Conservation ConversationsEnvironmentPolicy Matters


By Meera Bhardwaj

In the background of NDA government promising to enhance its forest cover at various global platforms, the latest government biennial report in fact, reveals a whopping loss of forest cover in some 11 states of the country. Further, the so-called gains are nullified by loss of natural forests. Apart from this, the new nomenclature is Commercial Plantations have been declared as ‘Open Forests’.

The India State of Forest Report (ISFR) 2021 states there has been an increase of forest/tree cover of 0.28 per cent across India compared to 2019 but the truth is natural forest remains just 3.04 percent of the total geographical area of the country. This survey is done through remote sensing while real ground visit done only across 3414 locations in the country.

The Survey report’s claims of increase are in the Open Forest category (9.34 %) and not the Very Dense Forest category (just a meager 3.04 %) which are pristine, natural forests. On top of this, the North Eastern states, hill districts and tribal districts have lost more than 1020 sq kms of forest cover in the last two years.

140 hill districts in India have lost 902 sq kms of precious forest cover which is 0.32%, as per ISFR, 2021. 


Himalayan states like J & K have lost pristine and precious cover of 115 sq kms Very Dense Forests but has gained in open forest category through commercial plantations. Himachal Pradesh too has lost about 26 sq kms of Moderately Dense Forests and 15 sq kms of Open Forests.

Now what is the classification of Forests types?

The Forest Cover Mapping has been presented in FIVE Canopy density classes:

  • Very Dense Forest:                >70% Canopy Density (VDF)
  • Moderately Dense Forest:    40-70% Canopy Density (MDF)
  • Open Forest:                          10-40% Canopy Density (OF)
  • Scrub                                       < 10% Canopy
  • Non-Forest (NF)                     Lands not included in above

The ISFR, 2021 defines forests that includes all patches of land with a tree canopy of density more than 10 per cent and with area of having more than one hectare area irrespective of land use, ownership and tree species. 

Unfortunately, agro-forests, bamboo, commercial plantations have all been classified as Open Forests (OF) and therefore, many states see increase in their forest cover due to this big anomaly.


Hill districts in Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and Assam are the worst hit as they have lost pristine wildlife habitats for varied reasons. These districts are the ones that are above 500 meters above the sea level and are supposed to maintain two-thirds of its area under forest cover. Due to the fragility of the hill areas and vulnerability to land degradation, the presence of forest cover helps in maintaining eco- balance and environmental stability, thereby, preventing soil erosion and landslides.

States                           Forest Cover Loss

(Hill districts)                 (sq kms)

Arunachal Pradesh             257  

Manipur                              249 

Nagaland                            235 

Mizoram                             186 

Assam                                 107

Meghalaya                           073

West Bengal                        018

Tripura                                 004

Sikkim                                  001


Total                                     902 sq kms



Further, 216 tribal districts in 26 states have sustained an overall loss of 55 sq kms, the report says. 

Taking a deeper look into the ISFR, 2021statistics, 216 tribal districts have in fact, lost a whopping 655 sq kms inside RFA (Recorded Forest Areas) and GW (Green Wash) areas. In comparison to this, there has been a gain of 600 sq kms outside the RFA and GW areas. Therefore, the Net Loss has been deduced at 55 sq kms in tribal districts. The irony is the loss inside RFA and outside RFA has been considered the same.

The worst hit tribal districts are 16 in Arunachal Pradesh with a forest cover loss of 257 sq kms, 9 districts in Manipur with loss of 249 sq kms and 11 districts in Nagaland with loss of 235 sq kms.


As per ISFR, 2021, the North Eastern states have suffered an overall forest cover loss of 0.62% which is about 1020 sq kms. The data reveals how these states have suffered due to shifting/Jhum cultivation, development and unsustainable agricultural practices.


Overall, the ISFR, 2021 report claims there has been an increase of 1540 sq km of forest cover and 721 sq km of tree cover as compared to the last assessment in 2019. However, the reported increase in forest cover is completely nullified by the severe forest cover loss in many states and union territories.

As per the report, the present forest cover of India has been pegged at 7.14 lakh sq kms i.e., about 21.71 percent of the total geographical area of the country. Five states – AP, Telangana, Odisha, Karnataka and Jharkhand have contributed to the net increase of 1540 sq kms of forests that even includes plantation crops and agro-forests.

Out of the total rise, 18.67 % is covered by MDF and OF categories while Very Dense Forests is only 3.04 percent. This means India has been steadily losing its pristine and natural forests and the addition of 501 sq kms is not enough. 

The states having the largest Forest Cover are Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Maharashtra. However, in contrast to this, some 5 states in North East have sustained major losses in Forest Cover the last two years.

Let’s see the increase and decrease in forest cover compared to 2019.

Total Forest Cover                   Total Forest Cover

      ISFR, 2019                               ISFR, 2021

VDF        99,278                                 99,779

MDF    3,08,472                               3,06,890

OF       3,04,499                                3,07,120

Scrub     46,297                                   46,539

NF       25,28,923                              25,27,141                                     

A peek at the report statistics reveals a net forest cover change matrix of 501 sq kms in the Very Dense Forests category but a whopping loss of 1582 sq kms of Moderate Dense Forests and 1781 sq km loss of non-Forests in the country.


Apart from this, the total Tree Cover in the country has been estimated at 95,748 sq kms, showing a decadal increase of 4904 sq kms from 2011-21.

Compared to 2019, there is an increase of 721 sq kms in tree cover. Further, the leading states in “Trees Outside Forest” (TOF) category are Maharashtra (26,676 sq kms), Odisha (24,474 sq kms) and Karnataka (23,676 sq kms). 

TOF refers to all trees growing outside recorded forest areas irrespective of the patch size.

The leading states in Tree Cover are:

States                      Total Tree Cover

                                       (Sq Kms)

Maharashtra                     12,108

Rajasthan                           8,733

Madhya Pradesh                8,054

Karnataka                           7,494

Uttar Pradesh                      7,421

The 17th cycle of biennial assessment of ISFR further states that the wall-to-wall mapping exercise was done by using remote sensing. Also, the Tree Cover assessment has been done through Remote Sensing and observations on Sample plots.