Delhi's forest cover lost for first time in a decade

Delhi: 14 Jan, 2022 (Times of India)

 

NEW DELHI: For the first time in a decade, the capital has lost forest cover. It may be as little as less than half a square kilometre, but it has happened when most other states and Union territories have shown an increase in overall forest cover. The Forest Survey of India report released on Thursday showed that Delhi has lost 0.44 sq km of forest cover since 2019.
According to the India - State of Forest Report 2021, Delhi’s geographical expanse of 1,483 sq km included a forest cover of 195 sq km, just short of 195.44 sq km three years ago. At 13.2% of total geographic area, the forest cover of the capital is less than a national average of 21.7%.

 

Not all is lost, however. The increase in tree cover (outside the forest area) has emerged as a silver lining. According to the report, the tree cover in Delhi went up from 129 sq km in 2019 to 147 sq km in 2021, an all-time high since 2011.

Attributing the loss of forest cover to legal felling for development, a forest official said, “Yes, the forest cover has reduced slightly but the quality of forest has improved. The moderately dense forests have increased and open forest systems have thinned slightly. The thinning of the forest cover can be attributed to new infrastructure projects and authorised felling of trees. Compensatory afforestation will take some time to reflect in the results.”

Forests serve as a city’s lungs. Delhi is overwhelmed by pollution and protecting its forests is non-negotiable. Authorities must find ways and means to ensure that the loss of forest cover is not only arrested but more green cover added in the coming years.


Delhi government too patted itself on its back at what has been gained. Environment minister Gopal Rai said, “The green cover of Delhi has increased from 21.9% to 23.1% of its geographical area. The state Government aims to plant 33 lakh saplings by March 2022. Under the leadership of chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi has become the first city to have a tree transplantation policy under which trees that are uprooted are transplanted with simultaneous replacement by 10 new trees.”

However, amid the reality that forest cover has been lost though tree cover has increased is the concern of some ecologists who don’t feel this is a matter of celebration. According to the experts, Delhi has already lost most of its “true forests” and whatever patches are left are “infested by invasive species”.


C R Babu, professor emeritus of Delhi University and head of Centre for Environmental Management of Degraded Ecosystems, said, “Besides the biodiversity parks, Delhi doesn’t have forests. A true forest should have a typical structure, like a top tree cover with canopy-defining trees, medium height trees and scrubs, or ground-based vegetation. Most of such forests have already disappeared from Delhi, barring a few patches, which are infested with foreign vilayati kikar or Prosopis juliflora.”

He held land use change and diversion of forests for infrastructure development as the reasons for the city’s shrinking forest cover. “A city must have a good forest cover for environmental sustainability,” said Babu. “More forest cover means less air pollution, better groundwater recharge. Unfortunately, except for the biodiversity parks and the colonised Ridges, Delhi has nothing. Even land here is often diverted for building residential colonies and other infrastructure.”

Ecologist and tree expert Pradip Krishen too believed Delhi’s forests are suffering a quality crisis. “The roadside or park trees don’t comprise forests. True afforestation is a big failure because no one cares what is being planted and where. The SFI data too doesn’t discriminate between the quality of trees,” said Krishen. “Over 90% of the Central Ridge is infested with kikar and now even worse, the subabul or Leucaena leucocephala, both good for nothing. We need to discern what our overall green cover is composed of.”