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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 30 New Delhi July 14, 2018

Denudation of Forest Cover Repugnant to Government Assertion

Sunday 15 July 2018


by Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee

Boscage is a country’s natural phenomenon continuing since time immemorial. The areas under forest enrich geographical nomenclature along with eco-balance maintenance and consort sustainable features of the nature with natural resources.

The word forest is derived from the Latin root foris, meaning “out of doors”, and etymologically it is “a large uncultivated tract of land covered with trees and under wood”. Several scientists describe forest from their own ideological point of view of which a few are mentionable.

Wills (1951) defined forest as a closed assemblage of trees allowing no break in the overhead canopy, homogenous of one species, or diversified. Champion’s monograph on forest types (1936) is a landmark in the forest ecology of India. Other remarkable contributions in this regard include Blasco (1874), Champion (1975), Mani(1974), Mehra et al. (1983) and Puri (1954, 1960 and 1983).

The forest cover area of India is 23.42 per cent of the total geographical area of the country. The recorded forest area in the country is 7,65,210 while forest cover analysed by the satellite is 6,39,900 which is tantamount to 19.47 per cent of the total geographical area of India. (ICFRE 2000)

The type of forest depends on the climate and soil. Geographically India is a tropical country but the entire Gangetic belt lies outside the tropics. The country’s monsoon differs from other tropical regions of the world.

Temperature and rainfall are the most important factors for the climate and protection of environment; they are related to latitude and longitude. On the basis of temperature differentiations the forest has been divided into four zones: Tropical, Subtropical, Temperate and Arctic. Very hot with scanty winter is the Tropical zone, hot with a cool winter is considered as Subtropical, a warm summer with a pronounced winter is the Arctic zone which protects the forest cover areas of India in accordance with definite biological, environmental and natural laws.

Natural forests across India are gradually disappearing, with some serious decline in the core forest area, leaving large protected forests which are also threatened causing serious concern to the environment and forests. Scientific reports along with satellite data, ground vegetation observations and historical maps point to the denudation of the Indian forests.

The Eastern Ghats have lost 15.83 per cent of its forest area over a span of almost 100 years, Tropical Montane Forests are continuing to disappear in the Sikim Himalayas, particularly at the lower tiers and there is a noticeable decline across all forest types in India. According to survey reports, India’s forest cover is 7,08,273 square kilometres in 2017 compared to 7,01,673 square kilometres in 2015; this clearly indicates apparent rise by 6600 square kilometres within a year that is repugnant to the government’s assertion. This rise in forest cover has been debated by some experts pointing out that the government estimates include plantation cover which are different from natural forests. 

The government’s assertion on the resultant factor of green cover is increasing continuously; it is also declared that by 2020 one-third of the country’s land area will be under forest cover. But clemency relies upon inclusion of plantation, not due to expansion of actual forest covers, which is repugnant to the natural forest cover areas of the country. Natural forest is an important determinant of biodiversity, ecosystem services, stability of ecosystem and the same cannot claim in the form of plantations. The natural forests are declining substantially and this is quite alarming.

The most important phenomenon of the recent times is noticed in the forest transitions of 2206 square km patch of the Teesta River Basin at the Eastern Himalayas. The area is a biodiversity hotspot. Inadequate knowledge of the factors is leading to a loss of biodiversity and ecosystem functions in the particular area. The Landsat satellite data over a 23-year period and an extensive set of ground measurements of vegetation types and land use patterns are also disappearing gradually.

The satellite data too pointed out that 16 per cent primary forest was loss at heights of 2200 to 2800 meters, mostly comprising oaks and beeches. The forests loss was almost one-third or 30 per cent. Denudation is observed at lower heights of 800 to 2200 meters—mostly of warm broad leaf forest. Tropical montane forests continue to decline in the Sikim Himalayas, particularly at lower elevations. Topographical factors determine land use decisions by the local communities.

The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA), Hyderabad reported decline of green forests across India from 2001 to 2014 in the core forest areas and identified hotspots of forest loss in large protected forest areas.

Significant negative changes were reported in the seasonal green cover, with the highest recorded in tropical moist deciduous forests, followed by tropical dry deciduous, tropical wet evergreen, tropical semi-evergreen, subtropical broad leaved and Himalayan moist temperate forests. Most of the decline occurred in core areas of the different forest types, as well as over large protected areas such as Similipal Wildlife Sanctuary of Odisha, Rajaji National Park of Uttarakhand, Achanakmar Wildlife Sanctuary of Chhattisgarh and the Sundarbans of West Bengal. In November 2017 a decrease in mangrove forests by 15.6 per cent of its total area was noticed.

The Eastern Ghats have lost 15.83 per cent of forest area in the forest canopy over 95 years. Historical maps and satellite data from 1920 to 2015 exhibit changes and forest fragmentation.

It is noticed that a 40 per cent reduction in overall forest cover has occurred during the last 95 years and conversion of scrubland into agricultural land, largely driven by mining agricultural activities and urbanisation.

The habitats of Rare, Endangered and Threatened (RET) endemic species were either reduced or degraded due to human activities. The habitats of RET species, in particular, “fragmented alarmingly”.

The Eastern Ghats have lost 15.83 per cent of their forest area with an estimated 7.92 per cent of forest area converted for agriculture and up to 3.80 per cent into scrubland and grassland. While the total number of forest patches has risen from 1509 in 1920 to 9457 in 2015, the core area has declined from 93,461.05 square km in 1920 to 61,262.11 square km in 2015.

The fragmentation of the natural forests affects the distribution of species by splitting their habitats into several patches. This situation make the habitat vulnerable, particularly for the endemic species, whose distribution has been restricted since long. If the degradation continues in this manner in the near future, many species are likely to disappear from the Eastern Ghat forests, which have high accessi-bility to human beings. Community-based conservation activities would make a great impact towards regeneration of forests.

The people are depending on forests for livestock, grazing, collection of firewood and agriculture. Measures to improve the forest cover include planting indigenous trees in the large fallow areas left behind after cropping; implementing programmes to regenerate forests in the mining areas and sustainable use of forests. The socio-ecological problems and how to achieve the seemingly conflicting goals of development and protection of natural forests are today’s burning questions.

Thus, it is quite obvious that the forest cover areas of India are repugnant to the assertion by the administration or the survey reports and these never coincide with the actual reality. There should be strong indicators for measuring of potential irreversible transitions in Indian forest eco-systems, which might be helped by the policy recommendations on how to protect such natural never-ending resources and how to reach the 2020 goal. Otherwise it shall remain only a target on paper.

Thus, forest cover denudation and claims of the administration are always repugnant to the resultant factors. The two run parallel and never coincide with each other.

Dr Suparna Sanyal Mukherjee is the Chairperson and Managing Director of Multiple Project at Salboni, West Bengal.

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