If the Forest Survey of India is to be believed, one-fourth of the country is forested and the tree cover is growing. The biennial India State of Forest Report (ISFR 2021) released last week says that the total green (forests and trees) cover has now reached 8.09 lakh sqkm (24.6percentof India’s geographical area), which includes 7.13 lakh sq km of forest cover — 21.7 per cent of the area. The same report says that Maharashtra has the fifth largest forest cover in the country and that Mumbai has seen a nine per cent increase in forest cover in the last decade. Forest cover in the country is said to have increased by 1,540 sq km (0.2 per cent) while tree cover increased by 721 sqkm (0.8 per cent) in the past two years. Releasing the report, Environment Minister Bhupender Yadav noted that 17 states/Union Territories have more than onethird of their area under forest cover.
Sceptics say that the figures have been manipulated to meet the ambitious target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the COP26 climate summit; India, the world’s third-biggest emitter, aims to reachnet zero by 2070. Environmentalists, as well as foresters, saythe ISFRhidesmore thanit reveals.The layman cannot contradict the government’s claims, just as the jobless in this country have no means of challenging figures that say the economy is out of the woods. He/she can only wonder why then are our tigers – the predator at the apex of the food chain – facing extinction, why animals are venturing out of forests, why biodiversity is shrinking and why the entire city of Mumbai is an urban heat is land.
A closer look at the report reveals that India is not adding dense natural forests, rather it is losing them. Since 2003, when ‘change matrix’ data was first made available, 19,708 sq km — more than half of Kerala’s landmass — of dense forests have become non-forests. The decadal rate of this destruction of quality natural forests has more than doubled; from 7,002 sq km during 2003-2013 to 12,706 sq km since 2013. Very dense forests (the pristine natural forests) account for just three per cent of the total forest cover. Infact, the total forest cover in tiger habitats has decreased. This explains why our biodiversity, starting from tigers, is under threat. If our forest cover has still increased by just 0.2 per cent in two years, it is thanks to plantations and agro forestry.
Strange as it may seem, the Forest Survey of India defines ‘forest cover’ as all lands — irrespective of legal ownership and land use — of a hectare or more with tree patches with canopy density of more than 10 per cent. This means that any plantation of a hectare and above with bamboo, fruit-bearing trees, coconut, palm trees, teak, sal etc is counted as a forest.
India, which occupies 2.4 per cent of the land area of the world, contributes to about two per cent of the world’s forests. The four categories of its forests, according to the ISFR are: Very Dense Forest(with tree canopy density of 70 per cent or above), Moderately Dense Forest (tree canopy density of 40 per cent or above but less than 70 per cent), Open Forest(tree canopy density of 10 per cent or above but less than 40 per cent). There is another category, Scrub (tree canopy density less than 10 per cent), but it is not counted as forest land.
Eleven Indian states have reported a loss in forest cover while 21 states and UnionTerritories have reported losses in moderately dense forest cover. There is a loss of 1,582 sq km under the Moderately Dense Forest category. Open forests have reported an increase of 2,612 sq km. Among the five states that recorded maximum overall gain in forest cover since 2019, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha and Karnataka show a net loss in dense forests.
Most of the rise in tree cover has been due to an increase in area under Trees Outside Forests (TOFs). The total growing stock in India has risen by 6.92 per cent to 6,167 million cubic metres (mcum) in the current assessment, from 5,768 mcum in the 2015 assessment. The growing stock at the national level has been estimated at 56.60 cubic metres per hectare (cum perha).The highest per hectare growing stock of forest is 139 per ha in Kerala. Uttarakhand with 105 per ha and Goa with 101 per ha growing stock ranked second and third in the country. Maharashtra has the maximum growing stock of TOFs at 187 mcum followed by Karnataka (121), Madhya Pradesh (118) and Chhattisgarh (117).
The sal tree (Shorea robusta) contributes about 11 per cent to the growing stock with a volume of 476 mcum, followed by teak (Tectona grandis) with 191 m cum (4.37 per cent). Chir pine (Pinus roxburghii) and silver grey wood (Terminalia tomentosa) contribute around four per cent each. Among the TOFs, mango trees contribute to 13 per cent of the total volume, followed by neem with seven per cent, mahua (4.65 per cent) and coconut(4.51 per cent).