As soon as biennial Forest Survey of India (FSI) Report (2017) became public and accessible to common people, congratulatory messages started pouring in on social media and websites. The news received an overwhelming response throughout India especially by the people belonging to states where forest cover had increased. The states that topped the list include Andhra Pradesh with an increase of 2141 km2 (1.31%) followed by Karnataka and Kerala with an increase of 1101 km2 (0.57%) and 1043 km2 (2.68%) respectively. Likewise, some concerns were expressed for states which reflected a dwindling forest cover percent which primarily included north eastern hill states having a huge chunk of natural forests otherwise. Among the states that observed decreased forest cover, Mizoram topped the list with a forest cover loss of 531 km2 (2.52%) followed by Nagaland and Arunachal Pradesh with a decreased forest cover of 450 km2 (2.71%) and 190 km2 (1.31%) respectively.
The figures look promising for the state of Jammu & Kashmir with a net gain of 253 km2. The previous forest cover of J&K in 2015 (22988 km2) witnessed an increase of (0.11%) to take the tally to 23241 km2 in 2017. The increase in forest cover can be taken optimistically and people as a whole can express satisfaction over the results in view of recent developments at global level in connection with forests and climate change. But before getting overjoyed, lets have an analytical view of what is actually happening in the backdrop. Forest cover as described by Forest Survey of India (2017) gives the inside view of forest cover as "This is the 15th forest cover assessment in the series of biennial forest cover assessments initiated in the year 1987. These biennial assessments describe "how much and where our forest cover is, irrespective of its origin, species, ownership, landuse or legal status" All tree stands with canopy density over 10% having an extent of more than 1 ha (being the minimum mapping unit) including bamboos, orchards, coconut, palm etc. within recorded forest, private, community or institutional lands are thus reflected in the assessment of forest cover".
Having worked on forest cover assessment and monitoring from past one decade, I could understand the meaning of increased forest cover over a short span of two years (2015 to 2017) in the context of Kashmir region which is predominantly coniferous having a long rotation and the same may be beyond the understanding of common people. When we further dissect the report, it can be seen that out of 253 km2 increase in forest area, a significant figure of 245 km2 has come from outside Line of Control (LOC) which is currently beyond our reach to manage it. Hence, it can be inferred that there has been a net increase of only 8 km2 of forest cover if figures across LOC are kept out. The immediate second, third and fourth district which took lead in the increased forest cover include Budgam (61 km2), Baramullah (34 km2) and Pulwama (21 km2). If we further analyze the historic forest cover of these districts, Budgam envisages Pir Panjal forest division and Baramullah constitutes Jhelum Valley forest division and both these districts witnessed deforestation as well as degradation in the past decade(s) based on studies concluded by Yasir et. al. (2016) and Zaid et. al. (2017). But at the same time, these regions have witnessed a steep increase in area under horticulture whose area if greater than 1 ha qualifies under forest cover as per FSI (2017). Pulwama on the other hand has been a private plantation hub with lot of block plantations of Poplar (Populus deltoides) and Willow (Salix alba) to cater to the mushroom growth of plywood/peeling units and cricket bat industry for more than two decades now. There is an increasing tendency among local people to expand their agricultural area under trees outside forests (TOF), which at many places contain patches of several hectares enough to qualify for forest cover as per FSI. Under such circumstance it becomes difficult as to how much of the increased forest cover can be actually attributed to slow growing coniferous forests. In fact the country as a whole, with these trends can register an increase in the forest cover but this could prove fatal for the state of Jammu and Kashmir which is predominantly coniferous and where in deforestation or degradation happening anywhere would go unrecognized and unnoticed in view of general increase in the forest cover coming from private sources including apple orchards and Poplar plantations. The farmers of J&K deserve a huge applause for increase in forest cover perceived to be coming majorly through their efforts. The protection and conservation efforts put up by the concerned State Forest Department in the past decade would also have led to positive changes, however with the limited geospatial information that FSI report provides, it is difficult to figure out the same.
With the current methodology in place, I am a little worried about mixing naturally occurring forests with that of TOF especially when talking about the state of J&K, which largely has coniferous forests and any damage to it would be obfuscated by the overall increase in forest cover that might happen primarily due to increased TOF. Technically both are classified as forest cover but the amount of time, energy and investment to raise a technically superior coniferous forest is way larger than privately owned forest cover (plantations and orchards). However, Forest Survey of India, the apex body for forest inventory has wisely adopted this methodology in the country's interests keeping in view the total carbon inventory for bargaining climate change deals at international level. Moreover, FSI at several places clarify that the reason for net increase in forest cover can be attributed to plantation and conservation activities as well as improvement in interpretation due to better radiometric resolution of the recent satellite data from Resoucesat-2. There is a further need to have research based micro level projects at state/district/division/range level to assess forest based resources using temporal high resolution satellite data and continuously monitor the precious green gold especially in the natural forests which are pristine and have historical importance. Faculty of Forestry, SKUAST Kashmir is continuously striving to move ahead in this direction for effective decision making in the long run.
Author is Assistant Professor, Division of Natural Resource Management, Faculty of Forestry, SKUAST Kashmir