By: Rakesh Lohumi ,Sr. Editor-ICN Group

SHIMLA: Hydropower plants and road projects are taking a heavy toll of the ever depleting forest reserves in Himachal Pradesh which is having the lowest green cover among the Himalayan hill states.

Being a renewable source of energy hydropower projects are largely considered to be environment friendly but they account for bulk of the forest land diverted for non-forestry use. In fact, hydropower plants and road projects have together gobbled up 80 percent of the 12005 hectare of forests diverted since the enforcement of Forest Conservation Act.

The total forest area acquired for hydropower projects and power transmission lines adds up to 7339 hectare and the number of trees felled run into lakhs. Worse, most of the projects are now being constructed environmentally sensitive high altitude areas where forests have a vital role in maintenance of mountain ecology and economy, particularly with reference to soil and water conservation.

Besides, road projects have also eaten 2271 hectare of forest land, while 914 hectare of forest area has been given for mining. The number of trees axed for road projects is relatively much higher as land has been mostly acquired for up-gradation of state roads and construction of national highways.

Himachal Pradesh is already lagging far behind in protecting the green cover in comparison to other Himalayan states. With a geographical area of 55,673 sq km the state has only 14,696 sq km (26.40 per cent) of forests as per the State of Forests Report(SFR)-2015.

In contrast, Uttarakhand with slightly less area of  53,483 sq km and a much higher population  has 24,240 sq km (45.32 per cent) under forests. Similarly, Arunachal Pradesh with 67,248 sq km forest cover  has 80.30 per cent, Mizoram 88.93 percent ( 18,748 sq km), Nagaland 78.21  per cent (12,966 sq km ), Meghalaya 76.76 per cent(17,217 sq km) and Manipur 76.11 per cent(16994 sq km).

Worse, in Himachal open forests (density between 10 to 40 per cent), accounted for over 34 per cent of the total forest area as compared to just 24 per cent in Uttarakhand, indicating the extent of degradation. Area under very dense forest (over 70 per cent density) has been stagnant at 3,224 sq km, while moderately dense forest (40 to 70 per cent density) has decease slightly and come down to  6,381 sq km. In short , dense forests are fast degenerating into open forests.

The environmental impact will be more significant as regeneration of depleted forests in ecologically fragile high altitude areas is a difficult proposition and takes very long time. This is also evident from the comparative data of SFR-2015 and SFR-2013 which reveals that green cover is decreasing in high altitude areas and new forests are coming up in lower elevations across the country.

The forest cover within the altitude of 1000 m to 2000 m has declined by 109 sq km, 2000 m to 3000 m by279 sq km and over 3000 m by 162 sq km over the two year period. Forest cover has increased only in are below the altitude 1000 m by 4325 sq km, out of which maximum 2342 sq km forests came up in areas below 500 m.

The hills are already facing the impact of environmental degeneration due to unregulated and excessive development activities as evident from the dwindling precipitation and rising temperatures leading to shortage of water and decline in agriculture productivity.

There is an urgent need to  put in place an policy to environment the mountain eco-system that ensures that human activity decreases with altitude.

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