 million hectares of tree cover, equivalent to a 5% decrease in tree cover between 2001 and 2020. Also, there has been a loss of 349 kilo hectares of humid primary forests in the country between 2002 to 2020. This means total area of humid primary forest decreased by 3.4% in two decades. One of the many factors behind this destruction is forest fire.
Kanchi Kohli, Senior Researcher, Centre for Policy Research, a public policy-based non-profit in New Delhi, raised questions on FSI's methodology of gathering data. "Forest cover cannot necessarily be equated with quality of forest. Forest cover means lands with trees grown on it, which is not a great metrics to gauge forest cover. Since it is satellite imaging it could record anything with tree cover which is not correct. It could be plantations or forest-like covers but does not serve the purpose of forests necessarily," said Kohli.
"From both social and ecological justice points of view the methodology is problematic. This actually hides all the forest that is lost due to forest diversions done due to infrastructural constructions," she added.
Factchecker emailed the Prime Minister's Office for clarification but has not received the response yet. We also called up several phone numbers at the office but they either went unanswered or those who did pick up did not identify themselves and refused to comment
Felling trees for projects or those caused by natural disasters like cyclones are not unknown in the country. In fact, during the second wave of COVID-19 saw several states sanction chopping of trees to meet the needs of crematoriums overwhelmed with dead bodies. In an official order, Haryana Chief Secretary Vijay Vardhan allowed tree felling operations of forest department and Haryana Forest Development Corporation amidst lock down to meet the fuel wood needs of the municipal corporation and district administrations.
The 2019 report also showed that there has been an increase of 5.18 lakh hectares in forest and tree cover combined as compared to the previous assessment. But in the assessment report of 2017, this increase was higher — 8.02 lakh hectares as compared to 2015.
Another trend that emerged from these numbers is that, according to ISFR 2019, there has been a decrease in forest cover in the north eastern region except in Assam and Tripura. Total forest cover in this region saw a decrease of 76,500 hectares compared to the 2017 data. Covering just 7.98% of the geographical area of the country, the north eastern region accounts for nearly 25% of India's forest cover.