Climate change has a habit of setting its own agenda. Thus the news cycle has moved on from the “unprecedented” fires in the Amazon, to the “unprecedented” destruction caused by Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas. After all, what is the era of climate change if not the proliferation of “unprecedented” extreme events? However, in this instalment of the Climate Change Tracker, we will follow on from last week’s discussion on the Amazon fires to look at India’s forest health.
It has been the country’s national policy, since 1952, to bring 33% of India’s total geographical area under forest cover. It is an ambitious and—according to a 2018 paper by scientists Diana K. Davis and Paul Robbins in the journal Environment And Planning E: Nature And Space—ad hoc project reminiscent of former colonial polices. Be that as it may, according to the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI’s) State Of Forest Report 2017, currently that number stands at just 21.54%. Of this, a mere 2.99% is very dense forest (VDF) and 9.38% is moderately dense forest (MDF). It should also be noted that orchards, plantations and even coconut groves are counted under MDF and open forest (OF). VDFs and MDFs are mostly clustered in Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh. In terms of sheer percentage of forested areas vis-à-vis the size of the state, North-East states like Arunachal, Mizoram and Meghalaya rank high.
And yet, according to the very same FSI report, the states with the thickest forests have also lost the most trees due to development projects like those for irrigation, mining and infrastructure: Arunachal lost 190 sq. km, Meghalaya 116 sq. km and Mizoram 531 sq. km between 2015-17. In December, the government declared in Parliament that over 20,000 hectares had been diverted for projects such as mining, dams and thermal power plants between 2015-18. According to data mapped by Global Forest Watch, an international monitoring body, between 2001-18, India lost 16,744 sq. km of tree cover, of which more than half occurred between 2013-18—74.7% of the loss was borne by Assam, Arunachal, Meghalaya, Mizoram and other states in the North-East.
What then are the effects of this deforestation? Apart from an ecological threat, as well as the loss of top soil and the silting of rivers, temperatures have been rising. In May, Aizawl recorded its highest temperature in 20 years, at 36.7 degrees Celsius. According to a 2017 Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar study for the Meghalaya government, between 1981- 2012, the state’s average temperature rose by .031 degrees every year, a total rise of almost 1 degree Celsius. It should come as no surprise, then, that according to the FSI’s 2019 report on fire-prone areas across India, Mizoram, Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya and Manipur occupy the top five spots in the “extremely fire prone” class.