Forests have an indispensable role to play in the maintenance of our complex web of biodiversity and ecology and in giving us valuable physical and biogeochemical resources for sustenance. Needs for development have been exercising pressures on the forest ecosystem which spell grave danger. World over the forest cover is decreasing. At the beginning of the 20th century the forest cover on earth was estimated at 5 billion hectares; by the end of 20th century it was 2.9 billion hectares.
Environmental impacts are glaringly visible. Nearly half of India’s land was under forest in the first half of the 19th century. By 2001 the total forest cover had come down to 20.55%. The National Forest Policy prescribes that the National Goal should be to have a minimum of one third of the total land area of the country under forest cover. In the hills and in mountain regions the aim should be to maintain 2/3 of the area under forest cover. After the bifurcation of greater Uttar Pradesh into Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal, U.P. was left with very little forest and had 9.01% forest and tree cover in 2011 against the National Average of 23.81%. U.P. is home to 16.2% of India’s population and consequently its contribution to greenhouse gases may be high and a low forest cover is likely to result in a buildup of greenhouse gases. 17 states in the country have finalized their Climate Change Action Plans. U.P. has, I am told, prepared a draft action plan which has yet to be given final shape.
The forest cover in U.P. is much below the desired norms, the quality is also not good and the trends have also not been noticeably healthy. Recorded forest cover is decreasing. The gap between recorded forest area and actual forest area needs to be bridged. The rationale for considering plot sizes of more than 1 hectare in the estimation of actual forest cover may need to be examined as there may be considerable land areas of less than 1 hectare under plantation in the state.
Forests serve as one of the most important sinks for atmospheric CO2, an important greenhouse gas. Carbon stocks held in the countries forests had increased by 592 million Tons between 1994 and 2004. The Forest Survey of India (FSI) has estimated that by the end of 2011 the carbon stock held in above ground biomass, below ground biomass, dead wood, litter and in soil was 7328 million Tons.
Both the quantity and rate of increase are encouraging. The carbon stock is a result of the carbon fixed as biomass in India’s forests and is associated with removal of carbon. It has also been estimated by the Forest Survey of India that the 59.2 million Tons per annum carbon accumulation in forest from 1994 to 2004 means an annual removal of 217.07 million Tons CO2 equivalent from the atmosphere.
U.P. is required to have at least20% of its land area under forest/tree cover which is presently just about 9.01%. It will require well meaning, focussed and interdepartmentally coordinated efforts to achieve this figure of 20%.
It may also involve large scale greening in areas outside the formally recorded forest areas. The initiatives of the Department of Environment, Government of U.P. in making tree plantations and green belts, mandatory components of all development projects is commendable. Degraded lands may also need to be recovered for tree and other biomass cover.