- Forests and trees are spread over 9,722 square kilometers of area in Bihar which comprises 10.3 percent of the total area of the state.
- The State Economic Survey claims that in the last five years, a total of 1603.8 hectares of forest land were diverted for several projects and converted into non-forest areas.
- The green cover in Bihar is not only affected by its diversion for developmental projects but forest fires also are snatching the greenery away from the state
Last year, on May 31, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, through his social media handle appealed to the citizens of the state to take steps towards protecting their environment. He elaborated about Bihar’s Hariyali Mission, which started in 2012, under which the state aimed to plant 24 crore trees. Out of this, 22 crore trees have already been planted, he said.
But data on green cover and other recent developments are indicating that green cover is declining as forest areas are being diverted for infrastructure development. Additionally, there is scepticism over the initiatives taken to increase forest area in the state.
Bihar has a total of 9,722 square kilometers (sq. kms) of area, about 10 percent of the state’s area, where forests and trees exist. Kaimur district in the state has the highest density of forest area spread over 1051.6 sq. kms. It is followed by West Champaran with 903.3 sq.kms of forest area and Rohtas with 699.9 sq. kms of forest area.
The majority of the forest area in the state are open forests and moderately dense forests. Open forest areas are those where the total tree density lies between 10 percent to 40 percent and in moderately dense forests the tree cover density lies between 40 percent to 70 percent as per the government classification. According to data from 2021, 51 percent of Bihar’s total forest area is open forests, while 44.5 percent is moderately dense forest. Bihar has 4.5 percent of very dense forests which are areas where 70 percent or more of the region is covered with trees.
Comparing the state’s forest cover data of 2019 and 2021, there has been a slight decline in the area of very dense forests and moderately dense forests. In 2019, Bihar had 4.6 percent of very dense forests stood which went down by 0.1 percent in 2021. Similarly, the moderately dense forest area in Bihar stood at 44.9 percent in 2019 which saw a decline of 0.4 percent in 2021. However, despite the amount of decline in the very dense forests and moderately dense forests (0.5 percent in total) reported during these two years, the same amount of green cover was added in the open forest areas.
1604 hectares of forest land diverted for non-forest works
According to the State Economic Survey for 2021-22, in the last five years, 1603.8 hectares (area close to the size of Delhi airport) of forest lands were diverted for non-forest works for several infrastructure development projects.
Over the five years, the area of forest land being diverted for development projects has been inching higher. In 2016-17, for 20 projects, a total of 51.53 hectares of forest land were diverted while in 2017-18 the total diversion of forest lands was three times of what was done in 2016-17. In 2020-21, 432.78 hectares of forest lands were diverted for 47 development projects.
The survey claims that the diversion of forest lands was primarily done for laying of pipelines, road construction, irrigation projects and railway project expansions. Responding to the issue, the Chief Conservator of Forests, Bihar, Abhay Kumar Dwivedi, told Mongabay-India, “Out of these diverted forest lands, 50 percent of them were dense forests. The rest of the forest area was used for road expansion.”
Some of the projects where the forest land was diverted for non-forest use included four-laning of National Highway (NH)-2 in Gaya and a railway project in Banka district.
Data from the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change claims that since May 2019, the Bihar government sent proposals for diversion of forest lands for a total of 122 development projects. Aside from six of the projects, the ministry had said that there was no need for environmental clearance for diversion of forest lands for the remaining projects. On those where such clearances are required, it is said that the required works are under process.
One such project is the proposed mica mining in Nawada district in the Chatkari village of Rajauli where 181.191 hectares of dense forest and natural forest region has been planned to be diverted to pave way for mining. This area lies close to the Rajauli Wildlife Sanctuary. According to the proposal of mica mining in the region given by the company concerned, Chatkari is estimated to have 15,356 million tonnes of mica. However, prior to this, another company had undertaken mica mining in the area due to which half a kilometre of the forest area got destroyed. Sanoj Kumar, ward member and a local resident of the area, told Mongabay-India, “Around seven years ago one company used to do mica mining in this area. Due to mining, a significant area of the nearby forests got degraded.”
Aside from diversion of forest areas for development projects, forest fires are also impacting standing trees in forest areas. Between 2016-2017 to 2020-21, Bihar witnessed a total of 2,335 incidents of forest fires impacting 3043.6 hectares of forest land.
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Govt’s claim on protecting forests
The Bihar government in its 2021-22 Economic Survey report talks about around half a dozen projects to ensure increasing greenery in the state. These include Jal Jeevan Hariyali Mission, National Afforestation Programme, Namami Gange, Bamboo Mission and CAMPA sanction and others.
According to government estimates, under the Jal Jeevan Hariyali Mission, it has planted 47 lakh saplings. Under the National Afforestation Programme in 2020-21 it planted 13.06 lakh saplings. Under the Namami Gange project, in 2021-2022 the government planted 2.50 lakh saplings along the Ganga river.
However, the workers who are involved in such plantation drives claim that while plantations do take place, their survival is low as not much attention is given to them.
For example, in Akbarpur village in the Hilsa division of Nalanda district, the government planted 1,600 saplings along a one kilometre of the road close to the village in 2020. However, 30 percent of the saplings have now dried up. Bramhadev Bind, a worker who was hired under the MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation Scheme) to plant saplings in the region, told Mongabay-India, “I, along with 15 other labourers, planted saplings for two months. But we didn’t get any wages. We thought that if these plants die, we cannot show them our work and then we will find it tough to get our dues cleared. So we invested Rs. 10,000 (of their own money) to arrange for pump sets to irrigate the saplings. From the government side we neither got pumps nor fertilisers for taking care of the saplings.”
Environmentalists say that afforestation drives cannot compensate for the losses incurred to dense forests whereas many of such plantation drives often remain under suspicion.
“A natural forest takes centuries to thrive. Doing plantation drives on one side and destroying natural forests on the other does not sound logical. It sounds good on paper that many new plants are planted but it will take around 300 years for them to convert into forests. The impact of damages incurred due to destruction of forests will be there for several years. How can this be compensated?” Nagesh Anand, an activist who works in Bihar, said.
S. Darshan who works as coordinator for Tarumitra, a Patna-based NGO told Mongabay-India, “Increase in green cover does not translate into making a forest. Forest is a network where several lives are dependent on each other. On one side we are destroying forests and on the other side we are planting trees along the roadside. By this way we cannot compensate with the destruction we caused to the forest areas.”
On the issue of plantation drives, he said, “According to my estimates, irrespective of what the government claims on plantation drives on the paper, the reality is that only 20-25 percent of trees are actually planted on the ground against the government claims.”
Bihar CCF Dwivedi, said that the union government has changed norms on forest conservation rules to ensure least damage to forest areas when they are diverted for developmental projects and Bihar is imposing the new rules strictly. “There are several projects which could pose grave threats to the dense forests. We are not approving any such project,” he said.
He also added, that the government is avoiding razing big trees but is focussing on transplanting the trees in other areas. For this they have made tree protection plans and if any project comes where there is a need to cut trees, a plan to protect the trees is first made, he said. “After that we do a survey at our end and come up with plans on how to undertake such projects by ensuring least damage to the trees in the areas.”
This article was first published in Mongabay-Hindi.
Banner image: Representational image of trees cut in Talabira, Odisha. Photo by Manish Kumar/Mongabay.