Forest Cover assessment and Sustainability of India's Forest Cover

Dr VK Bahuguna

(The author is retired civil servant)
The Forest Survey of India (FSI)had recently released its biennial State of Forest Report 2019 and civil society is busy in analysing its contents. The FSI reports are always awaited eagerly with hawk’s eye by the ruling party in the centre to get to know about the impact of their policies and an increase in net area of forest and tree cover is a net political gain. However, more often than not the political masters are not ready to acknowledge the adverse situation as this writer vividly remember the then Minister of Environment and Forests TR Baaluin 2003 asking the then Director General of FSI to tweak the facts so that there is no focus on areas where more scientific and administrative attention is needed or which may invite adverse publicity. Thankfully, the current assessment has shown an increase of 5, 188 of forest and tree cover (3,976 of forest and 1212 of tree cover outside recorded forests). The total forest and tree cover in the country is 80.7 mha which correspond to 24.56% of the country's geographic area. The carbon stock is assessed at 7,124.6 million tonnes an increase of 42.6 million tonnes compared to 2017 assessment. For better accuracy the growing stock assessment was done with higher sampling intensity and uniformly spread sample plots. Let us passionately analyse the 2019 report.

This year's report has for the first time since FSI started publishing the 'state of forest' report in 1985, have provided many useful information on the status of forest by adding few additional parametersthereby increasing the usefulness of the assessment. As around 32 million ha of forests are intimately linked to the livelihood of the people living in 170,000 forest fringe villages, the FSI had calculated the dependency of people in each state for fuel wood, fodder, Bamboo and small timber.  The report gives state wise details of removal of these items as well state wise as per capita consumption. This is very pertinent information for assessing the contribution of these forests in the gross domestic products and also for infusion of financial and technical resources for the management of forests as a big chunk of which are ecologically not in good shape. The ground level information on changes in Bio-diversity and hydrology is key to combat climate change and in this year’s report the biodiversity and wetlands in 16 forest types have been assessed which will assist the foresters in planning management strategies. One of the additional information this report provide relates to five Non Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) for each state, which reflects the contribution of this segment in livelihood of rural and tribal belt. Most of the NTFPs producing trees and shrubs are under threat of over exploitation and poor regeneration. The planners, forest, tribal and rural development ministries must have a look into these statistics and plan regeneration and efficient management of NTFPs. Yet another good feature is the study of forests occurring in different slopes which is the indicator of stability of forest ecosystem. The report also brings for each state the threat of invasive species due to anthropological and climatic reasons. In nutshell, these are the positives we can take from this year’s report.

For common citizen’s knowledge and to attract the attention of the government policy makers it is essential to critically analyse the factsemerging from the report. It is well known that around 28 % of the recorded forests (76.74 mh) are without trees and comprise of snow covered mountains, glaciers, desert and inaccessible treeless rocky areas above tree line. These areas are ecologically critical for our ecological and economical life line and continuous source of water for our rivers, agriculture and forest bio-diversity and must be integrated within over all forest ecosystems though they may not technically qualify as forests. If we add this 21 mha to 80 mha forest and tree cover than the ecological life sustaining system comes to around 101 million ha. Planners therefore, need to spend at least a certain percent of our GDP on this land's stability. Of the 71.22 mha of forest cover, it includes around 20 mha of the tree/forest having areas over more than 1 ha outside recorded forest area. The areas less than 1 ha (around 9.5 mha) outside recorded forests are clubbed separately which brings to the figure of 80.7 mha of total tree and forest cover and thus 24.56% of the land mass.

The report, however, give a dismal picture of forest in tribal districts relating to decrease of forest cover in tribal district to the tune of 741 The livelihood of tribal is dependent on forests and adequate steps must be taken for the productive management of land vested under Forest Rights Act. It appears either the areas have been cleared of tree growth due to encroachments or the land use has changed in these forests. Another area of concern is that a large chunk of forests (30 mha) is in  open category. The report also gives a scary picture about the growing stock which shows extremely poor count of big size trees. Yet another feature in the report which gives an uneasy feeling is that 36% of the forests area is fire prone. The northeast, central India and Himalayan forests are losing rich bio-diversity due to forest fires. Steps on priority must be taken to have zero tolerance for forest fires.

The mandarins at the policy making level under the central government have points to rejoice on the report as it vindicate the hard work put in by the field foresters in states. The new parameters in the report are food for thought for foresters and planners to use the information for fine tuning forest governance. The report surely gives a feeling that all is not well scientifically with our forest ecosystemsand needsinfusion of policy, institutional and technological inputs with a pragmatic forward looking approach to forest management. The State governments must see the tables for their state and draw strategies to sustainable manage the forests and unless it is done the euphoria of increase in forest cover will be over in few years time.  The FSI had done a commendable job and the way this organization’s responsibilities are increasing it needs substantial enhancement in man power and technology so that it meets its ever increasing mandate (like recent Supreme Court order on survey of illegal occupation of forestland). It is time its functioning is reviewed and the post of DG FSI and its regional centres needs to be upgraded to attract and retain better professionals. The organization should be upgraded to the level of an Attached office under the Ministry so that it can give executive directions required for better coordination with states in the implementation of the policies laid down by the ministry .

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