Government of India, India, Stories

Data: Government reports a reduction in Forest Land encroachment while questions remain over data reliability


Data related to forest area encroachment is updated by the states and there is no frequency for its measurement. While some states do perform regular exercises regarding encroachment, some states do not.  As per a recent answer in the Lok Sabha, the forest land under encroachment has reduced significantly. However, the reliability of this data is questionable because of the lack of clear guidelines & definitions. 

Forests have always been integral to mankind throughout history. In pre-independent India, the forests were treated as the primary source of timber and wood for railway expansion, which allowed the spread of the British territory to the hinterlands. Looking at the significant destruction of forests during the British era, the post-independent rulers had a different vision for forests. Accordingly, the first National Forest Policy (NFP) was formulated in 1952, which outlined its objectives through six paramount needs of the country. It called to achieve a balance between using forests for economic development and adopting measures to ensure that the land deterioration shall be least. It aims to maintain one-third of India’s land area under forests.

The decades following the 1950s were riddled with multiple environmental disasters, which ignited environmental awareness across the globe. The ‘Silent Spring’, written by Rachel Carson in 1962, talked about the harmful effects of indiscriminate use of pesticides on humankind and soon became a rallying point for environmental governance in the 1960s. This was followed by the first UN Environmental Conference in Stockholm in 1972 and a series of international treaties for environmental justice were adopted later. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission report, ‘Our Common Future’ highlighted the concept of sustainable development. It echoed the idea that the environment should also be an approach towards the development, and it is an issue of social justice, and an integrated strategy should be adopted for managing the commons.

Amidst all these global as well as regional developments, the Indian Government revised the NFP in 1988. The NFP 1988 was envisioned for maintaining environmental stability by preservation, restoration and promoting tree cover through forestry programs and afforestation. It also called for actively creating a people’s movement involving women to reduce the existing pressures on forests. It clearly acknowledged the rights and concessions of tribals and gives them the first preference on forest produce. It calls for involving tribal people to associate with the forest development corporations.

The NFP 1988 could not fully achieve its objectives. The government had come up with the Draft National Forest Policy, 2018 which has not been materialized to date. This draft had invited serious criticism for several of its initiatives. Interestingly, this draft NFP talks very little about the rights of the tribals and the concessions provided to them but places heavy emphasis on maximizing forest productivity. The non-consultation of Ministry of Tribal affairs during the preparation of this draft as highlighted by the Parliamentary standing committee is testimony to the lack of focus on the tribal population. 

In this story, we look at the trends in the forest cover, with a specific focus on the encroachment of forest lands. The information is primarily sourced and collated from the data provided by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change (MoEFCC) in the parliament questions from 2004, 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2022.

Forest Cover Since 1987

The NFP 1952 aimed at achieving one-third of India’s total area to be under forest cover. However, even after 70 years of the first NFP, the target is not met. The forest cover has been hovering between 19% and 23%. Since 2013, the forest cover has been growing gradually, albeit minimally. The top five states that improved the forest cover in 2021 over 2019 are Andhra Pradesh (647 Square Kilometres), Telangana (632 sq. Km), Odisha (537 sq. Km), Karnataka (155 sq. Km) and Jharkhand (110 sq. Km). The states that have reported reduced forest cover over 2019 are Arunachal Pradesh (257 sq.Km), Manipur (249 sq. Km), Nagaland (235 sq. Km), Mizoram (186 sq. Km) and Meghalaya (73 sq. Km). Overall, a total of 17 States and Union Territories have forest cover above 33% of their geographical area, as per the latest data released by the government. 

However, one must be careful in taking the forest cover at its face value. It is essential to look at the key changes that each assessment of forest surveys made. These changes could be in the definition of forest cover, the type of technology and methodology used, unverifiable data, and so on. 

It is ironic that there is no legal definition of what exactly constitutes forest’. The Supreme Court in T.N. Godavarman Thirumulkpad vs. Union of India & Ors (Writ Petition (Civil) No. 202 of 1995) clarified that ‘forest land’ should not only be understood in the dictionary sense but any area recorded as forest by the government irrespective of ownership. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) which conducts the biennial ‘State of forest’ surveys defines forests as, ‘lands that have a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent when projected vertically on the horizontal ground, within a minimum areal extent of one hectare.’ It does not talk about ownership or land use.  This issue was also examined by the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, Environment and Forests in its 324th report, submitted in 2019. Such confusing definitions could lead to different interpretations and can have dire consequences.

Encroachment pattern from 2004

Before we look at the data of encroachment of forest land across the states, it is important to understand that:

  • Management and protection of forest area is the responsibility of respective State/Union Territories and any action as per existing rules is taken by the concerned state/Union Governments.
  • Encroachment data is updated by the states and there is no frequency for its measurement. While some states do perform regular exercises regarding encroachment, some states do not. 
  • There is no clear definition as to what constitutes an ‘encroachment’. In the absence of a clear definition and the nature and character of encroachments, the data presented should be analysed with caution.  More on this is available in the Lok Sabha debates from 2005. 
  • The data presented in the following chart is entirely sourced from the Parliamentary questions. One must be careful in interpreting the data. For example, the data in a 2015 parliamentary question might contain the state data from 2011 which has not been updated further. 

As per the data provided in various parliament answers, the cumulative encroached forest land in 2004 was 13.43 lakh hectares. This increased to 17.94 lakh hectares in 2007, which further increased to 19.53 lakh hectares in 2013. This decreased to 15.16 lakh hectares in 2016, which reduced to 12.81 lakh hectares in 2019 and to 7.41 lakh hectares in 2022.  These are the cumulative figures provided by the government. 

Encroachment trend at the state level

The area of encroached forest land varies widely across the states. While some states do have minimal variation over the years, some states have reported significant changes over the years. For the following chart, data of eight states has been considered. Assam stands out as the state that has seen considerable encroachment of forest land. States like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Karnataka have reported a drastic reduction in encroachment in 2022 compared to 2016. There is no consistent increase or decrease of encroachments across the various states.

It must be noted that if any state has two similar values for two different years, it can be interpreted as the lack of updated data. As mentioned earlier, in the absence of a proper definition for encroachment, the assumption that the data of all these states refers to something similar could be misleading.

Share of states in total encroached forest land:

These 8 states (Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Kerala, and Madhya Pradesh) account for more than 60% of the total encroached forest land in the country. The share of Andhra Pradesh has been consistently falling from 2004 till 2019, while Assam’s share has been growing from 2013 to 2022. Madhya Pradesh was the highest contributor for 2013, 2016 and 2019 respectively. Kerala’s share has always been less than 1% except in 2013 when the share rose to 2.1%. Another state that has shown considerable improvement in decreasing its share is Chhattisgarh, whose share went from 11.2% in 2004 to 1% in 2022. 

There may be other states that contributed more in either of the years, but for the sake of data consistency compared to other states, these eight states have been considered for the analysis. 

Featured Image: Forest Land encroachment


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