India’s forest cover has increased by 3,976 km2 since 2017. For the second successive time since 2007, the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) has shown an increase in the forest cover. Given the pressure on the forestland and the natural resources, these figures may give a positive outlook but it does not tell how India continues to lose some of its natural forests since this report is including plantations and invasive species under the forest cover.
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India’s forest conservation:
- Forest conservation is the preservation and protection of forests. It also includes the reversal of deforestation and environmental pollution.
- India, being large and diverse, has a large variety of distribution of forest vegetation.
- Indian forest types are tropical evergreens, tropical deciduous, swamps, mangroves, sub-tropical, montane, scrub, sub-alpine and alpine forests.
- These forests support a diverse range of ecosystems with a variety of flora and fauna.
- Until recently, India lacked the incentive to determine the quality and quantity of its forests.
- The depleting forest resources saw the enactment of the Forest Conservation Act (1980), the establishment of protected areas which include National Parks and Wild Life Sanctuaries.
- Before the 1980s, India used bureaucratic methods to estimate forest coverage.
- The land notified as covered under Indian Forest Act was deemed the recorded forest even if it was devoid of vegetation.
- This forest-in-name-only method does not allow for comparison with the current forest cover since it is unrealistic.
- In the 1980s, space satellites were used for remote sensing of real forest cover.
- Indian forests were classified as follows:
- Forest Cover is defined as all lands, more than one hectare in area, with a tree canopy density of more than 10%.
- Very Dense Forest: All lands with a forest cover canopy density of 70% and above.
- Moderately Dense Forest: All lands with forest cover density of 40-70%
- Open Forest: All lands with forest cover with canopy density of 10-40%.
- Mangrove Cover: Mangrove forest is salt tolerant forest ecosystem found mainly in tropical and subtropical coastal and/or inter-tidal regions.
- Non-Forest Lands are lands without any forest cover.
- Tree cover is the lands with tree patches across the recorded forest areas exclusive of forest cover and less than minimum mappable areas of 1 hectare.
- Tree Outside Forests is those trees outside the Recorded Forest Area.
- The government measures like Climate Change Action Plan, Green India Mission (GIM), National Afforestation Programme (NAP) etc., attempt to address the issue of forest depletion.
- These are doing little to counter the decreasing natural forest cover and habitat depletion of numerous rare species found in India.
What is the India State of Forest Report (ISFR), 2019?
- The India State of Forest Report (ISFR), 2019 is a biennial report published by Forest Survey of India (FSI), an organisation under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC).
- It is released every two years to provide comprehensive information about the forest cover, forest vegetation density, tree cover, progress of plantation outside the designated forests etc. both nationwide and state-wise.
- The recently released India State Forest Report, 2019, for the first time, had evaluated the qualitative nature of the forest cover, including the listing of biodiversity and types of plants and trees found.
- It also produced a national forest inventory for the first time based on the assessment of the forest resources.
What are the key findings of the ISFR, 2019?
- Here the “forest cover” includes all the lands with more than 10% tree canopy density and more than 1 hectares of land area, irrespective of the land use, ownership and species of trees.
- India’s total forest cover is 7,12,249 km2 which is 21.67% of the total geographical area of the country.
- Area-wise, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover in the country. Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra follow it.
- In terms of forest cover as a percentage of total geographical area, the top five states are Mizoram (85.41%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.63%), Meghalaya (76.33%), Manipur (75.46%) and Nagaland (75.3%).
- The top 5 states that have an increased forest cover are:
- Karnataka (1,025 km2)
- Andhra Pradesh (990 km2)
- Kerala (823 km2)
- Jammu and Kashmir (371 km2)
- Himachal Pradesh (334 km2)
Deterioration of forest cover in the North East:
- North East region has a total forest cover of 1,70,541 km2. This is 65.05% of its geographical area.
- There has been a decrease in the forest cover in the region to an extent of 765 km2 (0.45%).
- Excluding Assam and Tripura, all the north-eastern states have shown a decrease in the forest cover.
Forest cover in the tribal districts:
- The tribal districts have a total forest cover of 4,22,351 km2. This is 37.54% of these districts’ total geographical area.
- There has been a decline of 741 km2 of forest cover within the Recorded Forest Area (RFA)/Green Wash (GW) in the tribal districts and an increase of 1,922 km2
- Recorded Forest Area is the area noted as forest in the government records.
- The Green Wash (GW) areas are the areas of forest shaded in green colour in the Survey of India’s topographical sheets.
- There is a decrease in the tree cover inside the forests because the tribal populations are getting “Patta” or land titles.
- There is an increase in the number of trees outside the forests due to the increased tree plantation and afforestation activities.
A rise in the tree cover:
- Tree cover includes tree patches less than 1 hectares outside the recorded forest areas.
- India has about 95,027 km2 (2.89%) of tree cover within its geographical area.
- Maharashtra has shown the highest increase in the tree cover and that is mostly because of the horticulture.
- The nation’s total carbon stock is about 7124 million tonnes, which is an increase of 42.6 million tonnes when compared to the previous assessment.
- This shows that India’s is on the right track to achieve its commitment of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of carbon sink under the Paris Agreement.
- 62,466 wetlands are covering 3.83% of the area within the RFA/GW.
- Gujarat has the largest area of wetland within the RFA in India. It is followed by West Bengal.
- ISFR 2019 provided for a separate report on mangrove forest cover.
- India’s total mangrove cover is 4,975 km2.
- The top three states having an increased mangrove cover are Gujarat (37 km2) followed by Maharashtra (16 km2) and Odisha (8 km2).
- Maharashtra has the highest dependence on fuelwood from the forests.
- Madhya Pradesh, on the other hand, is the highest consumer of fodder, small timber and bamboo.
- About 21.40% of forest cover in India is prone to fires, with forests in the north-eastern region and central India being the most vulnerable.
- It is found that extremely fire-prone areas account for 3.89% of the total forest cover, very extremely fire-prone areas account for 6.01% and highly fire-prone areas account for 11.50%. Together, these three categories come to 21.40% of forest cover.
When compared to 2017:
- The 2019 survey has shown an increase of 5,188 km2 in the total forest and tree cover at the national level.
- Tree and forest cover together made up 24.56% (8,07,276 km2) of the country’s geographical area. Previously, it was just 24.395%.
- The country’s tree and forest cover hovering between 21-25% are less than the National Forest Policy’s aim to ensure 33% of the same.
- The objective of the National Forest Policy of 1988 is to maintain environmental stability and conserve the nation’s natural heritage by preserving the remaining natural forests.
- India’s mangrove cover has increased by 54 km2 (1.10%) when compared to the previous assessment.
How much of the natural forest is India losing?
- The ISFR showed that India’s 2,145 km2 of dense forests have become non-forests since 2017. A dense forest can deteriorate into an open forest with canopy density of 10-40%. However, converting into non-forests means the total destruction of these forests.
- It shows that India has lost dense forest one-and-a-half times Delhi’s expanse in just two years.
- Since 2017, plantation with high canopy density added 2,441 km2 to the dense forest category.
- The 1,858 km2 of non-forest have become dense forests. These are plantations of fast-growing species since the natural forests rarely grow at a high rate.
- Since 2003 when data on “change matrix” was first available, 18,065 km2 (more than one-third of Punjab’s landmass) of dense forests have become non-forests in the country, nearly half of this (8,552 km2) in the last four years.
- Making up for much of this destruction of natural forests, 10,227 km2 of non-forests became dense forest since 2003, over half of this (5,458 km2) since 2015.
- While the quality of hill forests has grown, large tracts of tropical forests have fallen off the “dense” category since 2017.
- The biggest loss is under the tropical semi-evergreen category. These forests are found along the western coast, lower slopes of the eastern Himalayas, Odisha and the Andaman.
- Of India’s 7.12 lakhs km2 forest cover, 52,000 km2 is plantations that cannot substitute natural forests in biodiversity or ecological services.
- Of the 7,28,520 km2 recorded forest area from the digitised data of Survey of India’s topographic maps of green wash areas, nearly 30% recorded no forest cover in ISFR 2019. Simply put, forestland roughly the combined area of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal holds no forests.
- There has been no recovery since 2017 as the forest cover on the forestland has shrunk by 330 km2 in the past two years.
What can be the way forward?
Natural Heritage Conservation:
- The conservation of the remaining natural forests must be made a priority.
- This is because plantations cannot substitute natural forests.
- The plantations can never help conserve India’s biodiversity and ecology.
Increase afforestation and social forestry programmes:
- These programmes must ensure that the native species of trees are conserved.
- It should make sure that foreign and invasive species are not included during these drives.
Increased coverage of PM Ujjwala Yojana:
- Ensuring the providing LPG connection to the forest dwellers and tribal communities through the fail-safe implementation of the PM Ujjwala Yojana is vital so that the dependence of these communities on firewood is minimised.
A separate study for Natural Forests:
- India’s natural forests are not increasing. Rather, it is depleting at an exponential rate.
- The habitats of rare, endangered and threatened (RET) and endemic species were either degraded or reduced due to human activities.
- The habitats of RET species, in particular, are fragmented.
- This shows that just increasing the plantations doesn’t address the core issue.
- Therefore, separate data consisting of natural forest cover without including the plantations and invasive species will enable better knowledge, understanding and awareness of the extent of degradation of natural forest.
Efficient Use of Forest Resources:
- The demand for the forest resources must be minimised to reduce the pressure of the forests.
- This can be done through the efficient utilization of the forest resources and increasing the substitution of the wood.
Though “forest cover” is increasing, the natural forests are being destroyed at an exponential rate. Increasing the tree cover for the sake of achieving the Paris Agreement and other commitments is not going to address this problem. Plantations and natural forests must be separately analysed to promote awareness among the public. The government should also encourage the growth of indigenous trees and natural forests through conservation of these lands since many species of animals are dependent on them. This can be done through public awareness and improved research on invasive and foreign vegetation.
India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019 has downplayed the depletion of natural forest cover. Comment.