Uttarakhand forest fires – real issues and steps going forward

It has been almost 5 years since I’ve been tweeting about the annual forest fires in Uttarakhand and this year was no different. What has changed this year, however, is the interest of the Indian TV media in Uttarakhand forest fires.

With much amusement, I saw anchors one-after-the-other conduct panel discussions on it. So-called TV environmentalists — much used to milking ecological events — were happily parroting what is usually fed to them before any such discussion.

89 days later, Politicians wake up” is how TimesNow first reported the Uttarakhand Forest fires wreaking havoc for past one week now. Some ill-informed anchors didn’t waste the opportunity offered by these fires and were quick to shift the blame on the Narendra Modi government for inaction; while almost all channels, accustomed to sensationalizing every event, didn’t disappoint this time either.

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Saving the issue of irresponsible media reporting of Uttarakhand forest fires for later part, this is an effort to analyze the issue for putting it in proper perspective.

Forests of Uttarakhand

State of Uttarakhand, spread over an area of 53, 483 sq km, comprises of 13 districts and is divided into three zones namely, Himalayas, Shivaliks and Terai. State forms part of Western Himalayan Biogeography zone. Climate of the state, with the exception of plains, is mostly temperate.

As per the latest available Forest Survey of India report, 24,992 sq km of land mass (46.73% of total) is covered by forests and trees. Important to note here is that Uttarakhand — 1.627% of India’s total land mass — is home to 3.15% of total forest cover of the country. Of the total forest cover, 19,889 sq km of forest is a one single patch while there are approximately 11,354 patches of forests within 0.01 to 10 sq km category- corresponding number for 10-100 sq kms, 100-500 sq kms and 500-1000 sq km is 42, 6 and 1 respectively.

Type of Forests- Pine Vs Oak

Without going into the forest zones, let me now share the statistics around the forest type. As per Atlas Forest Type of India-2011 report, almost 7,445.97 sq km (30.07% of total) of forest cover of Uttarakhand comprises of various varieties of Himalayan Chir pine with majority being Pinus Roxburghii named after William Roxburgh, a British Botanist.

The insatiable demand for timber following expansion of Railway network was met by large scale felling of traditional forests of Uttarakhand. Presence of rivers that made transportation to plains easier was the single biggest factor that made Brits look at Uttarakhand and also parts of Kashmir (now Pakistan occupied territory) as the preferred source for timber.

Pahari Wilson, one of the iconic figures of post 1850s British India, made a killing out of Uttarakhand timber trade and became one of the richest persons of North India. Britishers resorted to large scale planting of Himalayan Chir pine- a tree known for its commercial value in chemical industries and also faster growth- both as a replacement as well as new forest. This policy – like many other policies of British India – continued even in post 1947 India. [Same policy was resorted to by Britishers in now PoK where Indus river was used as the carriage way for timber trade just like rivers of Uttarakhand]

Pine by its very nature, grows exponentially at the expense of other traditional varieties and has been the single biggest factor for the skewed forest growth of Uttarakhand. Currently, 8,289.88 Sq kms (33.48% of total) of state forest cover is Oak; but Pine is fast eating into its share. Noteworthy here is the nature of Pine, which unlike Oak, doesn’t add to the moisture content of the soil. On the contrary, it stops water from seeping into the ground and has been one of the biggest factors for drying up of traditional water sources in Uttarakhand. Pine needles, when dry, owing to its high calorific value, are the biggest reason for forest fires in Uttarakhand.

Migration and Forest Fire

Uttarakhand has a unique distinction of being the only state that is home to two districts- which have seen negative population growth rate in last decade. Pauri and Almora, incidentally worst affected by forest fires have registered negative population growth following large scale migration. Migration not only leads to thinning of population but also causes large scale indirect damage to fragile eco-systems like Himalayas. Needless to mention that human beings and ecology/environment have been complementing each other for several centuries now; something that is now under threat because of large scale migration out of villages of the region.

For example, traditional farming of Uttarakhand not only supported the agricultural needs of population but was one of the factors that helped against soil erosion, landslides and also forest fires. Farming in Uttarakhand was very scientific with fields in upper ridges being used to grow potatoes, peas etc while those near water streams used for growing crops requiring water. Near home fields were mostly used to grow veggies.

However, with the large scale migration, most of the fields in villages are now abandoned. Introduction of BPL cards has aggravated this problem further because those left in villages are not interested in farming anymore. With the collapse of agriculture in hills, abandoned fields have seen growth of wild shrubs, which always act as a fuel for the forest fires. Thinning of population also means that first line of defense against forest fires is all gone with majority of responsibility for dousing forest fires falling on the local administration alone. And least said the better about the capabilities of local administration in dealing with the issue of forest fires.

Forest Department and local’s relationship

Single biggest reason for mismanagement of forests across India has been the Forest department itself. “One size fits all” strategy adopted by forest departments isn’t helping the cause of forests and also of the communities dependent thereon. Current policy of keeping the locals out, in the name of conservation, is the most stupid decisions to date. The argument that India has been citing in front of developed nations on the issue of climate change debate is the same argument that villagers of Uttarakhand can give to people living in towns and metros of rest of India.

Responsibility to protect environment/ecology cannot be that of the villagers of Uttarakhand and other Himalayan states only. Denying them fruits of just development in the name of conservation is the biggest fraud that has been committed on hilly regions of India. What we need is a decentralized forest planning where locals are made the single biggest stake holder in the management of forests. As this is done, we shall see drastic reduction in forest fires.

Irresponsible Media

As mentioned above, media reporting of the Uttarakhand forest fires is not only irresponsible but largely ill-informed as well. Tourism, the cornerstone of Uttarakhand economy has seen tremendous downturn post 2013 floods. It was widely believed that 2016 will see the return of tourists to Uttarakhand in a big way. But irresponsible media coverage has now put a big question mark on that. As someone who has closely followed / tweeted the 2012 forest fires, I can say that 2012 forest fires were, if not more, equally bad as forest fires of 2016. Despite repeated requests for coverage, no one from media bothered to report 2012 forest fires.

What has changed in 2016 vis-à-vis 2012, however, were the measures adopted by Narendra Modi government. Never before have we seen usage of IAF choppers to douse the forest fires in hill states. NDRF and SDRF teams were rushed to the affected locations and this despite the fact that 2016 fire is in no way close to what region saw in 1995 or 2010 or 2012. Instead of lauding the efforts of the Central government, media was busy running false stories like one by TimesNow where it was quoted as saying that fires are raging since February 2016. This year’s historical data suggests that average recorded temperature in February 2016 was between 7.1 degrees to 12.3 degrees, a range that, by no stretch of imagination, can support forest fires.

Steps Going Forward

  • Government of India needs to remove the imbalances started by Britishers (for fulfilling their commercial needs) and should gradually move away from Pine in favor of local varieties of Oak & other shrubs. A start can be made by taking a policy decision to replant the areas lost by recent forest fires with varieties other than Himalayan Chir Pine.
  • Government of India can also start a new Forest Mission around promoting native varieties that aid in water management. Given the large scale fears around drying up of River Ganga, it is extremely important to recharge the streams and water resources in areas upstream Rishikesh and Nainital. Proposed Forest Mission should aim at removing the past imbalances and also strive to give larger say to locals in the forest management. A cluster based approach with 5-10-20 and 50 years planning is the key to save Himalayas from ecological damage currently underway.
  • Most important cog in the entire forest management wheel are the forest officers. Travelling from Kashmir to Arunachal will make you hear stories of legendary forest officers who contributed significantly towards the conservation and management of forests. Sadly, current lot largely a reflection of society is more interested in easier postings. Uttarakhand has officers like Rajiv Bharatri — who are single handedly carrying out amazing work; however, they are far and few. There is an urgent need to overhaul our Indian Forest Services so that they attract folks who are more interested in management of forests rather than being a career bureaucrat. Need is to hire laterally rather than via a cadre based system.
  • The development template for Hilly states needs to be implemented such that it is in sync with the demand of local geography. The “one size fits all” style development template is not helping hill states at all.
  • Last but not the least, migration from hill states needs to be stopped. And that cannot happen until fruits of just development reaches the last man standing in the remotest village of Mana on one side and Munsiyari region on other. Government of India owes it to us. And they cannot escape from their responsibility. More importantly we should not let Government of India escape that

– written by Alok Bhatt

The author is based in Dehradun, Uttarakhand. He’s the founder of the adventure tourism venture, Nature Connect Outdoors. Alok has a keen interest in politics and economic development.

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