Being one of the marvellous boons of God, forests support countless and diverse species, and are essential to the lives of people and wildlife. Forests play a significant role in stabilizing climate, regulating the water regime besides providing a source of livelihood for more than a billion people along with other ecological, economic, spiritual, social and health benefits. It is estimated that nearly 25 crores people are having dependence on forest for subsistence and livelihood. Forests are known to be an excellent sink for carbon dioxide pollution, the single biggest factor of global warming.
Forests across the globe are being destroyed at an alarming rate of 18.7 million hectares every year, which means every second, we are losing a forest equivalent to 7000 sq meter area causing a significant addition to global greenhouse emission contributing to climate change. Further considerable forest areas are getting swiped away mainly to accommodate various developmental needs, and this excludes equally huge extent of forests which are under encroachment by the local committees.
The need to protect and develop the existing forest becomes essential keeping the ever-increasing degradation of the environment, including forest and resultant challenges of climate in view. The new forest policy of India has accordingly shifted its focus to declining forest cover and climate change along with the issue of man-animal conflict.
Keeping the significance of various kinds of forests across the globe and awareness about their multifarious roles and importance of education at all levels in achieving sustainable forest management and biodiversity conservation, the UN General Assembly on 21 December 2012 decided to observe 21 March of each year as the International Day of Forests.
India has around 22% of its cover under forest against the mandated 33%, and as per one report, India lost over 1.6 million hectares of forest from 2001 to 2018. It is estimated that approximately 5.7 million hectares of forest land in India have been used for various non-forestry purposes since independence, out of which approximately 4.5 million ha was diverted during the 1950-1980 period and remaining 1.2 million hectares after the enactment of the Forest (Conservation) Act in 1980.
However, the recent reports of the Ministry of Environment of Forests indicate the increase in India’s forest cover with total forest and tree cover is 80.73 million hectares which are 24.56 of the country’s geographical area.
One of the major challenges affecting the forestry sector in India is grazing. With more than 75% forest area subjected to grazing and other uses, coupled with another factor of shifting cultivation and encroachment over 10 m ha of forest area accounting around 78% of forest area, these two factors affect both the regeneration and productivity of our forests adversely.
Another equally challenging problem being faced by the forestry sector is its low productivity and inability to meet the burgeoning land-based needs of various cross sectors for a variety of purposes. At present, there is no specific strategy to meet the challenge of the gap between demand and supply for non-forest produce like grasses, seeds, medicines, fodder, etc., which is leading to unscientific exploitation and degradation of forests.
Another irony of present forest management is the neglect of the importance of areas outside forests which are not only having the vast potential to meet the target of green cover but can also provide much solace to the ever-growing need of timber and bamboo duly strengthening the gaps byways of suitable policy interventions, perfect institutional support with finances and linkages. The shifting cultivation and encroachment being the direct upshot of poverty and more of a social challenge need specific and integrated strategies with cross-sector involvement for its redressal.
The capacities and capabilities of forests have been greatly affected due to population-induced exploitation, urbanisation and industrialisation with scant regards to the environment. This is one of the reasons for the continued decline in the contribution of the forestry sector to the GDP in India, which is less than 2% without taking into important services like carbon sequestration, amelioration of air, conserving water and soil, supporting biological diversity, etc., into account. Professor T. M. Das of the University of Calcutta for the first time arrived at the economic valuation of all goods and services of a tree of 50 years worth $188,000 at 1979 rate.
However, the continued supremacy of development over the environment including forests and lack of priority has remained unchanged since independence and failed to motivate our policymakers to accord priority by allocating sufficient budget to this sector which has never crossed 1% of total budgetary allocation since independence.
The overall degradation of existing forest conditions coupled with the changes and shift in weather and climate due to global climatic changes has made the job of foresters more difficult while taking up both rejuvenation of existing degraded forests or afforesting the new areas. This challenge requires additional financial and technical inputs, along with dedicated research and development interventions for better results.
Forests being the fixed land resources are facing the toughest challenges from various cross sectors of multiplying magnitude. The situation becomes more complex for forestry sector, which is having its unique problems of lack of care/concerns and awareness about forests and their roles, lack of real valuation of forests and their actual contribution to the economy, insufficient fund allocation and priorities among policymakers despite having one of the best legal, policy framework and institutional arrangements, which are required for the sustainable development of forests in the country.
The challenges and problems which the forests across the globe are facing now need some drastic and revolutionary measures, including policy interventions and prioritised actions with financial support both at a local and global level. This is crucial to control the pace of deforestation and develop the existing degraded forest through various interventions, which constitute nearly 20% of the forest area.
Another point to ponder this forestry day is about lack of genuine concern about the trees in particular almost among all stakeholders. We are religiously celebrating Van Mahotsava Programme since independence, which has turned out as one of the funniest and most ritualistic programmes, mainly due to lack of required policy and monetary support and also a priority, both among policymakers, administrators and public.
Even if the meagre 25% of all the trees planted under Van Mahotsava had survived, we would not have seen any blank space available. Therefore, the issue of post-planting care for survival and protection of trees needs utmost priority and attention.
The recent policy initiatives of the government of Telangana amidst this scenario of challenges, which the environment sector is facing are worth emulating. The amendment in P.R. Act and Municipal Acts duly giving priority to the environment are aimed at entrusting roles and responsibilities among panchayats and municipalities for planting and protection of trees, their survival (85%) and also a provision for the green fund.
These proactive policy and legal interventions, coupled with institutional and financial support are indicative of a strong political will, care and concern for the very neglected sector of environment and bound to influence the state of affairs of the forestry sector, too, in future. Besides, the decision of the government of giving more priority to planting trees outside reserved forest with the active involvement of all stakeholders has also filled the much-awaited gap to tackle the problem of increasing green cover outside forests area.
The ever-increasing human population and resultant exploitation of natural resources, including forests, are bound to aggravate the problem of deforestation and global warming. Hence, the only way to address these problems is to formulate appropriate policy initiatives and interventions aiming at proper management and sustainable utilisation of forest resources duly providing linkages between growing demands and supplies.
Active involvement of various stakeholders and communities can surely help to restore the degraded forests and afforest new areas to achieve much-desired productivity and sustainability of our precious forests in the long run to meet the multiple goals including challenges of climate change. Following steps may provide help in this direction: