According to India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2017, released by Union environment minister Harsh Vardhan on February 12, 2018. India’s total forest cover is 708,273 sq.km (about 21.54% of India’s total GA) and tree cover is 93,815 sq.km (about 2.85% of the total GA).Taken together, it marks an increase of about 1% Forest and tree cover in India since 2015 to 802,088 sq.km or about 24.39% of the country’s total geographical area (GA). The latest ISFR report also includes information about water bodies in forests. This is a new feature of the report. It revealed that there has been an increase of 2,647 sq.km in the extent of water bodies in forest areas over the decade 2005-2015. According to the report, all the states and Union territories show an increase (in water bodies) except Arunachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Bihar. The ISFR report is published every two years. The 2017 report is more comprehensive than the previous one as it is based on information from 633 districts compared with 589 covered in the 2015 report.
The top five states where forest cover grew are Andhra Pradesh (by 2,141 sq.km), Karnataka (1,101 sq.km), Kerala (1,043 sq.km), Odisha (885 sq.km) and Telangana (565 sq.km), while the top five states where forest cover declined are Mizoram (by 531 sq.km), Nagaland (450 sq.km), Arunachal Pradesh (190 sq.km), Tripura (164 sq.km) and Meghalaya (116 sq.km). According to the report, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover (77, 414 sq. km), followed by Arunachal Pradesh (66,964 sq. km), Chhattisgarh (55,547 sq. km) Odisha (51, 345 sq. km) and Maharashtra (50,682 sq. km). Forest cover in hill districts grew by 754 sq.km, while tribal districts saw an increase of 86.89 sq.km in just the last two years, according to ISFR 2017. But, worryingly, forest cover in the northeastern region showed a decline of 630 sq.km.
India targets having 33% of its GA under forest cover. According to the report, at present 15 states and Union territories have more than 33% of their GA under forest cover. The report highlighted that about 40% of forest cover is contained in nine large patches across the country, each more than 10,000 sq.km in extent.
The report has also brought out some major concerns. Firstly among the top states under forest and tree cover, forest and tree cover has decreased since 2015 except Odisha. Second worrying trend is that the five states where the forest cover contracted the most are in the biodiversity rich northeastern region. This region had witnessed a decrease in 2015 too from 2013, according to the previous report. Thirdly, it is observed from the report that the net increase in forest cover has been uneven as increase in net forest and tree cover was observed in areas less than 1,000 metre altitude, while in all other altitudinal zones small net decrease has been observed.
The report also revealed that 21,054 sq. km of non-forest area became forest area during the last two years, hinting that this may have been due to an increase in activities like plantation. However, 24,175 sq. km of forest area of different categories such as very dense forest and moderate forest turned into non-forest area due to deforestation or diversion of forest land for developmental projects.
Union environment minister said that India ranks among the top 10 countries of the world in terms of forest area. But this fact needs to be seen in the conext of population density. None of the 9 countries in top 10 list has a population density of more than 150 persons per sq.km, compared with India’s 382 persons per sq.km. However according to the latest FAO report, India has reported the greatest annual net gain in forest area among the top ten countries, despite finishing at 8th rank.