India’s draft National Forest Policy 2018– The need to lay the foundation of the ecological basis for forest management

                                                                                                R D Jakati

     The revision of India’s National Forest Policy of 1988 is taking place at a time when the world is recognizing the important role of forest in climate change mitigation efforts. The Paris Agreement recognizing the importance of the integrity of the ecosystems states Noting the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity, recognized by some cultures as Mother Earth, and noting the importance for some of the concept of “climate justice”, when taking action to address climate change—“.  The Agreement, therefore, calls for revisiting our view of forests not only as a renewable resource but also as an ecosystem whose integrity needs to be maintained for the long term sustainability. Adopting a new ecological paradigm for the management of forests, therefore, is not an option but an imperative.

      The National Forest Policy of India (1988) in its preamble boldly stated the “serious depletion of forests” of the country and laid out the objectives and the strategy for the restoration of the depleted forest resources. Two major changes which the current policy made over the previous policy (of 1952) were (1) making the revenue from forests subservient to the ecological considerations, and (2) the involvement of people as important stakeholders in the management of forests. These policy changes did make some positive impact on the condition of the “seriously depleted” resource. However, the increasing population, rising socio-economic expectations and  inadequate investment in the ecological restoration have more or less offset the positive outcome of the newly adopted strategy.

            One aspect which the policy did not reflect on was the desirable change in the forest management practices which continued to be based on the traditional pattern. The European countries having observed the degradation of sites and consequent reduction in the productivity under traditional management principles are making efforts to switch over to an “ecosystem-based close to nature forestry system”.

            The following table shows the distribution of India’s forest cover in three canopy density classes. 

Forest cover Area (Sq. km) Percentage to total forest cover Percentage to total geographic area
Very dense ( 0.7 +) 98,158 13.86 2.99
Mod dense (0.4-0.7) 308,318 43.53 9.38
Open (0.1- 0.4) 301,797 42.61 9.18
Total Forest Cover 708,273   21.54
Scrub 45,979    

(Source : India’s State of Forest  Report)

It can be seen from the above table that over forty percent of the forest cover is ‘open’ with forest canopy density between 0.1 and 0.4. Most of these forests are degraded.

India’s forests are degraded not only by heavy logging, frequent fires and  uncontrolled grazing but also by our own management. The traditional forest management in the absence of adequate understanding of the complex tropical ecosystems prescribed removal of increment of wood keeping in view only one or two economically important species. Other species were removed labeling them “miscellaneous”. Such a management thus altered the composition and the structure of the natural forests. In the name of sustainable forest management the increment of the wood was removed even when the forests were depleted.

            The following table gives the area occupied by different forest types in three canopy density classes.

                                    (Source : FSI REPORT)

Major Forest Type Percentage of total forest cover Very dense (0.7 +) Mod  dense (0.4-0.7 Open (0.1-0.4)
Tropical wet
(bio-div hot
3.4 21.77 61.16 17.06
Tropical semi-ever-green 14.55 13 49.47 37.08
moist deci- duous
20.7 7.5 55.81 36.69
Tropical dry deciduous 40.07 4.95 48.08 47
thorn forest
1.74 0.88 26.2 72.92
moist forest
4.87 14.52 50.4 35.09
Tropical/Sub-tropi-cal dry ever green hill 2.97 7.57 42.37 50.06
Subtropical pine
2.71 6.07 55.68 38.25
Sub alpine dry
temperate forest
2.7 10.99 50.54 38.47
Alpine scrub 0.06 39.19 31.84 28.97
Littoral and swamp forest 0.72 24.45 40.46 35.09
Plantation forest 5.32 1.51 32.69 65.8

             It can be seen that over sixty percent of the forest cover in the country belongs to tropical dry and moist deciduous categories, over 45 percent of which is open. This category, of ‘open’ in these deciduous types need special attention for restoration under afforestation/ reforestation programme. The major challenge facing the sector today is the restoration of such degraded forests at a speed  that these do not become irrecoverable. Prevention of further degradation and restoration are both equally challenging.

About 55% of the total forest area belongs to moderately dense and very dense category and thus are in a fairly good condition. There is an urgent need for a paradigm shift, in real sense, to ecology-based approach to management of these forests. The ecosystem-based management seeks to manage forests in a holistic and integrated manner where not only trees but also an entire ecosystem with both its biotic and abiotic components are managed with a view to maintain its ecological integrity while ensuring flow of ecosystem goods and services on a sustainable basis for the present and future generations. Many of our good forest areas, measured on the basis of the basal area, are depleted. They appear well stocked, especially in the satellite imageries, because of the presence of relatively a large proportion of young and pole crop. The forest growing stock needs to be built up and the site conditions allowed to recuperate in case of most of country’s forests. The proportion of big trees needs to be increased to enhance the stocking and improve productivity. The preservation plots’ data/ old growth data which is available with  states can act as a guides in carrying out the study of structure, composition and the integrity of the forest types.

  At the international level efforts are being made to develop “restoration silviculture” for different forest ecosystems. Pro-Silva, a European organization of over 28 countries, is propagating “closed to nature forestry systems”. One division of International Union of Forestry Research Organizations (IUFRO) meets every two years to discuss “Uneven-aged Silviculture” and terms it as Silviculture of 21st century. The Convention on Biodiversity (CBD)  has been working on defining parameters for the “Red List of Ecosystems”. 

Adoption of ecosystem based close to nature forestry systems, especially for the well stocked forests and adoption of Ecosystem Approach of CBD to manage forests, can be a major component of India’s forestry sector contribution to its Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC)  under the Paris Climate Agreement.

            Another important aspect, which needs consideration, is the study of inter-sectoral linkages. Developments outside forests directly influence the forest resources and their management. For example, change in the principal agriculture crop cultivation in the rural areas has significant a impact on fuel wood brought from forests. In Hoshangabad district of India, for example ‘Arhar’ (Cajanus cajan) and cotton cultivation, whose crop residues had earlier been used as fuel, were replaced by soya bean in a matter of about two decades thus increasing the pressure on forests for fuel. In many areas of wet evergreen forests in Karnataka State of India, the forest floor is swept to use leaf litter as manure for betel nut cultivation affecting adversely the productivity of forest soils. The area under betel nut has increased ten times in the last 2-3 decades in some parts of Karnataka.

             Normally, working plans are prepared for the management of forests in a forest division. But there is a need to look beyond the boundaries of a forest division to consider the developments outside. The national forest policies of the country have been aiming at increasing the forest and tree cover to 33 percent, which is possible only if the tree cultivation takes place outside state forests. Promotion of agro-forestry is necessary which inter alia will reduce the pressure on natural forests thus conserving the forest biodiversity.

            The revision of the National Forest Policy may be viewed as an opportunity to lay the foundation for a major shift towards ecologically based forest management in the country.