India's lost woodlands
Each year, when the monsoon rains hit parts of India, there are massive floods throughout the country. This year has been no exception. Rivers in most parts of northern and eastern India have inundated crops, submerged homesteads, and washed away cattle and people in a series of flash floods.Skip to next paragraph
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At the same time, there is a drought in the state of Rajasthan, where the Thar Desert stretches up to the border with Pakistan. The drought is particularly severe this year, because there has been little or no rain in the area for the past four years. Even the camels are finding it difficult to survive, and cattle and humans have started migrating to less arid parts of the state and even to the neighboring states.
Neither the floods nor the drought need have been so severe if there had not been random destruction of forests everywhere over the past 40 years. But, despite campaigns in the Indian press against deforestation, felling of trees goes on -- seemingly without any check.
Largely, it is the result of policies of forest departments in the states, which encourage large-scale replacement of centuries-old mixed forests by monocultures of eucalyptus or teak. These have greater commercial value than indigenous trees but do not hold the soil or the moisture as well. In some places, especially in the hills of the south, forest departments have even cleared large areas in order to start their own rubber, tea, and cardamom plantations.
Yet, the current drought in Rajasthan has shown how helpless the forest officials may feel at such times of distress. For, with crop prospects bleak, the cattle emaciated, water sources such as ponds and wells dry for miles around them, and the little relief that the government can sanction not reaching the remote villages in time, the local people can survive only by chopping wood in the forests. They sell it in the nearby towns, where there is a demand for both timber and firewood. In the face of the acute hardships faced by the villagers, the forest department officials pretend not to notice what is going on.
The Rajasthan example is not the only one of its kind. The destruction of forests everywhere seems to have been brought about by similar compulsions. Consider, for example, the river valley projects, so essential not only for irrigation and power generation, but also for flood control. Between 1951 and 1973, 401,480 hectares of forests were submerged as a result of such projects. (A hectare is about 2.47 acres.)
During the same period, 2.4 million hectares of forests were converted to agricultural farms; construction of transmission lines and roads ate into 54,770 hectares; new townships accounted for the loss of 124,630 hectares; and 387,700 hectares were lost due to other miscellaneous reasons. Thus, in 22 years, a total of 3.4 million hectares of forests in various parts of the country were destroyed for what superficially seems to be progress and prosperity.
Though 33 percent of the country ought to be under forest cover for optimum ecological balance, in actual fact forests are to be found today in only 11 percent of the total land area. Moreover, this statistic is going down by one percentage point every year.
Particularly harmful has been the destruction of forests in the Himalayas -- the northern mountain range where many rivers have their sources. Denuded of forest cover, the topsoil from the barren slopes is washed down by the rains, leading to a silting of both riverbeds and man-made reservoirs. This, in turn, leads to unexpected floods during the monsoon season of incessant, torrential rains.