By Kushal Jeena
While claiming an overall forests gain of 3,976 sq. Km., in the country, the report of India State Forest released on Monday has left out mention of figures of loss of forests.
The fact remains that during last two years country has suffered a loss of 2,145 sq km., of dense forests that have turned into non-forests during this period. Since 2017 the offset of this loss is conversion of 1,858 sq km., of non-forests areas to dense forests.
However, a monoculture cannot substitute natural forests in biodiversity or ecological services. Some of these are fast-growing species such as bamboo in the north-eastern region and also rubber and coconut plantations in the southern states. The forest survey of India said it requires more time and resources to identify and classify plantations through ground-truthing.
When this data was first made available in 2013, around 18,065 sq km — more than one third of Punjab’s landmass — of dense forests has become non-forests in the country and nearly half of this — 8,552 sq km — since 2015. Much of this destruction of quality natural forests was compensated by plantations — a total of 10,227 sq km of non-forests became dense forests in successive two-year windows since 2003 and more than half of this — 5,458 sq km — since 2015. Dense forests are defined by canopy cover: over 70 percent is considered very dense and 40-70 percent medium dense. Unlike natural forests, commercial plantations grow rapidly and show up as dense cover in satellite images.
Reconciling such matrix is impossible unless the FSI shares the spatial data. With science becoming so advanced, the government should make its grid data public for open scrutiny and value addition. Anyone can access the forest data for a nominal fee. The access should be made free in the future. The FSI does not share raw data unless it is a collaborative research with the FSI. The ISFR 2019 data underlines the scale of forest loss on what is forest land on government records. The report has identified 7,28,520 sq km as recorded forest area in the country. Of this, 2,15,084 sq km — nearly 30 percent — recorded no forest cover.
It means forestland; the combined area of Tamil Nadu and West Bengal has no forests at all. There has been no recovery since 2017 as forest cover on forest land has shrunk by 330 sq km in the last two years. There is no denial that the gain in forest cover is outside forest land. A proposal to continue with the biennial reports while conducting a more comprehensive study, may be every five years, is in place. There is no decision on that yet. One silver lining in the SFR 2019 is a gain of 301 sq km of dense forest on forestland since 2017. Overall, though, less than 45 percent — only 3,26,546 sq km — of India’s forestland is densely forested.
The ISFR says it has registered an increase of 1,212 sq km in tree cover. The 3,976 sq km increase reported in forest cover was largely achieved through a net gain of 3,661 sq km of open forests in non-forest areas since 2017. The previous report that was released in 2017 had claimed a gain of 6,778 sq km in forest cover and 1,243 sq km in tree cover over 2015.
India becoming one among the countries in the world whose forests cover is increasing appears very encouraging as it amounts to finding country on the right track to achieve its Paris Agreement commitment of 2.5-3 billion carbon sinks.
There has been a slight decrease in North East states, but this is where jhum cultivation is conducted. As far as the North-East is concerned, it is pointed out that over 60 per cent of the region is covered in forest, so this decrease is marginal. Tree cover, meanwhile has been increasing. Maharashtra has had the highest increase in tree cover and a large part of that is due to horticulture. Every year, a crore of new saplings are planted — of mangoes, pomegranates and other fruits. So in 18 years, the cover has increased by 18 crore trees.
Even states like Rajasthan where water paucity is big concern has shown a healthy increase in tree cover. In tribal districts of the country, the total forest cover is 4,22,351 sq km — 37.54 percent of the geographical area of these districts. The current assessment shows a decrease of 741 sq km of forest cover within the Recorded Forest Area in the tribal districts but an increase of 1,922 sq km outside. Mangrove cover in the country has increased by 54 sq km (1.10 percent) as compared to the previous assessment. Total bamboo bearing area of the country is estimated as 1,60,037 sq km. There is an increase of 3,229 sq km in bamboo bearing area.
The increase of the bamboo bearing area is significant. This has happened because bamboo was reclassified as grass. It could be cut and then replanted. That is why there has been an increase. Forest cover across 140 hill districts in the country has shown an increase of 544 sq km taking the total hill cover to is 2,84,006 sq km, which is 40.30 percent of the total geographical area of these districts.