Union Minister for Environment and Forest Jairam Ramesh said on Sunday that the Union government proposed to announce a "Green India Mission" shortly to increase the forest cover and quality of forests in the country.

Inaugurating the Southern Forest Ministers' Conference here, the Minister said that formal approval for the project was expected on February 22 at a committee to be chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Mr. Ramesh said that the Mission would aim at improving the quality of five million hectares of degraded forests and bringing another five million hectares of non-forest areas under forest cover through social and farm forestry.

He said that the Mission would be implemented with the participation of grama sabhas, women's self help groups and community organisations. A legal entity in the form of joint management committee would be formed for carrying out the programme.

He said that the proportion of open degraded forests was as high as 40 per cent in South India. The same problem was also there in other States. Regeneration of these forests could not be attempted through traditional ways of protecting the forests from biotic interference. No government could keep men and cattle out of the forests of India. So, ways of regenerating forests, recognising biotic pressures, had to be devised. Along with that, the de-greening of India had to be stopped if afforestation programmes were to have any effect. "We cannot promote programmes that cause large scale deforestation."

The Minister said that the government proposed to bring out a package for the Eastern Ghats, recognising the need for economic development of the local communities. The ecologically fragile areas of Western and Eastern Ghats were under great threat. A panel chaired by Madhav Gadgil had been appointed to draw up a strategy on development in ecologically fragile zones in the Western Ghats. There are areas where developmental activity should be permitted in a regulated manner and areas which should be fully protected on the ghats. While coal-based power projects were a great threat to Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats faced pressures to open up for mining.

Mr. Ramesh said that mangroves and wetlands were disappearing in all States, particularly the South Indian States. The Mangroves in South Indian States had shrunk to eight per cent over the past 25 to 30 years. There was need for renewed focus on regenerating the mangroves in the South. Mangroves should not be used for purposes other than intended. The proposal for cricket stadium in Kochi, Kerala, in an area with mangroves was a classic case. The question was whether cricket or protection of mangroves was important on the long run.

He noted that the wetlands in Tamil Nadu were being cornered by the real estate business while pissiculture was destroying wetlands in Andhra Pradesh. "Wet lands are not waste lands. They performed ecologically a very important function and catered to the security of the local communities."

Kerala Forest Minister Benoy Viswam presided and Karnataka Minister for Forests and Small Scale Industries C. H. Vijayashankar delivered the key note address. The conference will mainly deliberate on human-wild life conflict, best practices for conservation and emergent conservation challenges.