Forgetting Forests

Mar 3rd, 2014 | By | Category: Financing, Forest, India

Business Standard: Astonishingly, it has taken the government close to a decade to sanction funds for the Green India Mission, which was one of the eight missions under the National Action Plan on Climate Change. The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs has, at long last, approved an outlay of Rs 46,000 crore for this ambitious programme to increaseforest cover by five million hectares and improve the quality of forests on another five million hectares over the next 10 years. However, doubts linger whether the mission can take off in full measure straightaway. For, only part of the funding comes from the Plan outlay; the rest is to be sourced through convergence with other programmes, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund and the ongoing National Afforestation Programme. Even the corporate social responsibility kitty is planned to be tapped for this purpose. Such an arrangement might pose problems in practice. Moreover, it is not envisaged as a wholly centrally funded programme. States are required to chip in with 25 per cent of the required finances (10 per cent in the case of north-eastern states), which may prove a stumbling block given the tight fiscal position of many forest-predominated states.

Indeed, such laxity in funding this programme reflects not only apathy towards forests but also, perhaps, wavering commitment to combat climate change. Both these are unwelcome developments. India’s forests are shrinking in area and deteriorating in quality. Going by the biennial “State of Forests Report 2011” (the 2013 edition is yet to be released), the overall forest cover declined by 367 square kilometres (sq km) compared to the situation in 2009. The most worrisome finding pertained to the reduction of 548 sq km in the forest cover of hills – which badly need vegetative protection due to their geological fragility – and of 679 sq km in tribal belts where local communities rely heavily on forests for livelihood. What is also disquieting is that the country is left with only 2.54 per cent of its geographical area under dense forests and another 9.76 per cent under moderately dense foliage. The rest of the forests have varying degrees of density, including some that are only sparsely vegetated.

The 22 per cent of the country’s area that is occupied by forests contributes less than one per cent to the gross domestic product. Most forest produce-based industries, in sectors such as plywood manufacture, pulp and paper production, herbal pharmaceuticals and cosmetics, are operating at below their rated capacities. The furniture and construction sectors, too, rely partly on imported wood and wooden products. Many of the precious species of flora and fauna have already become extinct or are turning scarce. Some of the world’s richest biodiversity hotspots, including the Himalayan region and the Western Ghats, are gravely endangered. To reverse these trends, the Green India Mission needs to conceive strategies that can ensure inter-ministerial cooperation and do not clash with either the forest-dwelling population or the plethora of existing forest-related laws, including the Forest Rights Act. This essential task has been left rather late.

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