Reports on forest cover in India misrepresent the abject situation on ground, serving little more than fodder for the government to pat itself on the back
A serious concern is buried by the Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar under his label of a 'remarkable feat' of increase in forest and tree cover in India by more than 130 million hectares in the last four years. His comment came after he released the biennial 'India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019' prepared by the Forest Survey of India (FSI). He was found patting his back for so little an achievement, risking complacency among the forest officials who actually need very hard work to restore the heavily depleted forest cover of the country.
True, as the report reveals, the total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.73 million hectares but it is only 24.56 per cent of the total geographical area of the country, while according to an assessment the minimum area needed under forest cover is 33 per cent. It also must be noted that this assessment is based on the data collected between the months of October and February, a period that comes after the monsoon that spreads the greenery in the form of shrubs and thickets almost everywhere. March onwards, these shrubs and thickets begin to dry and the greenery shrinks until June. In the meantime, there occurs the menace of forest fires that not only burn the dried up shrubs and thickets but also cause serious damage to the ecology. The data in the survey thus does not give a clear picture of the real state of the forest for the whole year as annual average cover. Even the present data presents many areas of serious concerns, which the commendation of the minister tends to bury under the carpet including the imbalance in the environment, ecology and the climate change that India is suffering from. More pronounced adverse effects are uneven rainfall causing drought, water crisis, and devastating floods.
The country's forest cover includes all patches of land with a tree canopy density of more than 10 per cent and more than one hectare in the area irrespective of land use ownership and species of trees. The forest area, by definition, is different. What is happening inside the forest area has a different story that is not quite so commendable as the statement of the minister might lead one to believe. There are three categories – Very dense forest having greenery in more than 70 per cent of the land, moderately dense forest having coverage between 40-70 per cent, and open forest having coverage between 10 to 40 per cent. Additionally, the tree cover includes all patches of trees in less than one hectare. It is, therefore, clear that the survey should not be used to cover up the dismal performance of the department of Forest, Environment and Climate Change.
Even a cursory glance at the survey data is sufficient to reveal the dismal performance of the government departments. For example, the total forest cover of the country in the presented data is only 21.67 per cent, while the tree cover is only 2.89 per cent. The increase is only 0.56, 1.29 and 0.65 per cent respectively. It shows the dismal performance of the department compared to the contribution of the common people. Moreover, the Reserved Forest Area RFA/GW coverage had decreased by 0.05 per cent.
Forest cover in the 140 hill districts is 40.30 per cent of their geographical area. The survey shows an increase of only 0.19 per cent. However, the tribal districts, which are traditionally known for very good coverage of greenery, has witnessed a considerable decrease of 741 sq km in forest cover within RFA/GW. More surprising is that the areas outside the RFA/GW registered an increase of 1,922 km. It indicates that the forest officials and mafias are looting our reserved forests under direct government control, while people are contributing to increasing the forest cover on the land which is outside the RFA/GW area. It is a serious matter of concern because jungles are very much a part of tribal culture. These tribes have lost their ownership of the jungles and thereby their livelihoods which were traditionally dependent on forest produce.
Dependence of fuelwood on forest remains, which is highest in Maharashtra. Dependence for fodder, small timber and bamboo also continues, which is highest in Madhya Pradesh. However, it is shocking to know that the annual removal of the small timber by the people living in forest fringe villages is nearly 7 per cent of the average annual yield of forests in the country. It indicates that the government needs to do much more to enable people not to depend on forests for fuelwood and fodder.
An area of serious concern is the North East, where the current assessment shows a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq km that is 0.45 per cent of its geographical area. With the exception of Assam and Tripura, all the states in the region are now showing a decrease in forest cover.
The analysis shows that the 21.4 per cent of the forest cover of the country is high to extremely fire-prone. Obviously, these areas are full of shrubs which are found in good growth during the months for which data are collected. It means the real forest cover in the true sense of the term will be far less than the projected area of forest and tree cover.
Only 3.02 per cent of the geographical area is under very dense forest, while the moderately dense forest is 9.38, and open forest is 9.26 per cent. It reveals the quality of most of the forest area of our country is poor to very poor. Tree cover, the contribution outside reserved forest area, is 2.89 per cent, made possible through a bigger contribution of the common people compared to the government's performance but more needs to be done. If we want to evade the vagaries of climate change, we must do much more than patting our back for such insignificant achievements, as our government is doing presently.
Views expressed are strictly personal