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Depletion and conservation

Over the years, the area under forest cover has decreased steadily, as forests have been cleared for agriculture, industry, housing, and other development activities like the construction of roads, railways, and hydroelectric plants.

Since the beginning of civilization, as seen from the Indus Valley Civilization, people have been clearing land for agriculture to meet the food needs of the ever- growing population. Most forest communities follow a method of slash and burn or shifting cultivation, known as Jhum in the Indian subcontinent. They clear a patch of forest, cultivate crops on it, and abandon it the following season. Then they move on to a new area and follow the same pattern. They often return to the same area after a few years. This method is more common in the hilly regions. It is now believed that Jhum was a good method of cultivation as the land was left fallow for a long period. This allowed the forest to regenerate and the soil to stabilize. Once the trees are felled, the soil becomes less fertile as it removes the nutrient-giving vegetation layer. This also leads to severe soil erosion. If the land is left to regenerate, the forest re-grows and the soil becomes stable.

Today, though, this method of cultivation causes extensive damage to the area. Due to the increase in population, people are compelled to cultivate on the same plot of land more frequently as there is very little forest area available. Forests are also being converted to permanent settlements. Thus, forests cannot regenerate, and, in some cases, forest areas have become wasteland within a few years due to frequent cultivation.

Animals usually graze in forests. But if their number is large, they hamper regeneration when they trample on the young shoots and seedlings or eat them. This makes the soil prone to erosion.

Apart from forest loss, one also has to contend with forest degradation. Communities living in and around forests remove fuelwood from forests. As long as the population was low, the forest could meet the demand and yet remain healthy. But the increasing population has severely depleted the forest.

After independence India lost forest area in the following manner:
  4696 million hectares forest land to non-forestry purposes
0.07 million hectares to illegal encroachment
4.37 million hectares to cultivation
0.518 million hectares to river valley projects
0.141 million hectares to industries and townships
0.061 million hectares to transmission lines and roads

Conservation measures

To conserve forest areas, the government launched joint forest management and social forestry schemes, with some success. But other conservation measures have to be taken to save the forests from further depletion and degeneration. Governments and communities should take steps to plant trees on a large scale. The community should be consulted and trees that will meet their requirements should be planted. People in the living in the rural and forestry areas should be sensitized to the damage dine to their surroundings by the felling of trees. They should be encouraged to cut branches, twigs and leaves of the trees for their daily requirements. Horticulture as an alternative source of income should be encouraged. People who still follow jhum cultivation should be taught land use and be motivated to adopt terrace farming and other methods of cultivation. All this, collectively, would halt the depletion of forest cover.

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