Bengaluru: Has India really grown greener in the last two years? If you went by the spread of green, called the green wash (GW), on maps presented by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), you’d say yes. But then do mind that the FSI’s definition of green would include any land with a 10 per cent tree canopy as a forest.
That would make your friendly neighbourhood park a forest.
Again this year, the FSI’s biennial survey of forests, India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2019, claims that there has been a marginal increase in forest cover. This should be music to the ears of activists but it isn’t.
Forests are broadly classified as ‘very dense forests’ (VDF), ‘moderately dense forests’ and ‘open forests’. Most of the very dense forests are within the Recorded Forest Area (RFA), which is under control of the state forest departments.
The latest FSI survey report states that there has been an increase of 4,306 sq km of ‘forest cover’ outside the RFA/GW area compared to the previous assessment in 2017. But then, the same report confesses that forest cover within the RFA/GW zone has shown a slight decrease of 330 sq km (0.05 per cent).
Green activists are not entirely enthused by these findings, just as they were not by the FSI’s previous report 2017. The fact is that the country has lost 9059 sq km of forest since 2001.
Back then, the extent of very dense and moderate dense forest cover was 4,16,819 sq km. That came down to 4,04,476 sq km in 2017. The present report says it has increased to 4,07,750 sq km. It’s seems like a marginal increase but even then experts say it’s improbable. Practically, recovery of very dense and moderately dense forests in two years is just not possible.
Praveen Bhargav of Wildlife First agrees that the claim is dubious. “In the first place, the entire report lacks clarity on how it came to such a conclusion. ISFR’s definition of forest cover is itself loose: all land with more than 10 per cent tree canopy per hectare, irrespective of land use, ownership and legal status. Such a large increase in VDF in a two-year period needs deeper scrutiny and in-depth peer review.’’
The FSI drew a lot of fire for its 2017 survey. In a paper published in Current Science, a group of environmental scientists under N H Ravindranath said then that India is potentially overreporting its forest area by including even commercial plantations of coconut, cashew, coffee and rubber and fruit orchards as forests. Conversely, India may also be underreporting deforestation by reporting only the gross forest area at the state and national levels.
Ravindranath’s study, using FSI’s published data, contended that India was experiencing significant-scale deforestation and forest degradation, and felt the need for a review of how we monitor and report on forest areas.
Flor its 2017 survey, FSI lumped any land with more than 10 per cent canopy cover as a forest. This brought in some parks in the metros into the forest category. This time, FSI included wetland areas under forests, which brought in large tracts of wetland areas in Gujarat and West Bengal, boosting the figures further.
And Praveen Bhargav fiercely quibbles with the figures: “In a reply in the Lok Sabha, the minister of state for environment stated on Dec 22, 2017 that over 56,069 hectares of forest land had been diverted to other purposes. Additionally, 53.3 lakh hectares were granted to beneficiaries under the Forest Rights Act. Plus, the ISFR report itself records that there have been more than 100,000 incidents of forest fires. So how is the ISFR even accounting for these huge losses? Where is the data on area of forest land diverted, granted, burnt and destroyed?’’
A 2013 paper published in Elsevier by four scientists of the National Remote sensing Center led by Sudhakar Reddy highlighted the negative impact of forest fragmentation. Their analysis revealed that forest loss was 5.8 per cent during 1975-2005. They concluded that increased fragmentation in most of the biogeographic zones was due to deforesation.
“We have to look at the issue differently,” argues Praveen Bhargav. “The best scientific research is telling us that fragmentation of forests is the most serious threat to biodiversity. By not highlighting the challenges posed by fragmentation, FSI is doing us a great disservice. Our forest policy must usher in a fundamental change by identifying areas where forests stand degraded but contain root stock and those legally notified forests that have been completely mined and so on.’’
For what they are worth, here are the highlights of ISFR 2019:
- The total forest and tree cover of India is 8,07,276 sq km, which is 24.56 per cent of the geographical area. The latest assessment by FSI shows an increase of 3,976 sq km (0.56 per cent) of forest cover, 1,212 sq km (1.29 per cent) of tree cover and 5,188 sq km (0.65 per cent) of forest and tree cover put together as compared to the previous survey
- The top five states in terms of increase in forest cover are Karnataka (1,025 sq km), Andhra Pradesh (990 sq km), Kerala (823 sq km), Jammu & Kashmir (371 sq km) and Himachal Pradesh (334 sq km).
- Forest cover in 140 hill districts of the country is 2,84,006 sq km, which is 40.30 per cent of the total geographical area of these districts. That’s an increase of 544 sq km (0.19 per cent).
- In the tribal districts, total forest cover is 4,22,351 sq km, or 37.54 per cent of the geographical area of these districts. That’s a decrease of 741 sq km within the RFA/GW and an increase of 1,922 sq km outside of it.
- The total forest cover in the Northeast is 1,70,541 sq km, or 65.05 per cent of the region’s geographical area. The current assessment shows a decrease of forest cover to the extent of 765 sq km (0.45%). Except Assam and Tripura, all states in the Northeast showed a decrease in forest cover.
- Mangrove cover in the country has increased by 54 sq km (1.10 per cent) as compared to the previous assessment.
- The total growing stock of wood in the country is estimated at 5,915.76 million cubic metres (cu m)--comprising 4,273.47 million cubic metres inside the recorded forest areas and 1,642.29 million cubic metres outside. The average growing stock per hectare in forest has been estimated as 55.69 cu m.
- The total bamboo bearing area of the country is estimated at 1,60,037 sq km. That’s an increase of 3,229 sq km as compared to the estimate of ISFR 2017.
- In the present assessment, total carbon stock in the forests is estimated at 7,124.6 million tonnes. That is an increase of 42.6 million tonnes as compared to the 2017 assessment. The annual increase is 21.3 million tonnes, which is 78.1 million tonnes carbon dioxide equivalent.
- Soil Organic Carbon (SOC) represents the largest pool of carbon stock in forests, which has been estimated at 4,004 million tonnes. SOC contributes 56 per cent to the total forest carbon stock of the country.
- There are 62,466 wetlands covering 3.83 per cent of the area within the RFA/GW. The total number of wetlands located within the RFA/GW is 8.13 per cent. Amongst the states, Gujarat has the largest area of wetlands within the RFA in the country followed by West Bengal.
- Dependence on fuelwood is highest in Maharashtra, whereas for fodder, small timber and bamboo, dependence is highest in Madhya Pradesh. It has been assessed that the annual removal of small timber by people living in forest-fringe villages is nearly 7 per cent of the average annual yield of forests in the country.
- Fire-prone forest areas of different severity classes have been mapped in grids of 5 km x 5km based on the frequency of forest fires. The analysis reveals that 21.40 per cent of the forest cover of the country is highly to extremely fire-prone.