We know forests and wetlands are in jeopardy. Here’s what could save them
By Shekar Dattatri
NOT TOO long ago, most of India was clothed in forest. From the stately temperate forests of the lower Himalayas to the moist shola forests of the southern Western Ghats, and from the verdant mangrove forests of the Sunderbans to the Sal forests of central India, forests have evolved to fit every niche. But with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the West and the arrival of the industrious British on our shores, India’s forests were opened up to heavy exploitation.
The best hardwood trees were extracted and vast regions of old-growth forests converted to ‘useful’ plantations. The expanses of tea and teak monocultures that cloak the southern Western Ghats are examples of the havoc that was wreaked in a relatively short period. Post Independence, the ‘Grow More Food’ campaign and the subsequent push to feed a burgeoning population accelerated and expanded forest destruction.
Today, despite an oft-repeated national goal of 33 percent forest cover, the actual figure is perhaps less than 20 percent. Exaggerated claims of increase in forest cover are put out by the government every few years, but these claims usually include plantations and urban avenue trees, which cannot be considered as forest under any stretch of the imagination.
We would have virtually no forest left today if not for two far-reaching pieces of legislation that were enacted during the prime ministerial tenures of Indira Gandhi: the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980. The former has enabled the establishment of more than 650 Protected Areas across the country, and the latter has made it procedurally difficult for state governments to divert forestland for non-forestry purposes.
Sadly, however, the pressures on forests are growing at an alarming rate, even as the political will to preserve them has waned. Mining has emerged as the single biggest threat, turning verdant forests into irredeemable wastelands. Hundreds of proposals are placed before the government every month for diversion of more forestland for mines and other forms of ‘industrial development’. All the while, insidious forms of destruction, such as encroachments, land grants, illegal felling, expansion of highways and forest fires exact a heavy toll.
It is de rigueur today in many circles to regard forests merely as providers of livelihood to local people, thus justifying their existence. This blinkered view masks the vital fact that we are all — urban or rural, rich or poor — deeply dependent on the myriad ecosystem services that forests provide. For instance, Chennai, where I live, would shrivel up and die in summer if not for the Krishna water that the city’s reservoirs receive. Few realise that the Krishna river originates in the forests of Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra, and that two of its important tributaries, the Tunga and the Bhadra, originate in the rainforests of the Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka. In fact, virtually the entire human population of south India is dependent for its water and food security on the rivers that originate in the forests of the Western Ghats.
Therefore, a few things need urgent implementation:
• Reform the methodologies of the Forest Survey of India to enable accurate estimation of forest cover
• Bring more forests under the Protected Area network, to give them legal protection
• Prevent further fragmentation of existing forests
• Ban or limit the export of minerals and ores
• Bring more forest areas under the ‘no-go’ category to prevent destructive exploitation
While there is some realisation of the importance of forests in the public consciousness, the wetlands that dot the country are among the most overlooked habitats. Our lagoons, lakes and marshes host an incredible diversity of species, and provide valuable services such as groundwater recharging, water purification and flood control. They also provide livelihoods for millions of poor people. Yet, by and large, they are treated as dumping grounds for garbage, raw sewage, chemical- laden run-off from agricultural fields and industrial effluents. Every year, vast areas of marshland are filled up and ‘reclaimed’.
Unlike forests, which are controlled and managed by a single agency — the Forest Department of each state — the status of wetlands is very nebulous. While a few, which attract large numbers of waterfowl, have been declared as Protected Areas under the Wildlife Act, most are under the control of the Revenue Department, and are paid scant attention.
In the late 1980s, the Central government initiated a Wetland Conservation Programme in collaboration with various state governments. Under this project, more than 100 wetlands in 24 states have been identified for financial support for ecological management. Yet, without long-term studies and monitoring, or even specific protocols, any ‘management’ can be ad hoc at best.
The single most important thing we need now is a Wetland Conservation Act, which was proposed in a report by the National Forest Commission in 2006. Such an Act would pave the way for protecting, studying and ecologically managing our remaining wetlands.
A conservationist and a green communicator, Dattatri’s documentaries have brought about lasting changes on the ground
Author image by Ramnath Chandrasekhar