Has forest cover really increased?

While the report paints a rosy, or green, picture, the devil is in the detail.

The latest India State of Forest Report (ISFR) brings unexpected good news that the forest cover in the country has improved by 3,976 sq km between 2017 and 2019. This is surprising in the light of continuing reports of large-scale denuding due to natural and man-made reasons, encroachments for farming, legal and illegal diversions for mining and industrial use and lacklustre afforestation and reforestation programmes. The biennial report has produced impressive statistics in support of its claims. It says that the forest cover has gone up from 6.7 lakh sq km in 2005 to 7.12 lakh in 2019, and that the areas under open forests have increased from 2.9 lakh sq km to 3.04 lakh sq km. The total forest cover in the country is now 21.67% as against 21.54% in 2017. There is a 3% increase from 2011. Karnataka is among the states which have recorded an increase in forest cover.  

While the report paints a rosy, or green, picture, the devil is in the detail. Open forests have seen the maximum growth. These forests have low-density canopy and may even contain commercial plantations, which are not forests in the real sense. Moderately dense forests, which have a canopy density between 40% and 70%, have actually shrunk. This is the category of forest that usually sees the most encroachments and other activities that threaten their survival. The ‘Very Dense’ forests, which have a canopy cover of over 70%, have hardly seen any growth. This category constitutes only 3% of the landmass. Another matter of concern is that the forest area has considerably diminished in the North-Eastern region which was well-known for its dense forest cover. There is also a view that the very definition of forests, given by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which prepared the report, is too liberal. It considers as a forest any area more than one hectare in size and with a tree canopy density of 10% and above, irrespective of ownership, legal status of land, and species composition of trees. Going by this definition, many wooded areas or clusters of trees can be wrongly classified as forests. 

There are questions about the methodology also. The survey was done by satellites which provided high-resolution images. The result was that even small areas which have a 10% canopy were included as forests. Such small patches were not considered as forests earlier. All this may have led to an overestimation of the forested area. In any case, even the 21.67% forest cover estimated is nowhere near the target of bringing 33% of the country’s landmass under forest cover. 

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