By C. K. Nayak
At times numbers seem like magic. They have a persuasive power, particularly the use of statistics to bolster arguments. Same is the case with the latest biennial report of the state of forest by Dehradun based Forest Survey of India of the Ministry of Forest, Environment and Climate Change. The report was released by the union minister for Forest, Environment and Climate Change, Mr Bhupender Yadav on January 13. It quoted tons of statistics, which indicate that forest cover in India, including in the Himalayan ones, has increased in the last two years. But the truth lies somewhere in between.
There has been an increase in forest cover in India’s mountainous states along its Himalayan frontier, which are already in the throes of climate change, according to the FSI report. As a whole the country’s forest cover increased by 1,540 sq km it said. The total forest area in the country is 713,789 sq km which is 21.27 percent of the country’s land area against the figure of 712,249 sq km in the 2019.
But there is a catch. As usual the report has classified India’s forests into four categories. The categories are – Very Dense Forest (with tree canopy density of 70 percent or above), Medium Dense Forest (40 to 70 percent), Open Forest (40 to 10 percent) and Scrubs (less than 10 percent). The Forest Survey of India defines “forest cover” as all land of one hectare or more of tree patches with canopy density of more than 10 percent.
While Very Dense Forest Cover is deep inside the jungles, Moderate Dense Forests are usually close to human habitations. The very dense forest is about one lakh sq km (99,779 sq km) while the moderate forest is more than three times at 3,06,890 sq km. Areas under moderately dense forests decreased 0.05 percent or 2,621 sq km, the report said. Since 2011, India has continuously lost areas under moderately dense forests, except a marginal increase for the short span of time between 2017 and 2019. Most of the losses are reported from this second category while there are also losses to dense forest. But as far forest cover is concerned the first two are important with a greater volume of tree canopy. The latter two have very thin tree cover with scrubs meaning bushes only.
Secondly, the survey also includes plantations like bamboo, tea, rubber, oil palm and orchards of apples and other fruits. Most Northeastern states have vast areas of bamboo and many tea gardens. Other Himalayan states in the North starting from Jammu and Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have apple and other fruit orchards which the FSI treats as forest. On the ground the environmentalists argue that these are not natural forests and only man made monoculture. It cannot support the wildlife and other related forest assets as natural forest does.
Instead of helping the overall environment these plantations like that of oil palm guzzle lots of water supplied in an artificial way. With use of chemicals, fertilisers and pesticides these plantations cannot be considered natural forest. In most cases these man made plantations come up by destroying natural forest mostly near the human habitations. One estimate shows that India lost more than 1,600 sq km of natural forests between 2019 and 2021 as more areas came under plantation which experts argue
is no substitute for natural forests.
Going by state wise analysis, the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir had very dense forests of 4,270 sq km area in 2019, but now has 4,155 sq km of the same forest category. This is the highest loss of 115 sq km very dense forests anywhere in India. Jammu and Kashmir have lost very dense forests but only gained open forests, according to the report. This jugglery led to an increase in the UT’s total forest area to 21,387 sq km in 2021, from 21,358 in 2019. The increase in open forests is also led by commercial plantations. The worst affected areas of loss of forest are Jammu and Poonch areas.
The newly carved Union Territory of Ladakh also lost 10 sq km of medium dense forest and gained 28 sq km of open forest. This aggregated a net gain of 18 sq km of total forest area in one of the highest Himalayan regions but the loss of dense forest cannot be compensated by increase in open forest.
The total forest area of Himachal Pradesh, another mountainous state of Himalayas, has increased by nine sq km. But there has been loss of Moderately Dense Forest and Open Forest. Himachal Pradesh had an area of 7,126 sq km under moderately dense forests in 2019. This was reduced to 7,100 sq km in 2021. The state had open forests spread across 5,195 sq km of its area in 2019. This was reduced to 5,180 sq km in 2021. In case of Himachal Pradesh the affected areas are Chamba, Kinnaur Kullu, Lahul and Spiti.
Same story is retold in the case of Uttarakhand. There is a slight increase of forest cover by two sq km only. But the bad news is that that state has lost as much as 37 sq km of moderately dense forest while there is an increase of 8 sq km in very dense forest and 31 sq km of open forest. Aggregating the state by statics gained two sq km of forest as per the data. Udhamsingh Nagar, Tehri Garhwal and Haridwar are worst affected.
In Eastern Himalayas, Arunachal Pradesh, one of the most forested states in the country, lost as much as 257 sq kms of forest in both very dense and medium dense categories. The worst affected districts are Lohit and Dibang valley, where proposed mega hydel projects are coming up. But in Sikkim, another Himalayan state in the region the forest cover loss is minimal since it is one of the smallest states in the country.
In the Northeastern states of Eastern Himalayas as a whole there is generally a decrease in forest cover. The NE states of India — Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Mizoram, Meghalaya and Sikkim — have lost 1,020 sq km of forest during 2019- 2021, according to the report. The eight states together account for 23.75 percent of the country’s total forest cover. Among the eight states, Manipur recorded the largest loss in forest cover (249 sq kms), followed by Nagaland (235 sq kms) and Mizoram (186 sq kms). While the report attributes this loss in forest cover to shifting cultivation, which is practiced in many Northeastern states, natural calamities like floods and landslides, erosion, construction activities, mining and timber smuggling are also major causes of forest loss. The Northeastern states have been losing forest cover consistently, as indicated in the 2019 report. Between 2011 and 2019, forest cover of six states, excluding Assam, had decreased by nearly 18 percent between 2011 and 2019. The region lost nearly 25,012 sq km of forest cover in the preceding decade.
The Himalayan states and Union Territories of the North have lost forest cover mostly due to ongoing hydel power and road projects both for pilgrimages and defence. In the wake of the Indo-China border flare up, the region has seen more and massive infrastructure work at breakneck speed on both sides. There are also mining activities and natural calamities like floods and landslides taking a toll not only on humans but also forests.
If this is the extent of forest cover in the Himalayan region what will be the consequences? It predicted that Himalayan states and UTs like Ladakh, Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand will record the maximum increase in temperature and possibly experience a decrease in rainfall. Extreme rainfall may also increase in the states of the Northeast. Both the rise in temperature and increase or decrease in rainfall will severely affect the Himalayan region and its millions of inhabitants living downstream and upstream.
The loss of over 1,000 sq km of natural forests in the Northeast alone can also lead to water scarcity, which is already a serious problem in the region. Erratic rainfall will in any case cause flash floods and landslides endemic to the hill regions. The Himalayan region is also home to several national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves which supports a large number of wildlife both big and small and medicinal plants. Some of this rare wildlife are facing extinction and for these flora and fauna Himalaya’s Forest is the last resort. Any decrease in the forest cover will affect them drastically. Climate change like less snow will wipe out such wildlife like snow leopards and more rains will submerg the low laying areas of rare onehorned rihnos in Kaziranga Naitonal Park.
The report has also mapped climate change hotspots in Indian forests, based on projections for 2030, 2050 and 2080. "Mapping of climatic hotspots over the forest cover in India using computer model-based projection of temperature and rainfall data has been carried out for three future time periods of 2030, 2050 and 2085. The period 2030 represents a near-term timeline that coincides with the global short- term climate action horizon. Period 2050 represents the mid-term timeline and coincides with global long-term climate action goals. The period 2085 represents a long-term time horizon," the report said.
As part of its National Forest Policy, 1988, India has set ambitious plans to bring 33 percent of its geographical area under forest cover. The target was enlisted as one of the primary areas of focus in the Strategy for New India @ 75 released by Niti Aayog in 2018 for a clean, green and healthy environment. However, the government is off target when it comes to increasing forest cover. The marginal growth in forest cover in 2021 was led by the rise in open forest areas that are used for commercial plantations. During the period between 2019 and 2021, areas under open forests increased 0.09 percent or 1,582 sq km.