There is a good reason to cheer as India’s forest cover has gone up marginally. According to the latest ‘Indian State of Forest Report, 2017’, released by Forest Survey of India, the country’s forest cover has increased by 1% in the last two years against the global trend of decreasing green cover. In real terms, India has managed to regrow 6,778 sq km of forest land. The Environment Ministry’s biennial report, based on satellite imagery, presents a net positive balance with 24.4% of India’s land area being under some form of forest or tree cover. The growth in green cover is attributed to an increase in plantations and conservation efforts. The focus now should be on consolidating the gains and spreading the green canopy. This must be done by involving all the stakeholders — State governments and local bodies. It is particularly heartening that Telangana is among the top States, having increased its tree cover by 565 sq km. This is a testimony to the success of initiatives to improve green cover, including ‘Haritha Haram’ and massive plantation in forest areas. What appears to have worked in favour of spreading the green umbrella is the concerted effort to make tribals the stakeholders in the maintenance of forest covers and keep them free of over-exploitation by fixing minimum support prices for forest produce. The continued afforestation efforts have clearly yielded creditable benefits. Another positive sign is that the water bodies inside forests have increased by 2,647 sq km across the country during the last decade and mangrove erosion has been arrested in many parts. This is clearly the result of focused restoration of biodiversity.
The increase in wetlands and a recharge of groundwater tables are expected to revive river systems running through forest basins. However, environmentalists have red-flagged the trend of denudation of open and medium density forests countrywide, particularly in the Northeast where the total forest cover in each State is more than 70%. The six north-eastern States have reported a decline of 630 sq km. There is a need to balance between the needs of local communities, changing patterns of agriculture and conservation of forest wealth. Despite tremendous population and pressures of livestock on forests, India has been able to preserve and expand its forest wealth reasonably well. The report states that in 2017, India’s forest cover increased to 7,08,273 sq km as against 7,01,495 sq km two years ago. Some experts, however, argue that the net gain in forest cover could actually be masking massive deforestation as the areas that have turned green are not necessarily natural forests but plantations, which are monocultures of one species of trees. They are no replacement for natural forests.