The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEF&CC) released the biennial India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 on January 13, 2021. “The total forest and tree cover of the country is 80.9 million hectares, which is 24.62% of the geographical area of the country,” said Bhupender Yadav, Union Minister for MoEF&CC sharing the report findings.
India has a robust scientific system for biennial assessment of forest cover, and inventory of forests as well as trees outside forests by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), an organisation under the MOEF&CC. The ISFR 2021 is the seventeenth report in the series and looks at the growing stock in forests and trees outside forests, bamboo resources, carbon stock and several other parameters.
It assesses the state-wise increase or loss of forest covers, mangrove ecosystem, carbon stock, climate change hotspots, forest cover in tiger reserve areas, above ground estimates of biomass using SAR data and forest fire monitoring. It provides valuable inputs for planning, policy formulation and evidence-based decision making both at the national and state levels.
“We are entering the second phase of the national mission for Green India, and the MOEF&CC has taken several decisions for improving forest conservation through peoples’ participation. To achieve India’s aim of increasing the additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes CO2 equivalent by 2030, the Nagar Van Yojana has been introduced. This will help increase the tree cover and has been dovetailed with the second phase of Green India Mission in the next five years,” said Bhupender Yadav.
The ISFR 2021 has information on different parameters of forest resources and is based on the regular nationwide mapping of forest cover and forest inventory and other studies conducted at the national level.
The methodology adopted for forest cover and forest inventory has undergone regular improvements over time. The assessment now involves wall-to-wall mapping exercise using remote sensing (ortho-rectified LISS III data of IRS Resourcesat-2 with a spatial resolution of 23.5 m) followed by extensive ground-truthing (3414 locations across the country).
Results of the nation-wide forest cover mapping exercise are presented on 1:150000 scale in three canopy density classes viz very dense forest (canopy density > 70%), moderately dense forest (canopy density - 40-70%), open forest (canopy density 10-40%) and scrubs (canopy density of less than 10%). The increase in the forest cover shown in the report is not uniform.
The forest cover as reported in ISFR includes all patches of land with a tree canopy density of more than 10% and with an area having more than 1 ha, irrespective of land use, ownership and species of trees.
What’s new in ISFR 2021?
ISFR 2021 has a new chapter on ‘Mapping of climate change hotspots in Indian forests’, considering the role of forests in relation to climate change by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs). This can be achieved through expanding the mitigation and adaptation actions with low-cost interventions.
The chapter draws from a collaborative study carried out by FSI and BITS Pilani, Goa campus to map the climatic hotspots over Indian forest cover using temperature and rainfall data, for the three future periods i.e. years 2030, 2050 and 2085.
To identify climatic hotspots in Indian forests two computer-based models were used i.e. RCP 8.5, where RCP 4.5 represents moderate emission scenarios and RCP 8.5 represents the highest emission scenario or worst-case scenario.
Key findings of ISFR 2021
India has set a target of bringing 33% of its geographical area under forest cover as envisaged in the National Forest Policy, 1988. This was also one of the key targets enlisted in the Strategy for New India @ 75 document by NITI Aayog (2018).
A total of 17 states/union territories’ have above 33% of the geographical area under forest cover. Out of these states and union territories, five namely Lakshadweep, Mizoram, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya have more than 75% forest cover.
Area-wise, Madhya Pradesh has the largest forest cover in the country followed by Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra. The top five states in terms of forest cover as a percentage of total geographical area are Mizoram (84.53%), Arunachal Pradesh (79.33%), Meghalaya (76.00%), Manipur (74.34%) and Nagaland (73.90%).
Twelve states and union territories namely Manipur, Nagaland, Tripura, Goa, Kerala, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh, Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Daman & Diu, Assam, Odisha, have forest cover between 33% to 75%.
Increase in forest cover
ISFR 2021 has found that there is an increase of 1,540 square kilometres (0.22%) of forest cover and 721 sq km (0.76%) of tree cover compared to the 2019 report.
The total forest cover of the country is 21.71% of the geographical area; the tree cover is estimated at 2.91% of the geographical area. Thus, the total forest and tree cover comes to 24.62% of the geographical area of the country.
Forest cover inside the recorded forest areas/greenwash (RFA/GW) has shown a slight increase of 31 sq km whereas there is an increase of 1509 sq km of forest cover outside the RFA/GW as compared to the previous assessment of 2019.
The states with the highest increase in the forest cover are Andhra Pradesh (647 sq km), Telangana (632 sq km), Odisha (537 sq km), Karnataka (155 sq km) and Jharkhand (110 sq km). The reason for the increase in the forest cover in states like Andhra Pradesh is plantation and agroforestry.
The ISFR 2021 report attributed the improvement in forest cover to “better conservation measures, protection, afforestation activities, tree plantation drives and agroforestry”.
Decline in forest cover especially in the northeast
The northeast reported the biggest overall loss of forest cover at 1,020 sq km. Though the area has 23.75% of total forest cover, states have lost their cover - Mizoram (1.03%), Arunachal Pradesh (0.39%), Manipur (1.48 %), Meghalaya (0.43%), and Nagaland (1.88%). This decline caused by natural calamities, shifting agriculture and deforestation will affect the region’s water resources and will have an increased effect on landslides, as per the report.
The northeastern states have been consistently losing forest cover, as per the last report published in 2019. Between 2011 and 2019, forest cover of six states, excluding Assam, had decreased by nearly 18% and the region lost nearly 25,012 sq km of forest cover in the preceding decade.
The loss of India’s dense and moderately dense forest is a matter of concern, because the recent amendments to the Forest Act, 1980 are likely to further make the diversion of forest land for non-forest use easier.
Increase in forest fires
As per the ISFR 2021, India reported a total of 3,45,989 forest fires from November 2020 to June 2021. This is the highest recorded in the country for this period so far. Around 2,58,480 forest fires were reported during the same time in 2018-19 (Rajya Sabha query response, December 16, 2021) indicating a sharp rise.
“In India, severe fires occur in many forest types, particularly dry deciduous forest, while evergreen, semi-evergreen and montane temperate forests are comparatively less prone. Around 35.46% of the country’s forest cover has been estimated to be prone to frequent forest fires. Nearly 4% of the country’s forest cover is extremely prone to fire, whereas 6% of the forest cover is found to very highly fire-prone,” adds the report.
Odisha reported the maximum number of fires among all states (51,968), followed by Madhya Pradesh (47,795) and Chhattisgarh (38,106). Uttarakhand recorded the sixth-highest fire counts in the country; incidences were up 28.3 times this forest fire season compared to last. Among districts, the maximum number of such incidents were observed in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra at 10,577, followed by Kandhamal in Odisha at 6,156 and Bijapur in Chhattisgarh at 5,499 incidents.
“Persistent hotter and drier weather due to climate change and other human factors such as land conversion for agriculture and poor forest management are the main drivers behind the increase of forest fire,” the report said.
Forest cover in the hill districts of the country stands at 40.17% of the total geographical area of these districts. This has shown a decline of 0.32% in the current assessment. While in the 2019 report, the forest cover in the hill regions had an increase of 544 sq km, the 2021 report shows a decrease of 902 sq km.
The total forest cover in the tribal districts which stood at 37.53% of the geographical area of the districts shows a decrease of 655 sq km inside the RFA/GW and an increase of 600 sq km outside.
With a total of 4,992 sq km of mangrove cover, the nation has had an increase of 17 sq km over the past two years. The maximum increase in mangrove cover was reported in Odisha (8 sq km) followed by Maharashtra (4 sq km) and Karnataka (3 sq km).
The total bamboo bearing area of the country is estimated as 149443 sq km. There is a decrease of 10594 sq km in the bamboo bearing area as compared to the estimate of ISFR 2019. The bamboo forests have increased to 53,336 million culms (stems) from 13,882 million culms in 2019.
ISFR 2021 assessed forest cover in the tiger reserves for the first time. Of 52 tiger reserves, 20 have recorded an increase in forest cover since 2011 while it decreased in 32 tiger reserves during the same period. While the tiger reserves have decreased by 22.6 sq km (0.04 per cent), the tiger corridors have noted an increase by 37.15 sq km (0.32%). The Kawal, Bhadra and the Sundarbans reserves have shown the maximum loss.
The total growing stock of wood in the country is estimated as 6167.50 million cum comprising 4388.15 million cum inside forest areas and 1779.35 million cum outside recorded forest areas. The average growing stock per hectare in the forest has been estimated as 56.6 cum.
Total carbon stock in the country’s forest is estimated to be 7,204 million tonnes and there is an increase of 79.4 million tonnes in the carbon stock of the country as compared to the last assessment of 2019. The annual increase in carbon stock is 39.7 million tonnes. Soil organic carbon represents the largest pool of carbon stock in forests, which has been estimated at 4010.2 million tonnes. The soil organic carbon contributes 56% to the total forest carbon stock of the country.
The report also estimates that by 2030, 45-64% of Indian forests will be affected by climate change and rising temperatures, and forests in all states (except Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura and Nagaland) will be highly vulnerable climate hot spots. The report suggests that Ladakh (forest cover 0.1-0.2%) is likely to be the most affected by climate change.