- In 2010, India had 31.3 Mha of natural forest. By 2020, it lost 132 kha of natural forest, equivalent to 67.3 Mt of CO₂ of emissions.
- In such a scenario, efforts for reforestation in various states across the country have provided hope.
- Experts, however, argue that India still has a long way to go and despite the policies that prevail, the involvement of communities at the grassroot level is amiss.
Vast tracts of forests and green cover have, over the past few decades, given way to concrete jungles, with increasing urbanisation in India. The compelling need to support a large population due to a rise in migration, have resulted in an increased demand for land, leading to further felling of trees.
In 2010, India had 31.3Mha of natural forest, extending over 11% of its land area. By 2020, it lost 132kha of the natural forest, equivalent to 67.3Mt of CO₂ of emissions, according to the Global Forest Watch, which monitors forests and provides information on changing patterns worldwide.
With an intent to combat high pollution levels and a sharp rise in carbon emissions, the Indian government has been pursuing reforestation through schemes such as the National Mission on Green India, the National Afforestation Programme, compensatory afforestation, and plantation drives across states. In the Union Budget 2020-21, the overall allocation for the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, increased from Rs. 26.5 billion in the revised estimate of 2019-20 to Rs. 31 billion for 2020-21 – a significant portion of which is expected to be channelled to the integrated development of forest ecology. Furthermore, at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP 2015), India, under the Bonn Challenge, committed to restoring 13 million hectares (Mha) of degraded and deforested land by 2020 and an additional 8 Mha by 2030.
Apart from policy makers, private organisations that are working to revive the lost green cover, offer some hope.
Miyawaki forests in urban and other landscapes
A decline in forest cover, rise in natural disasters, and pollution, combined with the positive changes observed in the environment during the pandemic-imposed lockdown, has resulted in several projects aimed at reinforcing the importance of the environment.
One such initiative is by Forest Creators of the Mumbai-based non-profit organisation, the Enviro Creators Foundation, that is working to reforest lands since 2014. So far they have planted 1.6 million trees. “Now, we are working on our vision of being able to either plant or train and influence people to plant 100 crore (1 billion) trees,” Dipen Jain, founder of the organisation, told Mongabay-India.
He admits that while it was initially difficult to gain acceptance for the Miyawaki method, over the last few years, it has gained repute and attention. The Miyawaki method involves planting two to four trees per square metre. “This means we are not just planting trees, but forests. For the first three years, we kept planting at schools, bungalows, our society and the factories of our friends. This made people around us realise how well this method works. Moreover, we have partnered with corporates, individuals, foundations, state governments, municipal councils and gram panchayats.”
Miyawaki forests are known to grow in two to three years and are self-sustaining. They help lower temperatures in concrete heat islands, reduce air and noise pollution, attract local birds and insects, and create carbon sinks.
Till now, Forest Creators has planted trees in the toxic and chemical laden lands of Boisar, an industrial suburb in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, in the desert lands of Jhunjhunu in Rajasthan, at seashores and on the hills. With a survival rate of over 95%, the team has completed over 60 projects across 16 states of the country.
Jain elaborates that for every project they undertake, before the plantation commences, they create a survival and mitigation plan. “As a result, we have seen more than 95% survival at all locations. Since we are planting close dense forests and they grow tall fast, the soil gets covered from direct sunlight and due to this, there is an amazing amount of biodiversity that develops under the soil.”
He advises that when forests are planted, “we must think beyond humans. Humans are only 0.01% of the total life on this planet and the rest depend on this ecosystem for their survival.”
Trees bring back biodiversity, replenish groundwater
Another organisation working to improve the tree cover in India is Grow-Trees.com which has led several planting initiatives across 23 Indian states since 2010, including recent projects such as trees for wellness at AIIMS in Jharkhand, trees for the Ganga region in Uttarkashi in Uttarakhand and Bhagalpur in Bihar, and trees for memories in Bodhgaya, all with the intent of repairing the environment.
According to CEO Bikrant Tiwary, “Grow-Trees.com is a social enterprise that offers a pioneering, web-enabled, and cost-effective solution to individuals and companies for planting trees across the world and offsetting carbon emissions.” Talking about the plantation programs in the Ganga region, Tiwary says, “As this project is located along the banks of the Ganga River, afforestation on formerly barren regions would improve the quality and quantity of groundwater. Trees will help prevent soil erosion and re-fertilise the soil in the area.”
Other projects include planting trees in the periphery of the Similipal Tiger Reserve in Odisha, plantations in Thane and the Delhi-NCR region. Additionally, there’s a ‘Trees for Wellness’ Project at AIIMS, Deoghar, Jharkhand where medically significant trees are being planted.
At Zuluk, in Sikkim’s eastern region, Grow-Trees.com initiated planting of 30,000 local trees, on the outskirts of Pangolakha Wildlife sanctuary which helped local people gain about 3,600 workdays, which is calculated by multiplying the number of people and the number of days worked on various projects and adding them up. Tiwary adds, “We consider every person who has been paid for the day (irrespective of their time spent in a day). Also, this calculation does not remain the same for each location (due to landscape and many other factors).”
Initiatives were also carried out in several other parts of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh states of northeast India where the loss of forest land has been on a steady decline since 2009.
According to Tiwary, tree plantations in certain areas improve the natural habitat and animals begin to revisit them. At a project where trees were planted on the outskirts of the Sariska Tiger Reserve, officials of the forest department noted that tigers were spotted in the project area, said Tiwary, adding that there have been reports of an increase in the population of peacocks and deer which can be attributed to the restoration of their habitat. He also claimed that plantation had helped revive water bodies and replenishing the groundwater levels.
The plantation projects also provide a source of employment for local communities. At a project in Ramtek, Maharashtra, for example, the project involves 70 households, and has helped create 3,000 workdays for the labour force, of which 70% are women. The Project-Trees for Tigers in Ramtek, Maharashtra, has also shown a significant improvement in the environment and health of the local communities here.
Despite the initiatives, environmental experts say India still has a long way to go, when it concerns reforestation. According to environmental lawyer and legal researcher Arpitha Kodiveri, “From the little evidence that I have gathered through field work in different parts of India, I don’t think reforestation has been successful. It has been taken as a waiver for the forest department to indulge in plantation work – so very often, we see that the planting of species that don’t make sense to the ecosystem. Also, I don’t think that the laws are strong enough to facilitate appropriate reforestation or ecologically sound reforestation.”
Sharachchandra Lele, Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Policy & Governance, Centre for Environment & Development, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), is of the opinion that even though there are lots of ‘afforestation programmes’ in India, but the content (which species, i.e., single, exotic or mixed, local) and effectiveness of these programmes remains unknown. “Forest Survey of India defines forest cover as including all forms of tree cover, including single-species plantations. As per this definition, India’s ‘forest’ cover is stable or increasing, even though the area under natural forest may be declining,” he told Mongabay-India.
While the policies are prevalent, what needs to be asked is whether they are supportive of reforestation, say the experts.
“It is important to read these policies separately and question as to whether they are supportive of reforestation? I think so, but they have obviously failed to curb deforestation, in terms of at least the dilution that is underway now. If we take the National Forest Policy or if we take the Green India Mission, there’s heavy emphasis on afforestation and reforestation. Also, they provide the forest department a lot of power, to be able to undertake those activities. So, in that sense it is supportive,” adds Kodiveri.
However, the challenge with all these approaches, both in policy and law, is that it doesn’t provide adequate avenue for forest dwelling communities to participate in these activities, she explains. The Compensatory Afforestation Act for example, was meant to be executed with the consultation of the gram sabhas, but that has seldom happened. Therefore, it is supportive towards strengthening the forest department’s power, to undertake these activities, but its inadequacies are present in two ways – one, the lack of participation by forest dwelling communities, and secondly, the inability to provide an ecologically sound basis for such activities and preventing deforestation, she elaborates.
Having worked in Sariska and in Kutch, she states, “We have seen a very different situation as opposed to the presence of large-scale plantations, which is the presence of invasive species. That, I don’t think is a problem that large scale plantations will be able to resolve.”
According to Lele, it is important to first question what is meant by reforestation, whether it is increasing plantations or increasing natural forests/regenerating natural forests. Similarly, there is a need to question why reforestation is needed, whether it is just for biodiversity conservation, for timber production, or for meeting the multi-dimensional livelihood needs of local communities.
“Some mixed forestry forms can produce a bit of all three, but otherwise, maximising one means losing the others. We should also ask for whom we want to do reforestation: just for urban tourists who want a green space for occasional eco-tourism, for forest department to make money from coupe felling, or for locals to enhance livelihoods and incomes. In all cases, the only way to make reforestation successful is to ensure that local people’s rights are respected, and their livelihoods secured, and they have managerial control over forests, while regional and national interests are represented through incentive schemes with some amount of monitoring,” Lele said.
Kodiveri meanwhile said that what is needed is the inclusion of forest dwelling communities and an emphasis on curbing deforestation, while looking at compensatory mechanisms like reforestation and afforestation as the avenue of last resort.
Jain, founder of Enviro Creators Foundation, states that his organisation has been planting forests and trees for close to seven years now and it is something that anyone can take up. “If one is honest towards their work, people appreciate and support the endeavour. Every corporate we have met wants to help restore the ecosystem and help us in planting trees,” he says.
Meanwhile, Tiwary of Grow-Trees.com says he believes that every project helps them inch closer to their mission of planting trees and promoting human-environment co-existence in a way that the indispensable value of natural resources and the planet that sustains them can be reiterated. “In addition to plantation initiatives, our plans also include implementing carbon neutrality projects, a strategy that will benefit farmers while simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. We’re also working on programs to conserve and restore coastal habitats because of their “blue” carbon value,” he adds.
Banner image: Poplar tree field in Chaura Kalan, Saharanpur, UP. Photo by Bahar Ahmad Khan/Wikimedia Commons.