How much of India’s forest land has been encroached upon?

While World Bank statistics paint a rosy picture, between October 1980 and July 2016, India diverted almost 900,000 hectares of forest land for non-forest purposes

According to government figures, encroachment is the biggest reason for loss of natural forests in India. Photo: Hindustan Times
According to government figures, encroachment is the biggest reason for loss of natural forests in India. Photo: Hindustan Times

New Delhi: Treacherous forests is a commonly used term. Forest statistics can be equally treacherous. Here’s why. World Bank statistics show that India has managed to increase its forest area by 2.27 percentage points in the last 25 years, which puts it ahead of the global average in afforestation efforts.

Behind these rosy statistics is a grim picture. The Forest Survey of India 2015 says that total forest area increased by 3,775 sq. km since 2013. In the same period, 2,511 sq. km of very dense and mid-dense forests were completely wiped out. It is not very difficult to understand why cutting down natural forests and replacing them with planted trees in wastelands or non-forest areas is not quite the same thing.

So what is responsible for the destruction of India’s natural forests? The government’s reply to a Lok Sabha question in the previous session of Parliament gives us an answer.

Between October 1980 and July 2016, India has diverted almost 900,000 hectares of forest land for non-forest purposes. This amounts to 1.2% of India’s total forest area as of 2015. Interestingly, the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) pegs diverted forest land much higher than the figure provided in the Lok Sabha response. According to MoEF, forest land diverted during this period stands at 1.49 million hectares, which is 1.9% of total forest area in 2015. An official in the environment ministry, who did not want to be named, said the Lok Sabha figure should be treated as the updated figure. Encroachment is the biggest reason for forest land diversion in India, according to the government.

Of the 897,698.4 hectares of forest land diverted all over India, Madhya Pradesh had the highest share at over 27%. Chhattisgarh ranked second at 9.4%, followed by Gujarat (7.1%), Punjab (7.1%), Maharashtra (6.7%) and Odisha at 5.4%.

In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, huge areas of land have been used up for coal and iron ore mining. Arunachal Pradesh, which accounts for 3.6% of the country’s total forest land diverted, has used the land for hydel power generation.

States that witnessed the highest proportion of forest land diversion were Punjab, Haryana, Kerala, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. While instances of land diversion are a concern in most states, the worst case is that of Punjab.

Forest area diverted between 1980 and July 2016 constitutes more than 20% of Punjab’s total forest area today. To put this in perspective, Haryana, ranked second to Punjab, has only 3.8% of its forest area diverted during this time period.

Rapid urbanization, building of roads, bridges, defence installations, etc. are responsible for this drastic erosion, according to Sukhpal Singh, professor at Centre for Management of Agriculture in Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The government itself has used a lot of forest land for building educational institutes, etc. as it is easier than acquiring land given the complexities of land acquisition, he added.

To be sure, Punjab’s diversion of forest area also appears high because of the dearth of forest area in the state vis-à-vis other states in the country.

Encroachment accounting for the highest loss in forest area points to an old conflict between the forest bureaucracy and population which lives in India’s forests. A recent article written by Neera Singh, an assistant professor at University of Toronto, points out that India’s forest bureaucracy, which is a product of colonial rule, has always seen forests as state property. This has often brought it in conflict with the local people who have been residing in these forests for many generations. The article cites international experience to show that local populations have displayed greater efficiency and stakes in not just forest conservation but also afforestation efforts in contrast to forest bureaucracy.

The debate has become relevant in India after the introduction of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015 in the Rajya Sabha last month. It is being said that the bill seeks to reverse the gains which the Forest Right Act, 2006 conferred on communities living in forests, most of whom are Scheduled Tribes.

Activists working on the ground also question the encroachment numbers. Shankar Gopalakrishnan, secretary of the Campaign for Survival and Dignity, which works with tribal people, cautions against taking the end-use classification of diverted forest land at face value. Many a time the government might declare land under cultivation and habitation as forest land and try to evict those living there, he says.