At a time when global warming is critical to human survival, forests play a significant role. Thus the much-hyped State of Forest Report, 2019 which has been blown out of proportions, needs to be critically analysed, considering the heavily depleted forest cover of the country. As the report reveals, the total forest and tree cover stands at around 80.73 million hectares but it is only around 24.56 per of the total geographical area of the country, while according to an assessment, the minimum area needed under forest cover should be around 33 per cent.
However, according to the report, only 13 out of 28 States have 33 per cent forest cover. The north-eastern States feature in this list. Six of these eight States top the chart; Sikkim and Assam now lag behind with Goa, Kerala, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Odisha entering the list. Recorded as ‘un-classed forests’, these form a sizeable portion in most of the States except Sikkim that has no such category. In fact, the North East shows a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq. km. i.e. 0.45 per cent of its geographical area. It needs to be mentioned here that dense forests are a feature only in tribal majority States.
Only 3.02 per cent of the geographical area is under very dense forest, while the moderately dense forest is 9.38 and open forests is 9.26 per cent. Obviously, the quality of most of the forest area of the country is poor. Alternatively tree cover, the contribution outside reserved forests, is 2.89 per cent made possible through the initiatives of the community.
The report showed two worrying aspects of the country’s greening programme in terms of quality of forest. It showed a decrease of 330 sq. km. of forest in ‘Recorded Forest Area’ (RFA) and continued loss of forests in north-eastern States, which are known for old forests having the capacity to sink more carbon as compared to newly developed green cover. The old forests are also important for conserving country’s rich biodiversity. Decrease of forest in RFA showed that the forest department has not been able to improve or conserve the forest wealth of the country under its jurisdiction.
More surprising is the fact that areas outside the registered forests, registered an increase and this indicates that forest officials in connivance with mafias are looting these forests. It is indeed distressing to note that tribals have lost ownership of the jungles and thereby their livelihoods which were traditionally dependent on forest produce. While tribals are suffering, the forest bureaucracy with political backing is looting the forest wealth.
According to a forest expert, Ajay Kumar Saxena, and many others like him, the country, however, recorded 4306 sq. km. of forest cover outside the RFA, including social forestry, putting the total increase of forest cover at a mere 3976 sq.km. Karnataka recorded the highest increase (1025 sq. km in forest cover in the past two years followed by Andhra Pradesh (990 sq. km) and Kerala (823 sq. km).
As is well known, forests can create local microclimates to help generate rainfall, decreased evapotranspiration can intensify droughts when soil moisture decreases due to warming or rainfall deficits. Plants exchange energy, carbon and water with the atmosphere as a part of photosynthesis and respiration. Warm temperatures can exacerbate soil moisture loss via evaporation and intensify droughts. Plants also try to save water by modulating water that reaches the atmosphere through a process evapotranspiration. Thus it goes without saying that afforestation and reforestation efforts should provide pathways to balance the portfolio when tradeoffs may be needed to manage food and fibre security and biodiversity with urbanization and other economic development goals.
It has been estimated that the existing canopy cover of 4.4 billion hectares could be expanded by an additional 0.9 billion hectares, leading to total sequestration of over 200 giga tonnes of carbon. Though this is imperative for India to stay true to its Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDC) targets, the results are not quite encouraging.
While ecological balance is vital at such a juncture, what is happening at the ground level is the increasing trend of forests being denuded for various projects, relating to infrastructure development, expansion of roadways and highways. Added to this is the trend towards urbanisation, all of which has resulted in actual depletion of forest area.
The present data presents many areas of serious concern, keeping in view the imbalance in the environment, ecology and climate change that India is suffering from. More pronounced adverse effects like uneven rainfall, drought, water crisis and devastating floods reinforce the need for giving more emphasis to forestry.
Saving our forests is vital for the country at such a juncture when climate change has been affecting a large section of the population. It is doubtful whether the realisation of protecting our forests and turning them as reserves of our ecosystem is understood by the bureaucrats and politicians in the country, who are in charge of framing policies, which most often tend to be anti-people.
It is difficult to agree with observations that there has been an increase in forest and tree cover and reduction in the diversion of forest land… despite…increasing population, industrialisation and rapid economic growth. Deep forests have remained more or less the same while diversion has been on the increase. One may mention here that way back in 2013, an RTI application filed by environmental lawyers, Ritwich Dutta and Rahul Choudhary revealed that the country, on an average, loses 135 hectares of natural forest land per day to development schemes. As of 2017.the government passed about 10,000 approvals related to forest diversions.
Finally, while support for industrial forestry within the country cannot be doubted, it is best done by benefitting all stakeholders. A forest is after all not a mere stand of over-mature timber but a home to forest-dwelling communities as also wildlife. The ecosystem services from forests, both financially tangible and otherwise, provide sustainability to the national economy and resilience to climate change. Thus, what is required is actually an ecosystems approach with focus on climate justice and the rights and role of local communities. It should also address biodiversity and poverty effectively and challenge the underlying causes of deforestation directly, resolving governance, poverty and land tenure issues.