A view of the landscape and deforestation near Western Ghats, India. Photo: AFP

India lost as much as 1.5 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2017, which is equivalent to a 4.0 percent decrease since 2000.

One of the country’s most environmentally important regions, the Western Ghats, saw a loss of 20,000 hectares of its forest cover area over the last 17 years, according to a report by Global Forest Watch.

Asia’s Down to Earth magazine, which focuses on environment and development, analyzed the data and reported that the biodiversity of the Western Ghats, primarily stretching across four districts of Karnataka, is at huge risk.

The reduction in Karnataka’s tree cover from 2001 to 2017 was 35,000 hectares, a 1.5 percent decrease, since 2000.

This has also impacted the rivers in the area as the Cauvery river, which originates from this region, has started drying up despite a normal monsoon. It’s estimated that the lives of more than 100 million people residing in the area will be affected due to this.

The loss of forest cover becomes an important concern as the area influences India’s southwest monsoon weather pattern. Developmental activities like urbanization and construction of roadways and railways are major causes of the tree cover loss.

Kerala state, south of Karnataka, also reported a decline in forest cover. Its forest loss was 7,187 hectares in 2016, 9,722 hectares in 2017 and 6,273 hectares in 2018. Such high levels of forest loss have not been noticed in Kerala since 2001.

Meanwhile, Global Forest Watch’s data also revealed that India’s northeast  also suffered loss of tree cover. Among six states in the region that suffered the worst losses between 2001 and 2017, Nagaland topped the list with a loss of 14 percent, followed by Tripura and Meghalaya.

The reported loss of forest cover in India has also led to nearly 172 metric tons of carbon emissions. Those emissions affect air quality, which causes health issues for the people. According to a study published in Lancet Planetary Health, India’s toxic air claimed 1.24 million lives in 2017 – 12.5 percent of total deaths recorded in India that year.

The 2018 Global Environmental Performance Index also placed India at 177 out of 180 countries, down more than 20 spots from 155 in 2014.

Despite this, critics note, very little is done to safeguard the environment. In fact, the Union environment ministry gave environmental clearance for open-cast coal mining in Parsa in Chhattisgarh’s dense Hasdeo Arand forests.

The Parsa mine – open-cast mining involves digging for coal after removing all the vegetation and soil from the area – came up for consideration of the environment ministry’s expert appraisal committee three times before clearance was finally granted on February 21, 2019. Earlier, in 2009, the environment ministry had categorized Hasdeo Arand as a “no-go” area, as it is a contiguous forest patch in central India.

Experts say that approval for mining in the area can lead to grievous consequences and prove detrimental in conserving India’s forest cover

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