The Uttarakhand forest department in association with the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, is working on a project to produce coal from pine needles that causes forest fires in the state.
If the model works, then it will be shared with villagers- and van panchayats to produce an alternative fuel, officials say.
Between February and June–the dry season when forest fires rage across the hilly slopes of the state– when thousands of hectares of green cover turn to ashes.
In 2015, nearly 4,433 hectare of forest cover was gutted, incurring a revenue loss of more than Rs 46 lakh.
The department lacks a proper strategy to get rid of pine trees that make up18% of the total forest cover in state. The Garhwal region is worst hit by fires every year. Forest statistics show that out of the 24,240 sqkm of forest cover in the state, pine covers 4,363 sqkm.
Unlike the manufacture of briquette that requires paralysis process burning under anaerobic conditions, coal manufacturing will not require molasses, cow dung, electricity or any other form of energy, says Kapil Joshi, state chief conservator of forest, the lead behind the project.
“Manufacturing coal will be easier than making briquettes,” he tells Hindustan Times.
“We are working on a model that is cheap, adaptable and consumes lesser energy and also environment friendly. The model will help villagers to use pine needles from the forests,” he says
The department faced problems in promoting briquette manufacturing companies. In 1998-99, few companies started producing briquettes from pine needles, but the initiative due to the high transport cost. Recently the state government subsidized transport cost by Rs 50 for every tonne, but the production cost is still is very high.
“Collecting and transporting pine needles were proving to be costly for companies. This apart, the lack of a market for briquettes was another issue due to which the companies closed down,” says Jai Raj, principal chief conservator of forest.
The companies were supposed to pay 1-rupee for every kg of pine needles collected to van panchayats and an additional 10-paisa royalty.
The department considered the option of converting pine needles to bio-gasifiers, but the villagers in Pithoragarh are insisting on setting up store at the forest site, which will be a major threat to the existing forest.
With only two months left for the forest fire season to start, the department does not have any clear strategy on how to combat the natural occurrence. “We are working on a few steps to curb forest fires. But, there’s no way pine needles can be cleared from reserve forests,” says Dinesh Aggarwal, state forest minister.