Tropical Deforestation and Forest Degradation: A Case Study from India

Meenakshi Joshi[1] and Preet Pal Singh


In tropical areas, forests are increasingly subjected to deforestation and degradation with adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts. Widespread forest degradation in developing countries remains poorly understood and quantified. Degraded forest constitutes a considerable portion of forestlands here. In India, degraded forests constitute 41% of the total forest cover. Realizing the need for conservation and regeneration, several programmes have been implemented at the government and non-government levels. Following the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act in 1980, diversion of forestland declined drastically to around 15 500 ha per annum from 150 000 ha per annum prior to 1980. Total area under forest has nearly stabilized at around 64 million ha. Thus restoration of degraded lands assumes priority in planning and implementation. The present paper analyses change in forest composition because of selective overexploitation, loss of natural regeneration, low growing stock, productivity and also because of the current initiatives at the government and non-government levels dealing with deforestation and forest degradation.


Deforestation has occurred in the tropics throughout history.29,40,39 Accelerating recently, particularly in areas of seasonally deciduous tropical forests.13,31,16,8 From 11,600Mha, the tropical rain forest reduced to 938 Mha by 1975 amounting to a reduction of 41.4%. 28

India with a national territory of 329Mha in South Asia contains 63.73 Mha of forest cover.11 The forest comprises four major types and sixteen subtypes.5 Tropical forests account for 86% of the total legally defined forest area in the country.34 India contributes about 8% of species to world’s biodiversity.32 A network of 586 Protected Areas (PAs) has been established.20 However these do not represent all biogeographic zones.1

India is a poor country; with 44.2% of population below US$1 (1993 PPP) per day.37 About 60% of the population is engaged in agriculture. The agriculture land is fragmented into uneconomic parcels and overused.24 Growing population, widespread poverty, limited employment opportunities in agricultural and industrial sector has resulted in heavy pressure on forests, primarily due to unsustainable extraction of fuel wood and over-grazing resulting in forest degradation. As per wood budget for 1996, sustainable production of fuel wood from the forest was 17 million tonnes and 98 million tonnes from farm forestry and other areas.25 There was a net deficit of 86 million tonnes of fuelwood, which as a compulsion, being removed from the forests. Forests have five times more pressure than they can withstand. An estimated 100 million cow units graze in forests annually, sustainable level being 31 million.33 Additionally, graziers collect an estimated 175-200 million tonnes of green fodder annually.18 Grazing was also reported in 67% of the national parks and 83% of the wildlife sanctuaries.30

Deforestation And Forest Degradation

Deforestation is conversion of any forest to other uses e.g. croplands, pastures, or urban land. Degradation refers to reduction in productivity and/or diversity of a forest due to unsustainable harvesting (removals exceeding replacements, changes in species composition), fire (except for fire dependent forest systems), pests, diseases, removal of nutrients and pollution/climate change (changes in productivity, total organic matter, and forest composition). 32

Trends: Around 3000 B.C, nearly 80% of India was forested.38, 14 Subsequent invasions changed entire landscape. First era in deforestation was shortly after absorption into British Empire.36 The 1894 British Forest Policy accorded priority to commercial exploitation, state custodianship and permanent cultivation.

Second major deforestation was in 1940s with demands of World War II and transition to independence for India and Pakistan in 1947.36 The National Forest Policy 1952 envisaged increasing forest areas to one third of the total land area, but was difficult to implement. Forestland had to be used for development. In late 1950s and early 1960s diversions occurred for farming under the ‘Grow More Food’ programme. 1970 to 1980 witnessed acute shortage of fuel wood and fodder in rural areas resulting in further exploitation. In addition, developmental refugees were resettled in forest areas.

Data for post 1980 period (Fig 1) shows that rate of diversion of forest to non-forestry activities declined to around 15,5000 ha per annum post 1980 as compared to 150,000 ha per annum prior to 1980 (Table-1). 18 Total area under forests has nearly stabilized at around 64 Mha. Thus restoration of degraded lands assumes priority in planning and implementation.

Table-1: Diversion Of Forestlands To Other Uses

Land Use




1951-1995 Total minimum Areas diverted (Mha)

Area (Mha)

% of diverted Area

Area (Mha)

% of diverted Area

Area (Mha)

% of diverted Area








River Valley Projects



Data not available




Industries &Townships






Transmission Lines & Roads



Data not available





Data not available












Source: a Forest Survey of India 1988 and Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education 1995 b Derived from National Forestry Action Plan, Unpublished data c Regularization of Encroachments in Madhya Pradesh in 1990 d Clearance for Field Firing Range in Madhya Pradesh in 1990.

Figure I Forest Land Diversion (Post 1980).

Source: Compendium of Environment Statistics, 2000. Government of India.

Forest degradation: Widespread forest degradation in developing countries remains poorly understood and quantified.23 important parameters indicating degradation are analyzed:

Change in forest composition: Shifting cultivation, fires and over-grazing have resulted in elimination of susceptible species and abundance of selected tolerant species. Preponderance of teak (Tectona grandis) and sal (Shorea robusta) in the deciduous forest and chir (Pinus roxburgii) in the sub-tropical regions of India is attributed to their inherent gregariousness and resistance to injuries from fire and grazing.32 Concentration of human settlements in mid-mountain region (about 1000-2000 m elevation) and fire spreading from chir forests have reduced area under banj oak (Quercus leucotrichophora) in Central Himalayan region.27 Bamboo has been wiped out from many parts of central India because of overexploitation, disregard for its regeneration and its extreme sensitivity to fire and grazing.32

Table II depicts changes in area of different forest types from 1987 to 1995. Conversion of evergreen and semi-evergreen forests to deciduous and thorn indicates increased human disturbance leading to secondary forests formation.3 Depicted increase in overall area under different forests is primarily due to inclusion of private forests in Uttar Pradesh and community owned forests in northeast.

Table-II: Extent and change of different forest types from 1987 to 1995

Forest type

Area in m ha (% of total)

Change (%)



Tropical wet evergreen

5.1 (8.0)

4.5 (5.8)

-0.62 (12.10)

Tropical semi evergreen

2.6 (4.1)

1.9 (2.5)

-0.74 (28.03)

Tropical moist deciduous

23.7 (37.0)

23.3 (30.3)

-0.40 (1.68)

Littoral and Swamp

0.4 (0.6)

0.7 (0.9)

+0.30 (75.00)

Tropical dry deciduous

18.7 (28.6)

29.4 (38.2)

+10.70 (57.22)

Tropical thorn

1.7 (2.6)

5.2 (6.7)

+3.50 (205.88)

Tropical dry evergreen

0.1 (0.2)

0.1 (0.1)

-0.04 (28.57)

Sub-tropical broad-leaved hill forest

0.3 (0.4)

0.3 (0.4)

+0.02 (7.14)

Sub-tropical pine forest

4.2 (6.6)

3.7 (5.0)

-0.54 (12.73)

Sub-tropical dry evergreen


0.2 (0.2)

-1.05 (84.0)

Montane wet temperate

2.3 (3.6)

1.6 (2.0)

-0.74 (31.62)

Himalayan moist temperate

2.2 (3.4)

2.6 (3.4)

+0.40 (18.18)

Himalayan dry temperate

0.0 (0.0)

0.2 (0.2)

+0.17 (566.67)

Sub-alpine and alpine

1.9 (2.9)

3.3 (4.3)

+1.44 (77.42)




+12.40 (19.19)

Source: Ministry of Environment and Forest 1999.

Loss of natural regeneration: Adequate natural regeneration indicates well-managed and healthy forest. Over-grazing and repeated fires eventually affect relatively hardy species and their ability to regenerate. Severe impounding from hooves of animals result in soil compaction and imperviousness. Fertility is also adversely impacted due to organic matter destruction. Majority fires are deliberate, facilitating collection of minor forest produce such as ‘mahua’ (Madhuca indica) and ‘sal’ (Shorea robusta) seeds. It also promotes new flush of grass or ‘tendu’ leaves (Diospyros melanoxylon) used for rolling ‘bidis’ (country made cigarettes). An FSI sample survey in 1995 found annual fires affecting 53-54 percent of forest areas. Of this, 9% of the area is frequently affected and 44.2 percent occasionally. Natural regeneration is either absent or inadequate in 53 percent of the country’s forest.19 Further, the number of states in which the extent of regeneration was high decreased between 1987-1995 indicating progressive degradation.32, 11, 10

Low growing stock: FAO estimates 73 t/ha of woody biomass in natural forests in India, low as compared to 82 and 109 t/ha in tropical Asia and World respectively.7 Calculation of biomass densities for various forest types/strata for 1995 for canopy densities of >70%, 40-70% and 10-40% indicate that forest with canopy density of 40-70% and 10-40% show average growing stock as 74.1% and 28.2% respectively, of the growing stock with canopy density of more than 70% (Fig II).10 This shows that forest degradation lowers growing stock significantly and is important in any forest management strategy.

Fig II. Growing Stock under different canopy density.

Source: Forest Survey of India 1995.

Low productivity: Forest productivity is net annual increment per unit forest area. Current forest productivity (1.37 cu m/ha, calculated based on net annual increment of 87.62 million cu m and forest cover of 63.7 M ha) is low in comparison to global average of 2.1 cu m/ha/yr. Based on Paterson’s index and accounting for biotic interference, productivity of these forests would range from 1.35 cu m/ha/yr in arid regions of India to 7.66 cu m/ha/yr in humid regions.26 Unable to meet demands of a growing population, unsustainable usage of forests is further lowering productivity and growing stock.

Ecorestoration Initiatives

Government initiatives: National Forestry Action Programme, 1999, envisages the following: Firstly rehabilitating and increasing the productivity of 31Mha of degraded forests; secondly increasing area under forest and tree cover (29.7Mha) to 33% of the total. Out of the 31Mha degraded forestlands about 15.5Mha have natural rootstocks, which can be regenerated by proper protection and thus ideally suited for management under Joint Forest Management systems (JFM). Remaining 15.5Mha, with depleted rootstocks, require technology-based plantation. For national objective of 33% area under forest/tree cover, additional area of 29.7Mha has to be brought under plantations. This includes 25.4Mha of degraded non-forestlands and 4-5Mha of farmlands. This requires afforestation of 60Mha in the next 20 years at the rate of 3Mha against current rate of 1.2 Mha annually.18

Private sector plantations and farm forestry: NFP 1988 altered government strategy regarding raw material supply to wood based industry, providing a new approach for growing raw materials through an industry farmer nexus. For meeting raw material requirements, industry promoted partnership initiatives expanding agro forestry and farm forestry on non-forestlands with credit to farmers provided by National Bank for Agricultural and Rural Development. Smallholdings (<1.5 ha) of farmers opting for farm forestry and Land Ceiling Act limiting the area under control by a private entity are constraining expansion of these arrangements. These need addressing to enhance private investment.18

Removal of subsidies: High subsidies caused indiscriminate exploitation of forests. Leasing forestlands to industry without creating stakes in their future productivity developed indifference for sustainable extraction. Since late 1970s subsidy to the industry has been gradually reduced.33

Establishment of protected areas: Currently 4.7% of total geographic area is under PA network, but is not representative of all biogeographic zones.1 National wildlife Action Plan 2002-2016 proposes to increase it to 10%, which in densely populated India is not easy. Creation of new categories of reserves viz. Conservation and Community Reserves is on the anvil. Ecodevelopment approach has been adopted for promoting symbiotic relationship between forest dwellers and resource. India Ecodevelopment project is currently being implemented in seven PAs.

Joint Forest Management NFP 1988, stresses community participation in conservation. JFM involves institutional arrangements involving local people for jointly protecting and managing forest with government agencies on a benefit-sharing basis. About 63,000 JFM Committees in 27 states are protecting about 14.25Mha of degraded forests.20 External aid in JFM has been about Rs. 42.2 billion in 1990’s with major funders being World Bank, OECF-Japan, DFID-UK, SIDA-Sweden, EEC, UNDP and Germany.

Voluntary Participation: Successful examples of voluntary involvement in eco-restoration are available from different parts of the country. The National Tree Grower’s Cooperative Federation is an example, made possible by organizing village level Tree Grower’s Cooperative Societies in states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Orissa, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and making available research, financial and extension facilities to them. GandhiVan, revival of river Aravari are other instances, though small but impacting people’s lives in a big way.19

Media and judiciary: India enshrined in her constitution {Art 48A and 51A(g)} a commitment to environmental protection.2 In recent times, judiciary delivered judgements linking Right to Life (article21) to clean and healthy environment. T.N Godavarnam Supreme Court judgement resulted in banning all unregulated ‘green fellings’ in northeast India.12 Media has been an active player in all these.


Policy changes and legislations brought down diversion of forests and total area under forests has nearly stabilized at around 64 million hectares. As such, deforestation is not an important consideration while formulating policy. Restoration of degraded lands assumes priority in planning and implementation. Most remaining forests in India (45.8%) are secondary, arising after significant disturbance through large and small-scale extraction activities. These continue to be subjected to increasing local extraction pressures with growing population, industrial and urban demands.

Urgent need to develop appropriate management strategies exists to reduce pressure; promote sustainable use of remaining natural forests; rehabilitation, regeneration and development of degraded lands. This would go a long way in achieving national objective of maintaining one third of total land area under forests.


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[1] Indian Forest Service Probationer, Indira Gandhi National Forest Academy, Dehradun, India.105/1-4, New Colony, Ballupur, Dehradun, India. Tel: 91-135-627368, 76449; Email: [email protected]; [email protected]