World Environment Day: Despite increasing green cover, India is losing its forests


“Do not erect a memorial when I die, but plant a tree if you loved and respected me,” Union environment minister Anil Madhav Dave who died on May 18, wrote in his will.

Dave had reasons to be worried.

Between 1880 and 2013 India lost about 40% of its forest cover. Today, 24% of its area is under forests or 7 lakh sq km, according to government data. The area under forest and tree cover has grown by 5,081 sq km between 2013 and 2015.

A rise in forest and tree cover may seem like a reason to celebrate but a careful look at the state of forests shows the government has many promises to keep before the woods are lovely, dark and deep. To revive forests will take more than a public campaign to plant trees.

“Despite tall claims by various agencies the forests are still degrading and also depleting due to overexploitation,” a new assessment by the Forest Research Institute (FRI) in Dehradun, found.

Researchers at FRI looked at rain-fed areas in 27 states and one Union Territory because productivity in these areas is low and people are more likely to be dependent on forest products. After 70 years of Independence, more than two-thirds of villages adjoining forests across the country are still heavily dependent on forests for fodder, 
firewood and other produce.

For Vanjam Rattamma, a 55-year-old tribal woman from Rathnapuram village in East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh, the only means of livelihood is to procure various forest products such as tendu leaves, tamarind, broomsticks, honey and gum from the adjacent forests and sell them at the weekly markets in neighbouring villages.

More than half the families in villages lying on the periphery of forests in this district have no land and average incomes for a majority of households is less than Rs 8,000 a month.

Some people argue that the increase in forest cover is a matter of optics. India has recently been able to measure its forest areas better with high-resolution satellite imagery so we capture more forests now. The largest increase in forest cover was seen in open forests where forest canopy is 10%-40%.

The forest cover grew by 3,775 sq km while tree cover grew by 1,306 sq km. Tree cover includes tree standing outside forest areas that are being measured for the first time. It could be a clump of trees in a homestead or even a commercial plantation, but they are neither part of a larger ecosystem nor a habitat.

To put the growth in forest cover numbers in perspective, northeast India and Andaman and Nicobar Islands are likely to lose 2,305 sq km of forest cover by 2025, Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) scientists predicted in a recent study.

What’s worse, the FRI study shows that in 60% of forests are in poor health with inadequate regeneration status.

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