India State of Forest Report 2021: FSI DG answers some key questions

Updated on Jan 31, 2022 10:52 AM IST

Nearly 28% of India’s forest cover is mostly plantations of horticulture, pulpwood species as well as rural and urban greens, says Anoop Singh, director general of the Forest Survey of India. Here are some FAQs

Most of the increase in forest cover of 0.22% between 2019 to 2021 has been outside recorded forests, which is mainly plantations and orchards, says FSI DG Anoop Singh. (Photo: Sourced)
Most of the increase in forest cover of 0.22% between 2019 to 2021 has been outside recorded forests, which is mainly plantations and orchards, says FSI DG Anoop Singh. (Photo: Sourced)
ByJayashree Nandi

NEW DELHI: Forests “outside recorded forest area” that account for 28% of India’s forest cover are mostly plantations of horticulture, pulpwood species as well as rural and urban greens, Anoop Singh, director general of Forest Survey of India (FSI), has said in a frequently-asked-questions (FAQs) note drafted by him to address various concerns raised on the India State of Forest Report 2021.

He has also explained that most of the increase in forest cover of 0.22% between 2019 to 2021 has been outside recorded forests which is mainly plantations and orchards. The FSI is planning to assess forest cover based on higher resolution data for better specificity but availability of cloud free satellite imagery, trained manpower and technology remain concerns.

Q. Why can’t we count plantations and forests separately?

A. In Chapter 2 (Table 2.6) the forest cover figures are divided as ‘Inside Recorded Forest Area’ and ‘Outside Recorded Forest Area’. Those inside RFA are basically natural forests and plantations. Forest cover outside RFA are mango orchards, coconut plantations, block plantations of agroforestry and are automatically separated out and are clearly given. In ISFR 2021, it can be seen that 72 % of forest cover figures given in the report pertain to recorded forest area and only 28 % of forest cover is outside the forest area. Actually, most of the critics have not seen this Table and have commented based on their pre-conceived notion. The areas of the tea, coffee etc. are available with the respective Boards and Horticulture Department or from Revenue records, where these details are recorded.

Now, coming to assessment inside the Recorded Forest area. We need to understand that the assessment of forest cover is done on the basis of interpretation of satellite data, which basically identifies the umbrella shaped canopies from the sky. Species identification at a pan-India level, on an imagery with spatial resolution of 23.5 m is always a challenge.

Q. Does that mean the extent of forest cover outside recorded forest area is mostly plantations? Do we have any estimate of how much of our old growth forest cover is intact?

A. Yes, it is true that the extent of forest cover outside RFA is mostly plantations of horticulture, pulpwood species as well as rural and urban greens. It is not possible to differentiate the old growth from the new growth from the satellite imagery. If you are wanting to know about the original forest, which has been totally untouched it may be very difficult. Since forests in the entire country were managed under Management Plans, called Working Plans, we need to see the Working Plan of each Division for the past 100 years to determine the untouched areas and then map them. Probably the forests under the ‘Conservation Working Circle’ maybe the ones left untouched. This exercise, if done, will be very time-intensive exercise and tough.

Q. What are the trends in India’s forest over the last decade or before?

A. After switching over fully to digital interpretation of satellite imagery, with Minimum Mappable Unit of 1 ha from earlier 25 ha, small patches like block plantations outside Recorded Forest Area also got included gradually resulting in steady increase in forest cover. Satellite imagery of LISS-3 sensor of 23.5m spatial resolution has been used.

Q. What are the areas of concern as evident from the findings of the ISFR 2021?

A. The first concern is marginal change inside the recorded forest area. This needs to be analysed and compared with areas planted under various schemes of the Central and State Governments and re-strategise. Are we reaching saturation inside Recorded Forest Area or are we losing areas or are the plantations less successful? I do not need to raise any alarm, but serious thought and analysis is required.

Second concern is the increase in forest fires over the years. If we analyse the last three fire seasons, then from November 2020 – June 2021, number of fires incidents were 3,45,989, as compared to 1,24,473 in 2019-20 and 2,10,286 in 2018-19. While FSI is giving weekly pre-fire alerts based on weather conditions, fuel load and a host of other factors, as well sending actual fire alerts after the fire has started by SMS and e-mail to the entire chain of command in the forest department; more strategies need to be devised for quick reaction to the fire alerts.

Third concern would be the decreasing trend in the forest cover in the North Eastern states – even if the decrease is a very small fraction of the total forest cover. Studies need to be conducted on the cause of this steady reduction and suitable course correction in policy is desirable.

Q. How did the FSI begin forest cover mapping?

A. This organisation was started as Pre-Investment Survey of Forest Resources (PISFR) in 1965 as a Food and Agriculture Organisation- United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) project with twin objectives to investigate availability of raw material in unexplored forest areas of the country to establish wood-based industries and also to create centre for national forest survey for providing continuous and reliable information about forest resource.

The project ended in 1968 but survey and mapping continued with modern methods including aerial photographs. FSI came into being in 1981 and visual mapping using aerial photos and forest inventory was continued. In 1986, a mandate of biennial assessment was added to FSI for giving the State of Forest Report by monitoring the forest resources; first report was published in 1987. The 2021 report is the 17th version of the report.

Q. What are the most important findings of the ISFR 2021?

A. • Total Forest and Tree cover - 8,09,537 sq km (24.62% of the geographical area of the country), which includes 21.71% of forest cover and 2.91% of tree cover.

• Increase of 1,540 sq km (0.22%) of forest cover, 721 sq km (0.76%) of tree cover

• In 1540 sq km increase, 1509 sq km outside Recorded Forest Area and 31 sq km inside recorded forest area

• Top five states showing increase in forest cover are Andhra Pradesh (647 sq km), Telangana (632 sq km), Odisha (537 sq km), Karnataka (155 sq km) and Jharkhand (110 sq km).

• Total carbon stock in forest is 7,204 million tonnes, an increase of 79.4 million tonnes in 2 years.

• 72 % of forest cover is inside recorded forest area and 28 % of forest cover outside the recorded forest area

Q. There is widespread criticism about the methodology of mapping forest cover by the FSI, which also counts orchards, plantations and city trees to be forests. How will you address these concerns?

A. For rapid assessment of forest resources at country level biennially, the only method available is use of remote sensing technology. Currently FSI is carrying out interpretation of satellite data at 23.5 m resolution with a Minimum Mapping Unit (MMU) of 1 ha at a scale of 1:50,000. After data browsing, procurement and analysis, ground truthing of the change polygons is done and states are involved in this. The entire cycle takes two years.

We are in the process of experimenting with data of higher resolution, however there may be many problems like availability of cloud-free satellite imagery for the October – March period over the entire country, availability of trained manpower, machine and software. Time requirement will also increase manifold as soon as we go for higher resolution. Hence further decision in this regard will be taken after analysing all pros and cons.

Q. Experts have said the FSI doesn’t share its satellite imagery maps. Researchers are charged to avail these. Any plans to make them open access?

A. The interpreted maps of FSI are available to everyone, though there are nominal charges for the data and maps. Whosoever demands the data, the same is provided after paying the nominal charges. The funds received from the sale of forest cover maps are deposited through Bharatkosh to Government of India funds. The satellite imagery used by FSI for the purpose of the forest cover mapping is procured on payment basis from NRSC.

Government agencies are using these map layers free of cost for the Decision Support System for Forest clearance of FC Act proposals. This system is designed and implemented by FSI. Now we are considering providing the Forest cover maps through Web Map Service to make the analysis of researchers and agencies easier.

Q. With India’s ambiguous definition of forests don’t you think the international community will also raise doubts about our carbon sink commitments? A technical assessment by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2019 had also recommended India delineate areas under orchards, and bamboo and palm cultivation for an accurate assessment of carbon stocks of forests.

A. India’ definition of forests is not at all ambiguous. The definition of forest cover has clearly been defined in all the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) and in all the international communications of India. The forest cover is defined as ‘all land, more than one hectare in area, with a tree canopy density of more than 10 percent irrespective of ownership and legal status. Such land may not necessarily be a recorded forest area. It also includes orchards, bamboo and palm’. For the international communications, the forest can be defined by any county depending upon the capacities and capabilities of the country and is as follows (as per Decision 19/CP9 - Kyoto Protocol definition),

Forest - Forest is defined structurally on the basis of

• Crown cover percentage: Tree crown cover - 10 to 30 % (India 10%)

• Minimum area of stand : area between 0.05 and 1 ha (India 1.0 ha), and

• Minimum height of trees: Potential to reach a minimum height at maturity in situ of 2 to 5 m (India 2m)

India’s definition of forest has been taken on the basis of above three criteria only and very well accepted by UNFCCC and FAO for their reporting/communications. UNFCCC has never raised any questions on Forest and Tree Cover of India. Neither any comments were made on our carbon sink commitments. The technical assessment by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in 2019 had never made any comments for accurate assessment of carbon stock of areas under orchards, bamboo and palm cultivation. Instead, the UNFCCC commented that India should consider delineating separately the orchard, bamboo and palm areas. In the Global Forest Resource Assessment 2020, FAO has acknowledged the technical support from FSI and has always valued the assessment of FSI.

Q. Many critics have mentioned that biodiversity and people oriented studies in tribal areas have not been made a part of the ISFR.

A. FSI has a mandate for reporting on the status of forest. With the limited resources, time and manpower, this mandate is of priority. Besides this we try to add a few additional information on issues of technology or public interest, like the decadal analysis in tiger conservation areas in this report. In 2011, a study on Production and Consumption studies was published, in 2013 on Trees in Agroforestry and Forest Types in 2015. In 2019, we had written on ‘People and Forests’ and also on Forest Types and biodiversity. As a matter of fact, there is a separate publication in 2020 called ‘ATLAS – Forest Types of India’, which his very detailed analysis on spatial distribution of species combining them as ‘Forest Types’ and is a comprehensive report for biodiversity specialists.

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