Deforestation Is Real in India: What Do Facts and Figures Tell?

With International Day of Forests on 21 March, here’s a look at some facts that tell us how real deforestation is.

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An oft-cited analogy to underline the extent of deforestation is that the world has been losing forest land equivalent to the size of 1,000 football fields every one hour in the last 25 years.

In India, 63 football fields worth of forest land fell prey to development activities every day between 2014 and 2017.

As the world gets set to mark the International Day of Forests on 21 March, we take a look at some facts and figures that tell us exactly how real deforestation is in India.


A Steady Forest Cover? Not Really

With a forest cover of 21.5 percent, India stands well behind its target of 33 percent, and much behind the neighbouring country of Bhutan which boasts a cover of 72 percent. Meanwhile, the country is roughly on an equal footing with China that has a green cover of 21.7 percent.

But what is interesting in India’s case is that its figure has not shown any dramatic fluctuation since the beginning.

In February this year, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) published its State of Forest 2017, which recorded a modest increase of 1 percent in the forest cover, from 7,01,673 sq km in 2015 to 7,08,273 sq km in 2017.

Union Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan hailed this 'progress', saying, "Despite...tremendous population and pressures of livestock on our forests, India has been able to preserve and expands its forest wealth."

However, as the experts point out, just a cursory glance at these figures can prove to be deceptive, as they do not imply a growth in natural forests. Instead, there seems to be a proliferation of plantations – monocultural tracts of land that, unlike natural forests, do not support rich ecosystems.


Moreover, an improvement in the satellite mapping technology over the last few years, coupled with an erroneous definition of 'forest cover' followed by the government, have also ensured that these figures tend to project a rosy and distorted picture, hiding the extent of deforestation in the country.

In fact, as pointed out by The Indian Express, a significant improvement in satellite technology has led to the FSI ironically recording a 13-fold increase in forest area in Delhi from its first report in 1987 to its 2017 report.

On the other hand, many experts have criticised the lack of a distinction between natural forests, plantations, orchards, etc, under the term ‘forest cover’ as formulated by the government.

The estimation is flawed as it does not tell us what changes are taking place in what kind of forests. We do not get to know how our natural forests are faring or how agricultural plantations or orchards are growing.
NH Ravindranath, a professor at Bengaluru’s Indian Institute of Science, to Scroll

The Indian authorities consider any land at least one hectare in size and having a canopy density of at least 10 percent as 'forest land'. The forests are divided into dense forests (having a density of over 70 percent), moderately dense forests (having a canopy density between 40 and 70 percent) and open forests (having a density between 10 and 40 percent).


So How Much Has India Lost?

Notwithstanding the misleading nature of the figures put forward by the government, one cannot ignore the fact that the loss of forests in India has been steadily increasing. In the 2005-07 period, the country lost 2,206 sq km of dense forests, which increased to 6,407 sq km in the 2015-17 period.

As of 2016, it was reported that while 15,000 sq km of land had been destroyed due to encroachments, 14,000 sq km fell prey to 'development activities' such as mining, defence projects and hydroelectric projects in the last three decades.

Meanwhile, in the present scenario, it has been estimated that 250 sq km of forest land is being given out or diverted for 'non-forest' projects every year.

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