DEHRADUN, India — Decades of abuse and mismanagement of its once abundant forests threaten to make India a nation devoid of trees by the year 2000.
Government officials and environmentalists warn that as each tree vanishes, India becomes more vulnerable to deadly landslides and floods and falls further behind in meeting the food and fuel requirements of its more than 700 million people.
The impact has already been felt in flooding, water pollution and the erosion of topsoil vital to farming. The experts believe the problem will reach crisis proportions unless radical action is taken.
"Civilization is dominating forests to the point of destroying them and life itself," said Narain Bachkheti, India's former inspector general of forests.
Only 14% Forested
Using conventional ground survey methods, officials at the Ministry of Agriculture concluded that nearly 23% of the nation is forested. But according to a more sophisticated satellite study by the National Remote Sensing Agency, the figure is actually less than 14%.
Vast areas of the Himalayas, its foothills and the Ganges plains of northern India are already brown and naked.
With few trees to break its path, water rushes down mountainsides and across fields during monsoon season, carrying away topsoil and even villages.
According to the National Commission on floods, between 1970 and 1980 the area susceptible to floods doubled. Floods now affect more than 25 million people and cause an estimated $1 billion in damage each year.
As the trees and their root systems die, so does the natural water filtration they provide--exacerbating the disease potential in a nation where only 10% of the population drinks water that meets minimum health requirements.
"Deforestation is directly linked to health and poverty," said Anjali Mookeejee, the dean of Nehru University's School of Environmental Sciences. "You can't isolate these problems any more."
Shortages of wood have even given rise to organized gangs of tree pirates, who circumvent government checkpoints by bribing guards--or shooting at them. The smugglers have turned some forests into virtual war zones.
"They go to the forests in jeeps with a bottle of whiskey in one hand, a gun in the other, and money in their pockets," a forest officer said. "The forest guards are lucky enough to escape with their lives."
Currently, the government's program to restore forests calls for the planting of nearly 2 billion trees annually. But a World Bank report said India needs a dramatic change in its forestry education, training and research before any significant progress can be made.