Deforestation and Land Use Changes in India Have Increased Zoonotic Disease Risk

Deforestation and Land Use Changes in India Have Increased Zoonotic Disease Risk

India has some of the world’s most bio-diverse regions, accounting for c.10% of global floral and c.7% faunal species in addition to encompassing a wide range of biomes–desert, high mountains, highlands, tropical and temperate forests, swamplands, plains, grasslands, areas surrounding rivers, and island archipelago. It also hosts 4 biodiversity hotspots: the Himalayas, the Western Ghats, the Indo-Burma (now Myanmar) region, and the Sundaland (Includes Nicobar group of Islands).[1]

Bio-diversity also forms the cornerstone of ecosystem functions and services, supporting livelihoods of millions of people in India (valued at USD 500 million per month). As a Party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), India prepared an action plan and strategy for implementing the Convention at the national level in 1999. Following the adoption of a National Environment Policy in 2006, India developed a National Biodiversity Action Plan and a set of 12 National Biodiversity Targets through a national multi-stakeholder consultation process aimed at protection of biodiversity and setting frameworks for its governance.[2]

In 1991, India embarked on a massive economic reform in leading up to boosting its plans for urbanization, expansion of urban infrastructure, poverty alleviation programs, and industrialization. For such an economic reform to succeed, the country needed a vast pool of agricultural land and forest areas to be acquired to undertake the implementation of the reforms. This meant there was huge pressure to make use of the available pool of land for industrialization.

This plan for developing the Indian economy thus resulted in favourable and adverse outcomes. Some of the favourable outcomes were that the Indian economy began to grow reaching up to its double digit growth, massive poverty reduction, employment generation, expansion of markets and growth, massive urbanisation, expansion of social and physical infrastructure (rail, road, port, highways), policy changes, and a quantum jump in the nation’s foreign direct investments and forex reserves (USD 500 billion, 2020).

On the other hand, such developments also put pressure on India’s natural resources. With the rise in income levels, there were more cars on the road, more industrial units, and a steep rise in consumption of energy (a primary source of CO2), leading to progressively enhanced green house gas emissions. For instance, per capita energy consumption in India rose from 357.36 kilowatt equivalence of oil in 1991 to 0.6 ton equivalence of oil in 2020, set to triple (against the global average of 1.8 ton of oil equivalence) over the next decade, quadrupling the investment in the sector by India. It is estimated that greenhouse gas emissions are  set to rise by 40% by 2030.[3]

India, in the process of rapid economic reforms, also lost much of its agriculture land (largely converted into non-agriculture land by sub-regions) in development of special economic zones dedicated to industrial production with tax holidays to selected number of companies across large areas (with high land value) and in some of the sub-regions rich in oil, gas, mines, and minerals for excavation purposes of natural resources. In many cases, such land issues became a subject matter of long and protracted legal battles with communities.

In a rather heartening development, the forest cover in India increased by c. 1% for the year 2017, accounting for 21.54% of the total geographic area compared to the forest cover in 2015. This is mainly attributable to conservation and management practices including afforestation activities, participation of local communities for better protection measures in plantation areas and traditional forest areas, and expansion of trees outside forest.

Deforestation and land use changes in India have also led to the loss of biodiversity, upping the risk of zoonotic diseases. Growing population, rapid industrialization, expansion in physical infrastructure, and construction activities close to biodiversity hotspots continue to be key challenges, putting further pressure on arable land and natural resources. Going forward, the situation needs immediate attention and efforts aimed at preservation of our national heritage and protection from climate related events.

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One of the main challenges facing India today is developing strategies to sustain and improve living conditions of a growing population, and limit negative environmental outcomes. The Indian government is urged to take necessary action through its green post COVID-19 economic (recovery) package, strengthening its NDCs and stepping up to decarbonise its economic growth in more fundamental ways.


Mr. Prakash Javadekar

Minister for Environment, Forest and Climate Change, Government of India


This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard India Country Manager Pooran Chandra Pandey


[1] Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, Govt of India. “ENVIS Centre on Floral Diversity, Botanical Survey of India, Kolkata, West Bengal”. 18 April 2017.


[3] (Indian Economic Survey Report, 2019)

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