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International Day of Forests: Healthy forests for good health and wellbeing of humans

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By: Roshan Jaggi (IFS)

In 2012, United Nation decided to celebrate the 21st of March, every year as “International Day of Forests”. The day highlights the importance of Forests and the 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 a critical role in maintaining this balance. Efforts are made these days to drive home the message at local, national, and international levels 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 a well-known fact that forests give priceless ecological, economic, social, and health benefits. Forests really care for human health. They clean water, purify the air, capture atmospheric carbon to combat climate change issues, and provide food and lifesaving medicines. Above all, they improve our well-being. Forests are known as stress busters and enhance one’s capacity to focus attention.

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

Countries like India face a significant transition in the lifestyle of its population due to growing urbanization and rising aspirations of the 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 urbanization. People living in urban centers face consequences of a stressed environment, in the form of inadequate green spaces, lack of physical activity, and high levels of pollution which make the lifestyle of residents prone to chronic stress. The Changing lifestyle is considered 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 the rapidly increasing burden of NCDs in India as a serious hazard for public health which may result in deceleration of economic growth and ultimately impede our ambitious journey of becoming a developed nation by 2047, if adequate remedial measures are not taken. A 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, strengthen the human immune system, and promote both physical and mental health. Attractive green environments enhance one’s motivation for physical exercise. Thus, improving the health of natural forests, and 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 of them. Therefore, the 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 regions of the world have been subjected to tremendous stress mainly because of increased anthropogenic activities like:

Deforestation and degradation through the 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 the world’s 2nd most populous country and soon going to get to the top leaving behind china. The heavy burden of the human population coupled with the ambitious agenda of fast economic development poses a serious challenge to sustainably managing the forests and tree cover for ensuring the 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 the implementation of the 17 SDGs. India needs to adopt low carbon production systems to reduce its C- intensity in order to reach the goal of net- zero by 2070 as announced by our Hon’ble PM.

But the good news is that the efforts of Central and State Governments have been yielding good results. ISFRs (India State of Forest Reports by FSI) of the last decade reveal that there is a consistent & progressive increase in forest and tree cover in the country. Both central & state Governments have initiated a series of programmes in this regard:

Green India Mission aims at improving the quality of existing forests and increasing forest and tree cover through afforestation activities in the 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 to provide a better environment and improve the quality of life of residents of these urban centers.

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

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

The 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 a minimum of 2/3rd of the geographical area under Forest & tree cover. Alive to its mandate and responsibility, the Department of Forests, Ecology & Environment of J&K has been making concerted efforts involving all stakeholders viz local communities with the 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 center staging the involvement of local people through joint forest management approach. There is a special focus on improving existing water bodies and creating a network of more such structures to improve the water regimes by effective rainwater harvesting. The livestock population in J&K is almost at par with the human population and the 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, PaedLagao Beti Ke Naam, Van se Jal, Jal se Jeevan, Fodder augmentation program, etc have been successful to a large extent by upscaling outcomes & establishing a connection 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 roadmap has to be compatible with the 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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