Marginal rise in forest cover is welcome. Focus must now be on spreading green canopy
When it comes to rankings on environmental indices, seldom does India have a cheer-worthy statistic. But going by the Indian State of Forest Report, our forest cover has increased by one per cent in the last two years against the global trend of decreasing greens. This means, in real terms, we have managed to regrow 6,778 sq km of forest land. However, experts indicate that the increase has a lot to do with the inclusion of newer districts in the tabulation. Nevertheless, there are some bright spots. The most heartening aspect is that the growth has been mostly in very dense forest areas than open ones. Now these are our carbon sinks and have an increased capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and oxygenate it. While Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh have the largest forest cover in the country, the conscientious growth has been in the southern parts — Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Karnataka and Kerala. What seems to have worked in favour of the green umbrella is the attempt to make tribals stakeholders in the maintenance of forest covers, keep them sustainable and free of over-exploitation by fixing minimum support prices of forest produce and continue afforestation efforts that have clearly yielded notable ground benefits. The other takeaways are that water bodies inside forests have increased by 2,647 sq km during the last decade and mangrove erosion has been arrested in parts. All this means a focussed restoration of biodiversity and effecting a change in micro-climates. The increase in wetlands and a recharge of ground water tables are expected to revive river systems running through forest basins.
What though has worried environmentalists is the denudation of open and medium density forests countrywide, particularly in the North-East where the total forest cover in each State is more than 70 per cent. The six north-eastern States have reported a decline of 630 sq km. Clearly, we are yet to reconcile agricultural expansion, re-classification of plant wealth as commercial and non-commercial, rotational felling and development needs vis-à-vis climate change. The overall dip in forest quality is undoubtedly worrisome as it exposes gaps between the needs of conservation and addressing those of local communities. Although most States have more than 30 per cent forested land, the idea is to work towards a homogeneous spread rather than scattered footprints. India, as an emergent economy, has to straddle its economic imperatives, keep its carbon footprints to a limit and comply with its promises made in the Paris Agreement to increase its biowealth resources. Going by the Food and Agriculture Organisation report, India is placed eighth in the list of top 10 nations reporting the greatest annual net gain in forest area. We need to tread conscientiously.
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