The 17th edition of the India State of Forest Report (ISFR) offers us some good news, but it also lays bare several areas of concern over India’s natural ecosystem. The report says that nearly a quarter of India is under green cover, with an addition of 2,261 sq km since the previous ISFR, released in 2019. India’s forest and tree cover now stands at 80.9 million hectares, or 24.62% of the total geographical area, a rise of 0.3% since 2019. The two-year increase in the forest cover aggregates to 1,540 sq km and that in the tree cover to 721 sq km. India’s forest cover is 7,13,789 sq km, or 21.71% of the geographical area, up from 21.67% in 2019. The states that have done particularly well in increasing the forest cover are Andhra Pradesh (647 sq km), Telangana (632 sq km) and Odisha (537 sq km).
Now, the worrying part: 1,643 sq km of dense forests have been destroyed since 2019. There still is a net gain in green cover because 549 sq km of non-forest areas, with a canopy density of under 10%, have been converted to dense forests, with a canopy density of over 40%. Alarmingly, five Northeastern states — Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland — have lost significant forest cover, aggregating to 1,020 sq km. Nagaland has lost 1.88% of its forest cover, followed by Manipur (1.48%), Mizoram (1.03%), Meghalaya (0.43%) and Arunachal Pradesh (0.39%). In the northern region, Punjab is the only loser, shedding 2 sq km of forest cover, and now only 1,847 sq km of the state is under forest cover; at 3.67%, it is a fraction of the national average of 21.71%.
Forests are not merely precious natural treasures, they are also the lungs of a nation and repository of flora and fauna. Their absence, coupled with overpopulation and industrialisation, can lead to terrible levels of pollution and climate change, which can have devastating consequences. Our forests are menaced by fires — over 3.98 lakh fires reported in the fire season in 2020-21 — and timber mafia. ‘Progress’ too leads to encroachment, as seems to be happening at an alarming rate in the Northeast. Striking a balance is not easy, but we must do it for the sake of the coming generations. For that, an urgent and effective policy must be formulated and enacted.