Millennium Post

In fine fettle?

The SFR 2021 throws many positive signals around India's forest cover but issues related to forest rights and fires remain unaddressed

In fine fettle?

The state of the country's forest and tree cover is biannually monitored by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). The State of Forest Report (SFR) 2021 was released recently in Delhi by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. It is the only official document which records the status of a country's forest and tree cover. India is one of the few countries that monitor their forest and tree cover on a continuous basis. The assessment is done through satellite imageries, and corroborated by field inventory.

The first assessment report was published by FSI in 1987. Based on the field inventories and forest cover mapping, the SFR 2021 gives a figure of 80.95 million ha for the forest and tree cover of the country. This constitutes 24.62 per cent of the total geographical area of the country. The forest cover of the country is 71.37 million ha and the tree cover is 9.57 million ha. Thus, there has been an increase of 1,540 sq km of forest cover and 721 sq km of tree cover in the country compared to the 2019 assessment. The forest and tree cover, as per the report, are inching towards acquiring one fourth of the total landmass.

There has also been a marginal increase of 17 sq km in the ecologically important mangrove forests which protect the sea shore population from storms and hurricanes. The growing stock of the forests has also been increasing compared to last assessment by 251.74 million cum and stands at 6,167.50 million cum. The poor man's timber, Bamboo, has also recorded an increase of 124 million tonnes over the last assessment and stood at 13,882 million tonnes.

The report also gives a positive indication with reference to achieving the Paris Climate Accord goals as the carbon stock has increased by 79.4 million tonnes and, as per the present assessment, it is estimated to be at 7,204 million tonnes.

For the past many years, the FSI has been adding some new features like Joint Forests Management status, Bamboo stock etc. This year, it has added the changes witnessed in project Tiger / Gir Lion areas for the past decade. The Tiger population has been steadily increasing in the project Tiger as well as outside and the management needs to be fine tuned with reference to carrying capacity of the forests and stability of the ecosystem in terms of prey and predator ratio. In 52 Tiger reserves, we have 7.39 million ha of area notified with a forest cover over 5.56 million ha.

Yet another new feature in the present report has been the assessment of climatic hotspot mapping over the forest cover for the year 2030, 2050 and 2085 for temperature and rainfall changes. Uttarakhand, Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh are in this list along with North-eastern states and south India, Ladakh and Andaman. The climate change and rising heat waves are destroying forest regeneration over 35 per cent of the forest area and the state forest departments and the Centre have failed in preventing forest fires from occurring. It is true that the natural causes are beyond control of anybody but most of the forest fires are manmade and the mandarins in the Environment Ministry need to think seriously over this.

Like any other government report, this assessment has also attracted criticism from some quarters. Some so-called experts have criticized the report for including tea gardens and rubber and coconut plantations under the tree cover. Some others have criticized it on the grounds of lack of information on biodiversity. This criticism is lopsided and motivated. The FSI mandate is to monitor the forest and tree cover and it has done a thoroughly professional job in this regard. At the same time, biodiversity and vegetation assessment need research work as well as an entire set of manpower which the present setup of FSI is not capable of providing. The trees, wherever they are or belong to whichever species, must be counted to ascertain the carbon sequestration. Furthermore, all these tree canopies have their own ecological value for the country. After all, monoculture cannot be totally condemned. Large bird diversity lives in these trees and helps our agriculture fields. The scrub forests, as well as areas with 10 per cent or less forest cover, have their own ecological value. A country of 130 crore people cannot create a biodiversity hotspot everywhere. The information generation by FSI is a great tool to reassess the management priorities and the government should infuse more manpower in institutions with adequate funds to find out the ecological sustainability of the forest cover.

However, all those who have criticized it have failed to notice why the report has not assessed the forest cover over the large chunk of 47 lakh ha of land vested under the Forest Right Act 2006. The Supreme Court had directed the FSI to find out the status of the correct implementation of this Act and hence to find out encroachments of the forest land. There are a few points which the Director-General of Forests and the Director General of FSI and other institutions must advise the government. First, the overall assessment of impact of Forest Right Act on the livelihood of the people and the current status of these forests, at the same time, also fixing a time limit for applying for the rights (if a cut off date cannot be fixed) which has been left open-ended even after 15 years of the Act's enactment. Second, periodical assessment of biodiversity in natural forests and the regeneration status in dominant forest types must be spelt out in each forest report. Third, forest fires must be controlled. Yearly exposure to forest fires must be restricted to less than 10 per cent. Hopefully, the Environment and Forest Minister will ponder over the reports and act to improve the management.

The writer is Chairman of the Centre for Resource Management and Environment. Views expressed are personal

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