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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 13, March 25, 2023

Regenerating The Forest Ecosystem: Few Concerns | Suranjita Ray

Saturday 25 March 2023, by Suranjita Ray


As India enters a 25-year-long journey towards its centenary, policy makers must have greater responsibilities not only to enhance economic growth but also to ensure an inclusive and sustainable development. One of the major concerns is to prioritise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which aim to promote sustainable agriculture, conservation and regeneration of forests, combating desertification, reversing land degradation and biodiversity loss, and sustainable use of oceans, seas, and marine resources. Despite several conferences, summits, campaigns, education programmes and action plans at the international as well as national level that create awareness and generate consciousness to use planetary resources rationally, and be responsible to sustain and regenerate resources for the use by future generations, we find that increasing deforestation, burning of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum, global warming, emission of greenhouse gases/toxics into the food chain and underground water tables, depletion of ozone shield, excessive use of non-renewable resources, increasing drought, heat waves, melting of glaciers, floods, smog in the atmosphere, pollution of rivers and forest fires across the forest regions affect the entire eco-system, livelihood resources, and are threats to human life.

Therefore, some of environmental issues discussed in the G20 Summit in Bali in 2022 will remain important concerns in the Summit in 2023. While G20 Presidency 2023 provides India an opportunity to work out strategies to restore peace, harmony, stability and a shared prosperity based on the theme ‘Vasudahaiva Kutumbakam’ - ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’, it becomes important to delineate constructive efforts to conserve and restore the ecosystem. A series of meetings are being hosted to invest in sustainable lifestyles through LiFE (Life for Environment) aiming at arresting land degradation, enriching biodiversity, promoting a climate-resilient blue economy, encouraging resource efficiency and circular economy. The energy transition from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, capturing emissions, transition in transport, forest protection, marine conservation and preserving biodiversity are some of the critical measures that need to be prioritised in the development policies.

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created in 1988 assesses the impacts of climate change on ecosystems, biodiversity, and human communities at global and regional levels. It also reviews the vulnerabilities, capacities and constraints of the natural world and human societies to adapt to climate change and suggests how to develop climate policies. Though some of the initiatives in India to conserve the environment including the recent Green Development Pact prioritised in G20 with a roadmap of actions over the next decade to tackle climate change and international cooperation on data for development, we still have a long way to go to meet the target of SDGs by 2030.

Despite the Green Budget introduced in 2011-12 for the protection and regeneration of forests and a major ingenuity of the government to conserve and sustain the forest cover for a sustainable livelihood increasing deforestation became a serious concern at the 26th United Nations (UN) Climate Change Conference of the Parties in Glasgow in 2021. As large-scale deforestation resulted in increasing problems of climate change, it became important to accelerate action to achieve the goals of Paris Agreement (2015) and UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), 1994. More than 100 countries pledged to stop deforestation and conserve and regenerate forest by 2030 (also see Sinha, 2023: 13).

Since forests have a social, economic and ecological value, it is critical to conserve and regenerate the forest ecosystem for human well-being and social equity. However, several studies find huge gaps in the official data on increasing forest cover to compensate the loss of dense forest and the experiences at the local level/ground reality (also see Mazoomdar, 2023: 1, 9; Sinha, 2023: 13).

Mixing Plantations for Natural Forests: A Misstep

Though according to the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI) State of Forest Report (SFR) 2021, dense forest has increased from 10.88 per cent to 12.37 per cent between 1987 and 2021, several studies find that forest cover has declined in India from 10.88 per cent to 9.96 per cent during the same period (Mazoomdar, 2023: 1, 9). Similarly, while the FSI reported a gain of 2,462 square km in dense forest and 21,762 square km in overall forest between 2010 and 2021, the findings of Global Forest Watch, a World Resources Institute Platform, shows that India has lost 1,270 square km of natural forest during the same period (ibid). In fact, studies find that the loss of natural forests remains invisible as commercial plantations, orchards and village homesteads are included in the dense forest. The shade trees essential for tea plantations have also been counted as open forests. Despite the FAO’s definition of forest which excludes trees standing in agricultural production systems and agro-forestry systems when crops are grown under tree cover, the government emphasises on plantations to compensate the loss of natural forests. The data on an increase in dense forest is precisely because of inclusion of the mango orchards, coconut plantations of agro-forestry etc. that are exterior to India’s Recorded Forest Areas. An investigation by The Indian Express found that SFR 2021 labelled private plantations on encroached and cleared reserve forest land such as tea gardens, betel nut clusters, village homesteads, roadside trees, urban housing areas, VIP residences, parts of educational and medical institutes etc. as forest areas (ibid). The study argues that the patches which look green in the satellite images do not support a fraction of biodiversity associated with a forest. In fact, it is important to underscore that plantations cannot replace the loss of dense/natural forests.

Despite the fact that plantations are less efficient than natural forests in storing carbon di oxide and in supporting biodiversity, integrating conservation with development resulted in amendments in 2021 to the Forest Conservation Act,1980 that exempts certain activities from requiring permission for clearing forests and allowing raising and harvesting private plantations on forest land (Forest Conservation Rules, 2022 is analysed in the following section). Though the government reports claim that plantations reach the level of carbon stock of natural forests in 8 years, the study argues that since plantations are harvested more readily, it defeats the goals of stocking carbon in the long term. Further, as natural forests have evolved naturally to be diverse they support a lot more diverse biodiversity. On the other hand, plantation of trees of the same age are susceptible to fire pests and epidemics. And often they also act as barrier to regeneration of natural forest.

The UNFCCC has also expressed its concern for mixing plantations with natural forests. In 2018 it concluded that the data and information used by India in constructing its Forest Reference Level are partially transparent and not complete (also see Mazoomdar, 2023: 1, 9). It has sought for a more accurate estimation of carbon stocks. While India had pledged in 2015 to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover by 2030 as part of its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC), large forest areas have been lost due to various development projects. Amitabh Sinha argues that though the capacity of old trees to stock carbon-di -oxide gets saturated beyond a point, felling of trees that outpaces their natural regeneration is worrying. He finds how green certification in India has become a tool to bypass regulatory requirements for the export market of forest-based products in Europe and US worth Rs.4,000 to Rs.5,000 crore every year. An executive of a foreign certification body based in India stated that a green certification can be obtained in easily by paying a fee. Therefore there are suggestions by activists of forest rights including few forest officials that an indigenous system of certification will be simple, transparent and easy to adopt even by small farmers and tree growers and will also make available sustainably certified products for domestic markets (Sinha, 2023: 1-2).

However, we have seen that over the years, commercial exploitation of forests and large developmental projects have resulted in depletion and undermining of forests that disrupted the livelihood of people, in particular the tribal people (Ray, 2018a; 2018b; 2019a; 2019b). It is important to protect the symbiotic relationship between the tribal people and forests. The tribal people must have the right to protect, regenerate and develop forest, and it needs to be integrated in the conservation efforts.

Ignoring Communities in ‘Governing the Commons’

Since the forests remain an integral part of the tribal culture and economy, tribal people and forest dwellers continue to be morally responsible for preserving and sustaining the forests. As a tradition of faith, they worship the forests and tribal resistance has been growing all over the country to protect the forests and their rights to forest. Indigenous people and their communities, and other local communities, have a vital role in environmental management and development because of their knowledge and traditional practices. It is important to enhance traditional forest-related knowledge to develop sustainable forest management and conservation of all types of forest. The customary rights to forests alongside indigenous knowledge about traditional forestry practices can only be protected when tribal communities participate in the decision-making related to forest governance and forest protection at the local level. The PESA (Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas), Act 1996 which prohibits the state to make any law which is not in consonance with the customary law, the social, religious and community practices and traditions has to be implemented more rigorously.

Similarly, the order of the Supreme Court in 2013 which made the consent of the Gram Sabha/Village Council mandatory to acquire land in scheduled areas, is an important step that respects the customary rights of the tribals over the natural resources. For the first time an environmental referendum was conducted based on the directive of the Supreme Court to find out whether mining in the Niyamgiri hills will tantamount to an infringement of the religious, customary, community and individual rights of the tribals and forest-dwellers.

Therefore, undermining the role of the gram sabhas/village councils/communities in clearing forests is a matter of serious concern. The Forest Conservation Rules 2022, under India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, no longer require the consent of gram sabhas/village councils for development projects on forest land or for forest clearance (converting a forest area to a non-forest purpose). This not only contravenes the rights of the communities (which traditionally had access to forests) through the gram sabhas ‘to protect, regenerate or conserve or manage forest land’ guaranteed under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, but will also result in increased deforestation and decreased possibilities of mitigating climate change.

The consent of the gram sabhas/communities/local people is critical for diverting forest land for non-forest purposes/development projects (see also Tushar Dash, (Community Forest Rights — Learning and Advocacy); Kancha Kohli (Centre for Policy Research) on ‘The loss and creation of forests are intrinsically linked with how procedures for forest land diversion are enforced’; Roma Malik, (All India Union of Forest Working People, a national union of adivasi and Dalit communities) on ‘If it’s a question of saving the forests, then there are strong recommendations within the Forest Rights Act’ - all cited in Sushmita, 2022). C R Bijoy, (Campaign for Survival and Dignity) argues how both forest diversion and afforestation ‘irrevocably change the mountain ecology, and land use where local communities are excluded, livelihoods imperilled and the conservation agenda derailed even as the conservation aristocracy applauds the climate action efforts’ (ibid).

There are enough evidences to cite that Community Based Organisations and local institutions have been efficient in ‘governing the commons’ (Elinor Ostrom, 1990). The programmes such as watershed management - Pani Panchayat, Joint Forest Management (JFM) - Van Panchayat involved local people and committees in managing resources in the 1990s. More indigenous method to enable the illiterate people to keep records of natural resources endowments, time use patterns, and community relations, not only mobilised resources for local level development but also made the administrative process transparent and accountable through public hearing, jan sunwais, and social auditing that have exposed multifaceted nature of corruption and its practice.

The Environment Movements such as Chipko Movement to save forests, Save Silent Valley to save the valley from flooding of hydroelectric projects in the evergreen tropical forest in Palakkad district of Kerala, Anti-Tehri Dam Movement in Uttarakhand, Narmada Bachao Andolan, other Jangal Bachao Andolan in Bihar, Odisha and Jharkhand, Appiko Movement in Uttara Kannada district of Karnataka Province in southern India, and several other Green Movements to protect forest-cover and prevent diversion of forests for non-forest purposes/development projects, are important. Ramchandra Guha argues that Chipko Movement had a powerful message against the violation of customary rights by state forestry which focused on a wide range of issues in forest policy and the debates on environment (Guha, 2000). 

Undermining Role of Women in Conserving Forests

Women have always played an important role to save the forests. Drawing insights from the Chipko Movement in 1873, women continue to struggle for their rights to forest in several regions of Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Jharkhand, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal, Assam, Tripura, Himanchal Pradesh, Kerala, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh (Ray, 2019b). They lead the protests against large hectares of forestland across the country which have been diverted for non-forestry activities. The tribal women in several states have been active in the protests against the exploration of mineral resources, increasing land acquisition and destruction of forests by the Mining/development projects. They have formed informal groups to replant the traditional crops and conserve the forests to meet their diverse food habits (Ray, 2018a). They argue that dispossession of the traditional crops has resulted in increasing malnutrition and hunger of their children.

Women from the traditional forest communities across states play an important role in All India Union of Forest Working People, a union of Adivasis and Dalit communities, to collectively protect forests from poachers and encroachers and protect community forest governance. They have formed Women Forest Rights Action Committee to protect community rights over forest land and its produce. Studies based on ethnographic field survey enable us to understand that the tribal women have a long tradition of conserving forests. Ever since the forest departments have diverted large acres of forest land for plantations like teak, eucalyptus, bamboo, which make forests a good source of income for the government, the traditional crops no longer grow in the forest land (Ray, 2019b). Women protest compensatory afforestation through plantations of trees, particularly monocultures, which can never replace the diverse, complex flora and fauna which is destroyed in forests. Women actively participate in conservation and management of the forest. Women have taken the initiative to protect their forest rights by forming a Centre for Forest Rights Information to generate awareness about FRA, 2006, and community rights over forests (Ray, 2019a). The federation of women organizations should strengthen women groups and their participation in the decentralized community based forest conservation and governing forest resources which will protect forest rights.

Voicing environmental concerns, climate change activists across the country oppose coal mining, thermal projects, and criticise mainstream energy choices and development trajectories which are detrimental to the environment. They unmasked how the development projects of the state that handed over vast areas of natural resources such as mining, fertile land, water and forest reserves to the corporate sector and international finance capital to secure industrial and economic growth, resulted in deprivation and alienation of large mass of the villagers from their livelihood resources.

Several environmental movements at various levels (local, state, regional, national, and international) campaign for sustainable development. Green Movement and Conservation Movement demand protection and conservation of the environment that aims at safeguarding human rights. Thus, various climate change activists, CSOs and action groups, people’s rights groups such as the All India Forum of Forest Movements, National Advocacy Council for Development of Indigenous People, Bhumi Adhikar Andolan, Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Environment Action Group, Nature Conservation Society, and National Alliance for People’s Movement argue for the need to protect and conserve the natural resources for securing the right to life and livelihood which is a human right. They argue that degrading and shrinking forest cover across the country is because of the mining industries, timber industries, development of tourism industries, wildlife sanctuaries, and biodiversity parks that also disturb the wildlife. Some of the recent environmental movements such as Climate Action Strike following Greta Thunberg’s call for mass protests in 2019 by students across metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, and Chennai staged peaceful protests. Various movements on social media are part of #RighttoBreathe Protest due to the plummeted Air Quality Index (AQI) as toxic smog chokes metropolitan cities violating the right to health.

Adivasis and forest dwellers have always conserved energy and sustained soil fertility and biodiversity for generations. A coherent policy for enhancing the status of forests alongside agro-ecological system by integrating patterns of land-use including forest land, irrigation, and pastures is therefore important (Ray, 2018b). Rainwater harvesting and conservation of water, conservation and sustenance of mineral resources, developing alternate sources of power, afforestation, preserving wetlands, and protecting against soil degradation, will go a long way in resolving the long-term scarcity of common resources. Thus, there is a need to protect the rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities to conserve and regenerate the forest ecosystem for a sustainable livelihood. It is important not to see the public policies on biodiversity conservation and community-based conservation as binaries.

(I thank the internal reviewers of Mainstream Weekly for their comments on the earlier paper which contributed in revising the paper).

(Author: Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science in the Department of Political Science. She can be contacted at suranjitaray[at]


  • Guha, Ramchandra, 2000: Environmentalism: A Global History, Oxford University Press.
  • Sinha, Amitabh, 2023: ‘Red Flags India’s Green Certification Under Cloud’ in The Indian Express, page 1-2, 4 March
  • Sinha, Amitabh, 2023: ‘How Forest Certification Works’ in The Indian Express, page 13, 4 March.
  • Mazoomdar, Joy, 2023: ‘Why Forest Cover Data Matters In Chase for Growth and Carbon Targets, Questions Swirl Over Forests on Paper’, in The Indian Express, page 9, 2 March.
  • Mazoomdar, Joy, 2023: ‘The Case For Open, Verifiable Forest Data’ in The Indian Express, page 9, 2 March.
  • Mazoomdar, Joy, 2023: ‘Govt Definition Counts VIP Homes, Tea gardens, Rail Yards, Plantation’ and ‘VIP Houses, RBI building, AIIMS, IIT are Forests on Forest Cover Map’ in The Indian Express, page 1,9, 2 March
  • Ostrom, Elinor, 1990: Governing The Commons
  • Ray, Suranjita, 2018a: ‘Women and Forest Rights’ in Women’s Watch by NFIW, April-June 2018, National Federation of Indian Women, page 11-13.
  • Ray, Suranjita, 2018b: ‘Alienation of Rights to Forest’ in Mainstream VOL LVI No 30, July 14, page 11-15.
  • Ray, Suranjita, 2019a: ‘Interpreting Forest Rights Act’ in Women’s Watch by NFIW, January-March, National Federation of Indian Women, page 30-32.
  • Ray, Suranjita, 2019b: ‘Interpreting FRA to Uphold Justice’ in Mainstream VOL LVII No 15, March 30, page 7-11.
  • Sushmita, 2022 Analysis: Legislation eroding forests rights could compromise India’s carbon sinks, 20 December, (assessed on 17 March 2023)
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