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Maharashtra lost more than 2,100 sq km of forest area in past 2 decades

MUMBAI: Maharashtra has lost a staggering 2,116 sq km of forest area or an equivalent of three Tadoba forest reserves in the span of two decades, reveals a report tracking climate change in India released recently by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation. 

The state has also gained 5,030 sq km of forest cover in the period covered by the report (1987-2011). However, forest cover is not the same as forest area; mapped by satellite imaging, it includes zones such as rubber and teak plantations which do not deliver the ecological benefits natural forests do. 

The Centre's report warns that 
forest loss tilts the ecological balance, contributes to climate change and man-made carbon-dioxide emissions and reduces carbon stock.

D Stalin of voluntary organization Vanashakti said much of the forest loss in the state is owing to sustained conversion of forests into agricultural land such as sugarcane plantations. "Developers have taken over environmental issues. The loss of forests compromises the state's water security," he said. 

Maharashtra already has the highest number of polluted rivers in the country—28—and such deforestation further affects the capacity of the groundwater to absorb and store water, Stalin pointed out, adding that denuding natural green reserves also results in rising temperatures or global warming. 

Environmentalist Debi Goenka believes the depleting forest area is a cause for worry especially in the context of the increasing population. "Forests are the most efficient converters of carbon dioxide into oxygen. It is time we start acknowledging that they are not a luxury but a necessity. The loss of forest area only reiterates there is no political will to protect forests or wildlife," he said, citing how similar apathy was shown in the planning of the Navi Mumbai airport. 

The rapid takeover of forest lands for development, be it roads, power plants or airports, comes despite the existence of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, that imposes strict restrictions on dereservation of forests. States are also given funding for regeneration of forests under the National Afforestation Programme. 

Stalin said the government must rethink its forest compensatory policy and emphasized the need to regenerate forests and not merely compensate the loss of natural reserves with plantations. 

Chief forest conservator N Vasudevan said the national policy has underlined the need for one-third of the total geographic area to be forest. "Forests currently make up about 17% of total area in the country, which we need to take up to 33%. The solution may not necessarily be to declare more land as forest areas but to encourage citizens to plant trees or take measures such as greening of wastelands," he said.

The Times of India (26-12-2013)