India’s Green Verge

By Chiranjib Haldar

The biennial India’s State of Forest Report 2021 has grabbed eyeballs among policy planners, environmentalists and citizens. Numerically, India has recorded an increase of 1,540 sq km in its forest cover, which many citizens & some ecology cynics have been lauding as India’s progress in the right direction. But a thorough analysis of the figures and growth in numbers of our forest cover reveals a myopic scenario. Our forest expanse has increased by just 1540 sq km in two years, albeit due to plantation and agroforestry. And if we delve into the findings, there is not much to cheer about because ‘forest cover’ translates to any piece of land measuring a hectare or more with a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent. This covers all land, irrespective of legal ownership and usage. So, the report does not mean only those areas recorded as pristine forests in government records.
Before assessing the key takeaways from the Forest Report, it is pertinent to note that India’s total forest cover is 713,789 sq km or 21.71 per cent of our total geographical area. As per the National Forest Policy, 1988 India’s goal has been to bring one-third or 33 per cent of its geographical area under forest cover. This was also one of the key targets enlisted in the Strategy for New [email protected] document released in December 2018 by the NITI Aayog. India has faltered on a number of parameters. As many as 11 states have actually lost their forest cover.
The Forest Survey lists four categories of forests as very dense with canopy density of 70 per cent or more, moderately dense with canopy density between 40 and 70 per cent, open with canopy density between 10 and 40 per cent and scrubs which have a canopy density of less than 10 per cent. The first category or pristine natural forests account for just 3.04 per cent of our total forest cover. As much as 55,430 hectares of woodlands across the country was approved for non-forestry use under the Forest (Conservation) Act,1980 between 2018 and 2021, according to data presented by the Union Ministry of Environment.
Thus, India’s forest cover surge is a curated version and not as rosy as it sounds. The quintet of states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Karnataka and Jharkhand – which have actually contributed the lion’s share to the net increase in forest cover have done via plantations and agroforestry. In the past decade (2011-2021), the country has actually slashed 4.3 per cent of its area under moderately dense forests. According to ecologists, it is disappearing of these moderately dense forests nestled close to human settlements and hamlets that bleed the environment most. We need to wrest this immediately. Environmentalists have been highlighting this threat since future amendments to the Forest Act,1980 may further intensify diversion of forest land for non-forest use.
India’s mountainous states, already bearing the brunt of climate change have also shrunk in their forest cover. Jammu and Kashmir has lost very dense forest canopies and only marginally increased its commercial plantations. Himachal Pradesh has also reduced its open and moderately dense canopies, especially those close to human habitat. Mapping the climate change hotspots in the country to future time period scenarios, the report predicts grim scenarios. It projects Himalayan states and union territories like Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand recording average rise in temperatures and simultaneous decrease in average rainfall. And the report forecasts an increase in average rainfall in North Eastern states too and peninsular India.
Not everything is hunky-dory for those apprehensive of our fragile environment and ecology. Every North Eastern state, traditionally flag bearers of green expanses, has been consistently losing forest cover. The current report and the preceding 2019 Forest Report also highlight this. Shifting cultivation practised in many North Eastern states and unplanned development agenda are reasons attributed for this decline. Equally worrisome is an overall decadal decline in forest cover across India’s 52 tiger reserves and its sole Lion Conservation Area of Gir in Gujarat. Our two most wetland populous corridors of Sunderbans in West Bengal and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh have also witnessed a waning of their green spans in recent years. Forests are the biggest terrestrial carbon reservoirs, but become a source of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases if they are destroyed. Appropriate mitigation measures to protect our forestry and biodiversity are the need of the hour.
 The biennial India’s State of Forest Report 2021 has grabbed eyeballs among policy planners, environmentalists and citizens. Numerically, India has recorded an increase of 1,540 sq km in its forest cover, which many citizens & some ecology cynics have been lauding as India’s progress in the right direction. But a thorough analysis of the figures and growth in numbers of our forest cover reveals a myopic scenario. Our forest expanse has increased by just 1540 sq km in two years, albeit due to plantation and agroforestry. And if we delve into the findings, there is not much to cheer about because ‘forest cover’ translates to any piece of land measuring a hectare or more with a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent. This covers all land, irrespective of legal ownership and usage. So, the report does not mean only those areas recorded as pristine forests in government records.Before assessing the key takeaways from the Forest Report, it is pertinent to note that India’s total forest cover is 713,789 sq km or 21.71 per cent of our total geographical area. As per the National Forest Policy, 1988 India’s goal has been to bring one-third or 33 per cent of its geographical area under forest cover. This was also one of the key targets enlisted in the Strategy for New [email protected] document released in December 2018 by the NITI Aayog. India has faltered on a number of parameters. As many as 11 states have actually lost their forest cover.
The Forest Survey lists four categories of forests as very dense with canopy density of 70 per cent or more, moderately dense with canopy density between 40 and 70 per cent, open with canopy density between 10 and 40 per cent and scrubs which have a canopy density of less than 10 per cent. The first category or pristine natural forests account for just 3.04 per cent of our total forest cover. As much as 55,430 hectares of woodlands across the country was approved for non-forestry use under the Forest (Conservation) Act,1980 between 2018 and 2021, according to data presented by the Union Ministry of Environment.
Thus, India’s forest cover surge is a curated version and not as rosy as it sounds. The quintet of states – Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Karnataka and Jharkhand – which have actually contributed the lion’s share to the net increase in forest cover have done via plantations and agroforestry. In the past decade (2011-2021), the country has actually slashed 4.3 per cent of its area under moderately dense forests. According to ecologists, it is disappearing of these moderately dense forests nestled close to human settlements and hamlets that bleed the environment most. We need to wrest this immediately. Environmentalists have been highlighting this threat since future amendments to the Forest Act,1980 may further intensify diversion of forest land for non-forest use.
India’s mountainous states, already bearing the brunt of climate change have also shrunk in their forest cover. Jammu and Kashmir has lost very dense forest canopies and only marginally increased its commercial plantations. Himachal Pradesh has also reduced its open and moderately dense canopies, especially those close to human habitat. Mapping the climate change hotspots in the country to future time period scenarios, the report predicts grim scenarios. It projects Himalayan states and union territories like Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand recording average rise in temperatures and simultaneous decrease in average rainfall. And the report forecasts an increase in average rainfall in North Eastern states too and peninsular India.
Not everything is hunky-dory for those apprehensive of our fragile environment and ecology. Every North Eastern state, traditionally flag bearers of green expanses, has been consistently losing forest cover. The current report and the preceding 2019 Forest Report also highlight this. Shifting cultivation practised in many North Eastern states and unplanned development agenda are reasons attributed for this decline. Equally worrisome is an overall decadal decline in forest cover across India’s 52 tiger reserves and its sole Lion Conservation Area of Gir in Gujarat. Our two most wetland populous corridors of Sunderbans in West Bengal and Kanha in Madhya Pradesh have also witnessed a waning of their green spans in recent years. Forests are the biggest terrestrial carbon reservoirs, but become a source of Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouse gases if they are destroyed. Appropriate mitigation measures to protect our forestry and biodiversity are the need of the hour.

(The writer has been contributing to leading national dailies and premier publications including The Shillong Times for many years and has had substantive stints in broadcast media.) 

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