Forests in India: Statistics speaks

By: Sunitha Bhaskar and Jasmeet Bagga
A statistical assessment of the state of India’s forests after the implementation of Forest Conservation Act, 1980 is attempted in the paper. The increasing green cover and decreasing trend in diversion of forest area after 2001 seem to be positive signs.
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The forests in India, home to a rich diversity of flora and fauna, also help in the prevention of floods and soil erosion apart from being responsible for water and oxygen. Forests are widely exploited for timber, fuelwood, charcoal, medicines, food, trees, habitat and recreation. The Forest Survey of India (FSI), under the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests, has been entrusted with the responsibility of monitoring the forest and tree cover.

India is among the few countries in the world to have an operational two-year cycle for wall-to-wall mapping of forest cover. The forest cover assessed is classified into 3 main categories – very dense, moderately dense and open forest. India had 76.95 million hectares of recorded forest area in March 2007. This accounts for 23.41 per cent of total geographic area.

The Forest Conservation Act of India, 1980 with amendments in 1988, provides for conservation of forests and matters connected with protection of trees from illegal felling and destruction. This Act covers all aspects of forests including reserve forests, protected forests or any forest land irrespective of its ownership. Main features of the Act are,

  • No part of a reserved forest can be used for non -forest purpose by the State governments without prior approval from the Central government.
  • State Governments cannot lease forest land to private persons or to any other authority, corporation, agency or organisation, which are not managed or controlled by the government.
  • A forest land can be cleared of trees (which have grown naturally) only when this land is to be used for reforestation.

Forest Coverage in India

Though more than one-fifth of India’s geographic area is recorded as forest area, it is not known with certainty how much of this area actually bears forest cover. The National Forest Policy (1952 and 1988) aims at having one third of country’s land area under forest and tree cover. However, per capita availability of forests in India is approximately 0.06 ha which is much lower than the world average of 0.8 ha.

The term ‘recorded forest area’ refers to all the geographical areas recorded as ‘forest’ in government records. Recorded forest area largely consists of Reserved Forests (RF) and Protected forests (PF), which have been constituted under the provisions of Indian forest act 1927. Besides RFs and PFs, the recorded forest area may include all such areas, which have been recorded as forests in the revenue records, often called ‘unclassified forests’, or have been constituted under any State Act or local laws. Thus ‘recorded forest area’ denotes the legal status of the land, which may or may not have tree/forest cover, whereas ‘forest cover’, indicates presence of tree cover over any land irrespective of ownership. Forest cover includes all lands having trees with canopy density 10 per cent and above and with area of 1 ha or more though such lands may not be included in the ‘recorded forest area’.


Changes in Coverage of Forests, Trees and Mangroves

Multi-pronged pressures on forests come from population, cattle grazing, fuel and fodder collection, industry, forest fires etc. The ‘good’ forest cover remaining is estimated to be just 11 per cent against the desirable 33 per cent of the total land area as per the National Forest Policy. Up to the late seventies, forest land was a prime target for diversion for resettlement, agriculture and industrialisation, and this trend was contained only by the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980.

Tree Cover – This includes tree patches outside recorded forest area, which are less than 1 ha such as trees on village common lands, farmlands, lands along roads, railways, canals, and in homesteads. In India, only 2.82 per cent of the total geographic area had tree cover.

Growing Stock – This is the sum (by number or volume) of all the trees growing in the forest or a specified part of it. The information on growing stock is essential to understand the productive capacity of forests in order to develop national policies for the sustainable use of the forest resources. It also leads to the quantification of biomass, which, in turn, is essential to assess the amount of carbon stored in the forests.

Mangrove Cover – This comprises salt tolerant plant species that occur along inter-tidal zones of rivers and seas in the form of narrow strips or as extensive patches in estuarine habitats and river deltas of tropical and sub-tropical regions. The current assessment shows that mangrove cover in the country is 4,639 sq km, which is 0.14 per cent of the country’s total geographical area.


Forest Conservation

Realising the role of forests in controlling soil erosion, moderation of floods, recharging of ground aquifers, as habitat for wildlife, conservation of biodiversity and gene pool, etc., programmes were launched as early as the Second Five Year Plan for extensive watershed management followed later by establishment of a Protected Areas Network, under the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972.

Besides India’s Forest conservation Act, 1980 is one of the most progressive forest conservation legislations in the world. It puts severe restrictions on the diversion of forest land for non-forestry purposes. The National Forest Policy, 1988 lays out clear directions and guidelines for forest conservation and afforestation. A two pronged strategy to increase forest cover essentially comprises of improving canopy cover in the forest land and undertaking afforestation in non-forest and degraded lands, preferably contiguous to forest blocks.

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