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Insights into Editorial: India’s forest cover: What data shows

Insights into Editorial: India’s forest cover: What data shows



The Delhi high court will hear a petition challenging the felling of 16,000 trees to build houses for government employees in Delhi. The hearing comes in the wake of growing protests over the felling of 16,000 trees.

On the face of it, the protests appear surprising in a city which has claimed to have witnessed a spectacular rise in green cover since the turn of the 21st century.

According to official estimates of the Forest Survey of India, Delhi has witnessed a whopping 73% rise in forest cover between 2001 and 2017, the third highest gain among all states and Union territories (UTs).

However, the official and alternative estimates suggest that the Forest Survey of India estimate may be grossly overstating the true extent of forest cover in the national capital, and in the nation.


Official estimates might be overstating forest cover in India:

While the official data suggests that India has been able to increase green cover since the turn of the century, alternative estimates provided by Global Forest Watch, (GFW) —a collaborative project of the University of Maryland, Google, USGS, and Nasa—suggests that green cover has declined sharply in the country.

The main reason for the stark difference in the two estimates seems to lie in the definition of forest cover used by Forest Survey of India.

Forest Survey of India employs satellite imagery to estimate “forest cover”, considering “all lands which have a tree canopy density of more than 10% when projected vertically on the horizontal ground, within a minimum areal extent of one hectare” as forests.

This definition fails to distinguish between native forests and man-made tree plantations, overstating the extent of forest cover.

While the Convention on Biological Diversity has a similar definition of forests, it mentions that the land in question should not be under agricultural or non-forest use.

A 2010 study by researchers from Pondicherry University and James Cook University, Australia, described the Forest Survey of India results as “technically accurate but misleading”.

As in the case of Forest Survey of India, the GFW database relies on satellite data for estimation of “tree cover”, employs similar criteria as Forest Survey of India, and a similar resolution of satellite imagery.

Therefore, the “forest cover” defined by Forest Survey of India and “tree cover”, defined by the GFW are comparable in terms of both definition and accuracy.

However, the GFW definition is stricter as it only considers vegetation that is taller than 5 metres in height. It is this difference that seems to explain the striking differences in results obtained from the two data sources.

Diversion of forests for industrial and development projects without settling forest dwellers rights and without their free and prior informed consent has been indiscriminately carried out.


Cumulative loss of tree cover between 2001 – 2017:

While the latest estimate of tree cover extent from GFW is of 2010, data on loss of forest cover is updated annually. The tree cover loss for Indian states shows an accelerating trend in recent years, with the heavily forested north-eastern states, Odisha, and Kerala showing the greatest amount of tree cover loss in the period 2001-2017.

However, the official data represents that Kerala gained 30% forest cover in the same period. This can be explained by the fact that Kerala is one of the biggest producers of plantation crops in India, with rapidly growing plantation crops likely compensating for the loss of native forest cover.

According to the GFW data, all states and union territories with the exception of Chandigarh show a decline in the extent of tree cover in the time period 2000-2010. In contrast, in terms of official data, 28 of 36 states and UTs have registered an increase in forest cover.

Since the GFW data adopts a globally consistent definition, it enables international comparison of the extent of tree cover loss, and the results do not paint a pretty picture. India ranks 14th among all countries in tree cover loss in the decade 2000-2010.

“India is ranked 10th in the world, with 24.4% of land area under forest and tree cover, even though it accounts for 2.4% of the world surface area and sustains the needs of 17% of human and 18% livestock population.”


Communities are the best managers for the governance and conservation of forests:

Forest Survey of India reports show that forest cover in tribal districts, constituting 60% of the country’s total forest cover, contradicted the national trend and increased by 3,211 sq. km over 2001-03.
In Odisha alone, more than 12,000 self-initiated forest protection groups cover more than 2 million hectares of forest.

These community-led initiatives have successfully regenerated forests by adopting sustainable- use practices, regeneration through traditional knowledge of forests and species, guarding and penalizing poachers, among others.



India’s diverse forests support the livelihoods of 250 million people, providing them firewood, fodder, bamboo, beedi leaves and many other products. The timber currently benefits the state treasury.

There is a need of revamping India’s forest policy. But the latest draft overlooks the ecological and social implications of carbon and production forestry and the need for decentralised democracy. Thus, there is a need to have a re-look.

India posted a marginal 0.21% rise in the area under forest between 2015 and 2017, according to the biennial India State of Forest Report (SFR) 2017. The document says that India has about 7,08,273 square kilometres of forest, which is 21.53% of the geographic area of the country (32,87,569 sq. km).

Getting India to have at least 33% of its area under forest has been a long-standing goal of the government since 1988.