Except Assam and Manipur, other Northeastern states are fast losing its forest cover. During the last ten years, Northeast’s forest cover has been declining at a fast pace of about 300 sq km every year.
However, due to afforestation activities, Assam gained 567 sq km of forests while Manipur’s forest size increased by 263 sq km.
An analysis of data from the India State of Forest Report (ISFR), published by the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change after a gap of every two years, presents a disturbing trend.
Data from 2015-16, claims that India’s forest cover has increased by 6,778 sq km. Unfortunately, the assessment shows an actual decrease of forest cover in the eight northeastern states by 630 sq km within a span of just two years.
In the 2015 report, which had data from 2013-14, the decline in northeast’s forest cover was of 628 sq km. The corresponding figure in 2010-11 was 627 sq km while in 2008-09, the region lost 549 sq. km of its forests.
According to the latest data, Northeast has over 65% of its geographical area under forest cover – a total of 171,306 sq km as compared to 173,219 sq km in the 2011 report. The annual decline comes to about 300 sq km.
Even in between 1991 and 1999, there was a decrease of about 1,800 sq km in the forest cover.
However, in 2006-07, as represented in the 2009 report, the forests of Northeast, one of the 18 biodiversity hotspots of the world were growing in size before another round of deforestation began.
In percentage terms, Mizoram has the highest area under forests (86%) but due to a variety of reasons including cutting of forests for shifting cultivation and development activities, the sparsely populated state lost 531 sq km as reflected in the 2017 report.
In 2015, Mizoram was reported to have lost 306 sq km of its forest resource.
Having over three-fourths of its land under forests, Nagaland lost 450 sq km of forest in 2017, 78 sq km in 2015 and 274 sq km in the 2013 report.
Arunachal Pradesh, the largest state in Northeast also has the largest forest area. The Himalayan state, however, lost 190 sq km of its jungle in 2017, 73 sq km in 2015 and 89 sq km in 2013.
Tripura, on the other hand, suffered 164 sq km loss due to deforestation in 2015-17, 55 sq km in 2013-15 and 111 sq km in 2011-13. Both Meghalaya and Sikkim lost 116 sq km and 9 sq km of forest land respectively.
Foresters say the jungles of Northeastern states hold critical importance for the rest of India not only because of the presence of rich biodiversity but because of the fact that the cluster of eight small states contribute about one-fourth to India’s forest density. A gradual decline in northeast’s forest cover will adversely impact India’s target of having 33% of its geographical area covered by forests from the current 24.39%.
Development activities, logging and shifting cultivation are widely recognized as major causes of deforestation in the Northeast.
Forest fires are also common and frequent, especially at the end of the winter season, affecting about 20% of the total forest area, according to a WWF report titled ‘Biodiversity significance of northeast India’. The report also mentions encroachment, livestock grazing, and smuggling of forest produce as also responsible for the declining health of the forests.