India lost 2.3 million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2023, latest data from the Global Forest Watch monitoring project showed on Friday. The figure is equivalent to a 6% decrease since 2000.

Five states from the North East accounted for 60% of all tree cover loss between 2001 and 2023 in the country, the report found.

Assam had the maximum tree cover loss at 324,000 hectares compared to an average of 66,600 hectares during the period. Mizoram lost 312,000 hectares of tree cover, Arunachal Pradesh 262,000 hectares, Nagaland 259,000 hectares and Manipur 240,000 hectares.

During this period, India reported the maximum tree cover loss of 189,000 hectares in 2017. In 2016, the country had lost 175,000 hectares of tree cover and 144,000 hectares in 2023, the report said.

From 2001 to 2022, Odisha had the highest rate of tree cover loss due to fires with an average of 238 hectares lost per year, the report said. Arunachal Pradesh lost 198 hectares, Nagaland 195 hectares, Assam 116 hectares and Meghalaya 97 hectares due to the same reason.

The Global Forest Watch, which tracks forest cover changes in near real-time using satellite data, among other sources, said that India lost 414,000 hectares of humid primary forest (4.1%) from 2002 to 2023. This makes up 18% of its total tree cover loss in the same period.

The Union government had last year passed the Forest Conservation Amendment Act, 2023.

The law allowed diversion of forests for construction of roads, railway lines or “strategic linear projects of national importance and concerning national security” within 100 kms of India’s international borders – without the need for forest clearance.

It had allowed the provisions of the Forest Conservation Act to apply only to forests that have been declared or notified as a forest, and forests recorded in government records on or after October 25, 1980.

This meant that areas that are not officially classified as forests in a government record, even if they are standing forests, will not be protected from commercial exploitation or other kinds of diversion.

However, in February, the Supreme Court told states and Union Territories to follow the definition of “forest” that has been mentioned in a 1996 judgement, which had ruled that any area that resembles the dictionary meaning of a forest would be protected under conservation laws.

The 1996 judgement has protected vast tracts of eco-sensitive and Adivasi lands under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, even if they are not formally classified as a “forest” in revenue records.

Also read: Why states in the North East are opposing the new forest law?