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Bengal misses the wood for the scrubs
- National target of expanding forest cover to a third of territory looks beyond reach

New Delhi, July 19: Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee was understandably upset on his way to office two weeks ago when he came across chopped trees in the heart of Calcutta. So disturbed was the chief minister that he called the newly-elected mayor and had an official showcaused.

Bhattacharjee needs to turn his focus away from the city now: Bengal’s dense forests are shrinking, though scrubs have found a fertile ground in the state.

The picture is no less bleak in the rest of the country: India is unlikely to meet the target of increasing forest cover to one-third of its territory by 2012.

A green map unveiled by the Forest Survey of India has put Bengal at the top of the heap of states where the forest cover has increased between 2001 and 2003.

Bengal’s pole position is mainly because of the contribution from non-forest and scrub areas, where the canopy density is less than 10 per cent. If the canopy density is above 40 per cent, the forest is considered “dense” and below 40 per cent “open”.

Over the two years surveyed, Bengal’s open forest area went up by as much as 1,951 sq km, according to the State of the Forest Report.

This is heartening news. It means that there is an increase in plantations in non-forest areas and development of scrub forests. “It is a very good trend and it indicates a regeneration of forest areas,” said S.K. Ramalingam Gowda, the inspector-general of forests.

Applause over, the bad news. The trend, unfortunately, does not extend to dense forests.

Bengal’s dense forest area thinned by 301 sq km, somewhat scaling down the gains in open forest and limiting the overall increase to 1,650 sq km.

This is a trend that has cut a wide swathe across the country, barring a handful of northeastern states, reflecting the endless battle between development and ecology.

The country lost over 26,000 sq km of dense forests in these two years. Dense forests are disappearing on such a scale that even an exceptional rise in open forests is unable to make any impact.

For instance, Karnataka expanded its open forest cover by 3,153 sq km. But the state’s total forest area has shrunk by 542 sq km because it lost 3,695 sq km of dense forests.

Amid this grim and vast brown patch, however, lies a tiny island of hope: Delhi.

The small state has managed to increase both dense and open forest areas. Dense forests enlarged by 14 sq km and open by 45 sq km, clocking a consolidated gain of 59 sq km. “Look at Delhi, it is an example of what man-made efforts can do,” said forest secretary Prodipto Ghosh.

Such gain and loss has left the country with a total forest cover of 6,78,333 sq km ' 20.64 per cent of the national geographic area. Compared with 2001, that is a marginal rise of 0.09 per cent. The country might meet the 2007 target of covering 25 per cent of the area but the 2012 goal of 33 per cent looks out of reach.

“To reach the 2012 target is a Herculean task. We may face hurdles,” A. Raja, the forests minister, said. “If we do not give some (forest) land to industrial and mining sectors, we would jeopardise economic growth.”

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