Forests have been blacked out in the economic assessment of the country. The Economic Survey does not even list forestry as a sector, for which accounts are prepared. Instead it is lumped together with agriculture and fisheries. In other words, there are no estimates of the productivity of this sector, which encompasses over 20 per cent of the country’s land area.
This is because the focus of forest managers is on conservation and forest productivity is nobody’s business. The forest survey report says forest cover in the country is stable but growing stock of forests has decreased between 2005 and 2009. Currently, we import more and more of forest produce, from pulp to timber. It is for this reason that revenues from forests are declining in state budgets, which creates pressure for their diversion to more productive uses.
This is clearly untenable. We need forests to be used for productive purposes. But we need to ensure that this time, unlike in the past, it does not lead to rampant deforestation and over-extraction.
We need to re-position forests as integral to the economic growth of states. This means we need to learn to plant trees, and also to cut and then replant. We need, quite literally, to make money on our forest wealth. But we need to learn how to do that without destroying the forests.
In the pre-1980 period, before the advent of the forest-environment conservation era, the emphasis was on extraction. India lost large areas of forests to commercial interests. The pulp and paper industry was given forests at throwaway rates and timber logging was rampant. The needs of local people for firewood and grazing cattle put pressure on forests. In the mid-1980s, the first remote-sensing exercise on green cover showed large forests had been lost to development and subsistence pressure. At this time, the only concern was conservation and protection.
So, during this period the Forest Conservation Act was enacted to centralise all decisions on forest diversion for non-forestry projects like dams and mining. In the mid-1990, the Supreme Court issued directives on tree felling in forest areas. It then followed up with orders that defined “forests” based on its “dictionary meaning” irrespective of the ownership of the land. In other words, any area with tree cover would be classified as forest and brought under the ambit of forest protection laws. In addition, the forest departments of different states made it virtually impossible to get the permission to cut or transport felled trees—even if these are privately grown. In fact, it has now become so difficult to cut trees on individual lands that people would prefer not to grow trees at all.
All this has meant that we have been able to stem the rate of deforestation. There is no doubt about this. But this is only half achievement. Forests in India are still under huge pressure and shrinking over time. First, the rate of diversion of forest land for development projects has been unprecedented in the past five years. This diversion also happens because there is no value seen in forests—other than the cost that has to be paid for diversion of land by the project proponent. Instead there is value attributed to the dam, road or mine for which the land is needed. So, the pressure on forestland is bound to increase. We must also note that forests are the last remaining swathes of public land in the country and acquisition of private land will become even more expensive and contentious in the future.
Secondly, local needs and illegal extraction exert pressure on forests. Today, it is an inconvenient truth that the poorest people of India live in the richest forests. The management of this green wealth has not brought any benefit to local people. While deforestation and forest diversion will grow, we do not have any viable strategy for re-greening these areas. So, we will lose bit by bit.
How do we change this? One, we need to urgently value the economic, ecological and livelihood potential of forests and to incorporate this into national accounts. We need a robust methodology to bring the tangible (what we can measure) and intangible costs together. As yet there is much talk about green accounting but methodology is weak. For instance, there is no real assessment of minor (non-timber) forest produce. Other assessment of forests’ contribution to livestock or the hydropower sector is inflated or non-existent.
Two, we need to use this methodology to pay for standing forests. The 12th and 13th finance commissions allocated funds for standing forests but they are a pittance. We then need states to transfer payment for standing forests—protected for biodiversity or watershed or other purposes—to local custodians. This will build local economies and local support for forest protection.
Three, we need to use robust accounting methodology to increase the productivity of the remaining forestland. But we know that the business of cutting and planting trees cannot be successful without people who live in the forest. So, this becomes the new opportunity for employment and economic growth. The way ahead is to build inclusive economies using green wealth.