Maximum devastation occurred in areas of maximum forestland diversion

Experts say deforestation aggravated floods in Uttarakhand; only 12 per cent compensatory afforestation achieved

By Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava
Last Updated: Thursday 17 September 2015

Since 1980, 44,868 ha of forestland in Uttarakhand have been diverted to non-forest use (Courtesy: Raju Kasambe)

While extreme weather and unregulated planning are being blamed for the devastation caused by the Uttarakhand floods, deforestation is regarded as another factor. This aspect of the Uttarakhand disaster, however, is more complex than it appears. The worst affected districts of Chamoli, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi are the areas where maximum forestland has been diverted for development activities.

Statistics from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) show there has hardly been any forest loss in Uttarakhand for the past 10 years. The forest cover in the state has, in fact, increased from 23,938 square kilometre in 2001 to 24,496 sq km in 2011. This data is used by governments, both state and Central, to deny allegations of mismanagement of forests in the state. Official figures, however, fail to quantify the damage forest eco-systems might have suffered in the state due to development projects.

Forests diverted for development

As per data from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), 44,868 ha of forestland have been diverted to non-forest use in Uttarakhand since 1980. Of this, a maximum of 9,500 ha has been diverted for construction of roads, followed by 5,500 ha for hydel projects and 3,100 ha for transmission lines. Most of the forest diversion (68 per cent) in the state has taken place after the formation of the state in 2000.

The maximum number of development projects that required forest diversion have been approved in Chamoli district, one of the districts worst affected by the recent flash floods. A total of 1,767 ha forestland has been cleared in the district, second only to Haridwar where most of the forest has been cleared for rehabilitation projects. Interestingly, the maximum forest area  that has been cleared for hydel projects, roads and transmission lines is in Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Rudraprayag and Pithoragarh.

 The maximum forest area diverted for hydel projects, roads and transmission lines has been in districts Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi and Pithoragarh – the most badly affected by the floods
Compensatory afforestation ineffective

Under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, a project developer is supposed to plant trees in a non forest area equal to the forest area it is clearing, or on degraded forest land which is double the project area, to compensate for forest loss. However, compensatory afforestation seems to be ineffective in the state. In lieu of all the forest cleared in the state so far, compensatory afforestation in 32,174 ha land has been stipulated. Only 12 per cent of this has been achieved so far. The plantation is done at a different location, sometime even in a different state (Uttar Pradesh in case of Uttarakhand), which hardly makes up for the ecological disturbances at the place from where vegetation has been removed. 

Worse, the state has a poor record of plantation under catchment area treatment plan. For instance, in the case of the Shrinagar Hydro-Electric Project by Alaknanda Hydro Power Co Ltd in Shrinagar, the project proponent, GVK, had to carry out the plantation for catchment area treatment simultaneously with the construction of the project. While the project is almost complete, the catchment area treatment might take another eight years to complete, as per a recent environment ministry report.

Native vegetation loss not accounted for

The extensive plantation outside the compensatory afforestation schemes and the natural regeneration of forests might have kept state’s area under forest cover constant. But it would not compensate for the removal of vegetation from eco-fragile patches.  “At the macro level there might not be any change in the forest cover, but one can’t deny this at the micro level. The forest area has increased at some places and decreased at several other places,” says an FSI official.

Shalini Dhyani, project scientist with the Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology, who has extensively worked on forest ecology of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, explains this phenomenon. “The forest has regenerated manifold in the state because of great community conservation work. In valleys like Pauri and Shrinagar, regeneration has improved as people have migrated from these areas. However, in the upper reaches, huge chunks of forest have been sacrificed for roads and dams,” she says.

This has disturbed the ecological balance of the hills, say experts. “Forests that have been removed from these districts have native Himalayan vegetation. With deforestation, there is a huge loss of top soil. The soil erosion and resultant rise in temperature further affect the health of the nearby forests. This must have made the already fragile eco-system of Himalaya even more unstable,” says A S Rawat, a Nainital-based forest historian.

Such deforestation has aggravated the impact of floods in the state, says Dhyani. “Wherever there has been intact forest, the damage from floods has been much less than where it has been diverted to non-forest use. For instance, in Kedar Valley there have been very few landslides as the native oak forests of the region have great soil-binding capacity and water retention power. The damage here has been only due to the cloudburst, unlike in the Valley of Flowers, Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve and regions around Joshimath where the villages have been devastated by to landslides along with the cloudburst. The forests in these regions have suffered great loss in the past seven to eight years because of development projects,” she says.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.

  • I agree that deforestation

    I agree that deforestation and removal of surface vegetation leads to enhanced and more rapid soil loss, but what really causes these massive flash floods is the gradual blockage of nallahs, rivulets and small rivers by debris generated from road projects, power projects, urbanisation et al.

    All this debris gradually accumulates creating small earth dams which remain stable as long as rainfall in the catchment is low. However, the moment a heavy, sustained shower hits the upper catchment, water gradually seeps into these man-made earthen dams. The moment the entire soil gets soaked all through and a lake begins forming above the obstruction, the entire 'dam' soon gives way and the entire water and slush rushes downhill, wiping away everything in its path. These so-called cloudbursts are actually miniature dam-bursts!

    You are right that maximum damage has occured in areas of maximum forest diversion, but the cause is uncontrolled dumping of debris!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • Good article. Deforestation

    Good article. Deforestation is the cause for climate change. Indiscriminate felling of trees and no replacement with fresh ones has caused much ecological damage more so in the Uttarakhand region.
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The idea that destruction of

    The idea that destruction of native forests with its flora and fauna can be compensated with planting exotic and fast growing trees like Euclyptus etc. is flawed one. A forest takes atleast a 100 years to reach maturity. Its destruction can't be compensated in matter of few years. So the effort should be to preserve them anyhow.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • There is need to seriously

    There is need to seriously consider about designing afforestation with appropriate choice of species which may include herbs,shrubs,bamboos, grasses i.e the species having capability of breaking velocity of rain drop,hold the soil of various depth along with protective works where ever necessary in vulnerable area.The purpose of plantation is not enrichment or increasing area under forest only but mainly protection so that erosive power of rain is checked and facilitate infiltration and using soil binding potential of the roots.There should be need of adequate step to protect roadside exposed area with appropriate shrubs along with engineering works.Probably time has come to prepare landscape management plant and adhere strictly to its prescription for the various types of land use and NO to diversion of forests to other use to avert man made disaster.Probably this the time when these matter to be given priority because the stakeholders have learned the lesson at a great cost of their life and property.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 7 years ago | Reply
  • The data analysis is

    The data analysis is incorrect. This data has been taken from districts of India. If you only consider the data from transmission lines, hydel projects and roads (as the author has done), then the districts with the most forest land diverted (after Haridwar with 26.54 %) are

    Chamoli (14.74%)
    Tehri Garhwal (11.57%)
    Pithoragarh (11.02%)
    Nainital (7.67%)

    However, the share of the two other most affected districts in terms of the overall land diverted is low-ie. the values for these two districts are Rudraprayag (2.33%) and Uttarkashi (4.87%). So the author needs to check his figures.....

    Moreover, it is important to remember that this is forest land diverted-it does not tell us which forest cover this land is under (e.g. is it scrub or non forest land or is it open forests or what.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply