We need healthy forests in J&K to promote human well-being

By Roshan Jaggi (IFS)

In 2012, United Nations decided to celebrate 21st March, every year as “International Day of Forests”. The day highlights the importance of Forests and need to protect them for sustaining human life on planet Earth.

The theme of this year’s International Day of Forests is “Forests and Health”. Life on earth planet is sustained by ecological balance and forests play critical role in maintaining this balance. Efforts are made on these days to drive home the message at local, national and international level that one of the effective ways to protect our planet earth is by ensuring the conservation of forests and their sustainable use.

Our Changing Lifestyles and Role of Healthy Forests

It is well known that forests give priceless ecological, economic, social and health benefits. Forests really care for human health. They clean water, purify air, capture atmospheric carbon to combat climate change issues, provide food and lifesaving medicines. Above all they improve our wellbeing. Forests are known as stress busters and enhance one’s capacity to focus attention.

Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. Health in broader sense refers to the wellbeing of community, which in turn depends on the wellbeing of environment (WHO).

Countries like India face a significant transition in lifestyle of its population due to growing urbanisation and rising aspirations of young population (about 50% of India’s population is below 25 years of age). 35% of India’s population lives in cities which is likely to grow to more than 43% by 2035 due to fast urbanisation.

People living in urban centres face consequences of stressed environment, in the form of inadequate green spaces, lack of physical activity, high level of pollution which make life-style of residents prone to chronic stress. The Changing lifestyle is considered as one of the primary causative factors for non- communicable diseases (NCDs) like cardiovascular and chronic respiratory diseases, diabetes, cancer and mental disorders.

National Health Policy – 2017 red flags the issue of rapidly increasing burden of NCDs in India as a serious hazard for public health which may result in deceleration of economic growth and ultimately impeding our ambitious journey of becoming a developed nation by 2047, if adequate remedial measures are not taken. Similar trend has been witnessed in many other countries of Asia & Africa where changing lifestyle related disorders are telling upon the productivity of younger age groups.

Research demonstrates that living near green settings and visits to forests produce positive changes in human physiology, improve mood, strengthens the human immune system and promotes both physical and mental health. Attractive green environments enhance one’s motivation for physical exercise. Thus, improving the health of natural forests, creating more green spaces near habitations in Urban and peri-urban areas would help enhance the flow of ecosystem services which ultimately results in improved health outcomes. It gets manifested in the form of reduced expenditure on public health and enhanced productivity of citizens.

Forests are considered healthy when they have the ability to meet all expectations that people have from them. Therefore, focus of forest managers should be to study thresh holds and tipping points at which our forests are unable to recover from biotic interference and pressures.
Forests in most of the regions of world have been subjected to tremendous stress mainly because of increased anthropogenic activities like:

Deforestation and degradation through extension of agriculture and other non-forest based land use.
Fragmentation by way of developmental activities.
Forest fires
And other natural factors.

Efforts To Increase India’s Forest and Tree Cover

India is world’s 2nd most populous country and soon going to get to top leaving behind china. Heavy burden of human population coupled with ambitious agenda of fast economic development poses a serious challenge to sustainably manage the forests and tree cover for ensuring environmental security of our citizens. The challenge becomes humongous in view of our international commitments in the form of modified INDCs after CoP26 at Glasgow and also implementation of the 17 SDGs. India needs to adopt the low carbon production systems to reduce its C- intensity in order to reach the goal of net- zero by 2070 as announced by our PM.
But good news is that efforts of Central and State Govts have been yielding good results.

ISFRs (State of Forest Reports by FSI) of last one decades reveal that there is consistent & progressive increase in forest and tree cover in the country .Both central & state govts have initiated series of programmes in this regard like:

Green India mission aims at improving the quality of existing forests and increasing forest and tree cover by afforestation activities on forest and non-forest areas.
Compensatory afforestation and promoting regeneration in natural forests to make good the loss of forests on account of developmental activities.

Nagar- Van Yojna to increase green spaces and overall greenery in and around the cities and to provide better environment and improve quality of life of residents of these urban canter’s.

Mission Life aiming at behavioural change of citizens and leveraging the environment friendly legacy of India, to promote sustainable lifestyles and sustainable patterns of consumption to address the climate change.

Focus on conservation of Wildlife and wetlands. The 5.03% of geographical area has now been brought under intensive PAN mechanism. India has established world’s largest network of 75 Ramsar sites to lay focus on aquatic ecosystems.

Scenario of Jammu & Kashmir

In UT of J&K, forest and tree cover is about 55% of the geographical area which is much higher than the national average (about 25%). However National Forest Policy 1988 stipulates that Himalayan states need to have minimum of 2/3rd of geographical area under Forest & tree cover.

Alive to its mandate and responsibility, Department of Forests, Ecology & Environment of J&K has been making concerted efforts involving all stakeholders viz local communities with active involvement of PRIs and various other sections of civil society to scale up activities of afforestation and Biodiversity conservation both on forest and non-forest areas adopting landscape approach, leveraging best practices and technological innovations, and by Centre staging the involvement of local people though joint forest management approach. There is a special focus on improving existing water bodies and creating network of more such structures to improve water regime by effective rain water harvesting. The livestock population in J&K is almost at par with human population and National Livestock Census 2019 reveals that J&K faces about 50 % fodder deficiency vis-a- vis actual demand. To address the issue department is laying focus to augment fodder production both grass as well as leaf fodder to contain the problem of stray grazing. Excessive grazing has remained one of the main drivers of forest degradation.

Department’s initiatives like Green J&K Drive, Har Gaon Haryali, Paed Lagao Beti Ke Naam, Van se Jal, Jal se Jeevan, Fodder augmentation program etc have been successful to a large extent by upscaling outcomes and establishing a connect and feeling of ownership with common people through the active engagement of Gram Panchayats and other sections of civil society.

The Way Forward

Our economic development road-map has to be compatible with growing aspirations of people especially of educated & aspirational youth. The political executives, policy planners, forest managers, and grass root level community leaders need to critically balance the future strategies and action plans so that we achieve our national developmental goals without compromising our commitments towards global environmental wellbeing.

(The author is a senior IFS officer working with J&K State Forest Department. The views expressed in this article are personal.)

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