Dwindling forest cover


The ministry of forests and environment’s “India State of Forest Report 2017” based on the satellite imageries showing 24.4 percent of the country’s land area covered by some form of forest or tree cover does not present an accurate assessment. Though the report presents a positive picture about the tree cover or the forests, but this cannot be a barometer for a realistic picture of the forests which have been dwindling with the passage of every year. This report also goes on to show that there has been an increase of one percent over the previous estimates about the forests made about two years ago. In the backdrop of increased development activities including expanded network of roads, laying of electrical cables and rise in urban towns all across the length and breadth of the country, such assessments are misplaced. The only emphasis of increasing the plantation does not show an increase in the tree cover or the forests. In fact, it has be borne in minds that old, dense and moderately dense forest covers have been cleared for the construction activities including carving out road network. The claims of increase in the plantations all the along the highways and new connectivity in the network cannot be considered as increase in the forests. Moreover, the new plantations are likely to take decades together to come up the level of the forest or tree cover when it was removed for the roads. Moreover, such an estimate listing very dense, moderately dense, open and scrub forests mapped through remote sensing does not really provide deep insights into the integrity of the green areas. The emphasis in environmental policy to raise forest cover to 33 percent of the geographical area is likely to yield some dividends. There has been an increase over the baseline cover of 20 percent at the turn of the century. Yet, tree cover is not the same as having biodiversity, old-growth forests. The ecosystem services performed by plantations that have a lot of trees grown for commercial purposes cannot be equated with those of an undisturbed assembly of plants, trees and animals. India may be endowed with 16 major forest types, and 221 types and sub-types based on the Champion and Seth classification, but retains very little of its ancient forests after centuries of pre-colonial and colonial exploitation. Latter-day development pressures are also taking their toll. Forest restoration should, therefore, aid the return of native vegetation. In its audit of various regions, the Ministry’s report has calculated a cumulative loss of forest cover in Mizoram, Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh of nearly 1,200 sq kms. The impact of such a terrible loss must be seen against the backdrop of the Northeast representing a global biodiversity hotspot. Any gains achieved through remedy programmes in Odisha, Assam, Telangana, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir and Manipur cannot compensate for it adequately. The losses in one specific region have to be compensated with the restoration of the forests in that area itself. It is but natural that environmental economists have come to regard the calculation of national accounts of wealth and development as weak, because governments do not add the benefits of functions such as flood control and climate moderation to the value of forests. Such a failure erodes the gains made by many communities, because lost natural capital contributes to material losses. India needs to review the programmes that it has been pursuing to revive forests, and move away from monoculture plantations that are favoured by even forest development corporations in many states. Scientific reforms to bring true nature back are needed. In fact, more stress has to be on conservation of the existing forests and allow their natural growth in the outlying areas. The latest assessment categorises more than 300,000 sq km of area as open forests with a tree canopy of 10-40 percent. By any accounts, this is a very small patch work considering the expanse of the forests in the previous centuries. These lands provide the opportunity to bring back diverse, indigenous trees. Such a measure, combined with a policy against allowing open cast mining, can bring about a revival. Dedicated efforts are required to protect the precious forests of the not only Northeastern states but also other states of the country.