It is no surprise that the landslides and the consequent deaths in Uttarakhand, just at the onset of the monsoon, have come after the mountains of the state were devastated by forest fires about two months ago. States such as Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Manipur too have been affected because of the forests there not being able to cushion the impact of natural onslaughts. Lack of forest preservation has been the principal factor in causing not only landslides but also soil erosion, leading to floods. When it rains in the mountains that have been denuded, rainwater runs off, causing the detritus and the scree, along with rock boulders, to come hurtling down and destroying homes. Broadleaf trees such as oak, which might have been able to prevent such calamities, are now vanishing from the hills of Uttarakhand.
The reasons for the decimation of the forests are not far to seek. First comes the issue of weak policing by forest guards. A forest guard, on average, takes care of 2,000-4,000 hectares. Because of the inferior weapons they carry, they are often unable to take on the timber mafia. And also because of a weak incentive structure and absence of promotions, they often adopt a lackadaisical approach to the job or, sometimes, fall prey to the temptation of easy pickings that might accrue out of a deal with timber criminals. In addition to this, it has been reported that farmers themselves burn down forests to make land fit for cultivation. This is one aspect of the problem. Another is that many areas of Uttarakhand lie in earthquake-prone zones, but still the buildings do not conform to scientific standards. And any natural disaster hits tourism, the mainstay of the state’s economy. Uttarakhand Tourism Master Plan 2008 has projected that between 2007 and 2017 the state would have a footfall of 70 million. However, this is unlikely to materialise now.
What is the way out of this? As the Himalayas are a fragile mountain chain, construction activity on or near the hills should be curbed immediately. Reforestation should be taken up, though its results will take time to show. The state must order an immediate crackdown on illegal timber felling and illegal sand mining in the rivers. And since constructing barrages in hilly rivers impedes their flow, smaller dams should be tried as a solution. Finally, the government must take the village communities into confidence before taking any step. This is a problem whose roots are deep. The State cannot be a spectator to such tragedies year after year.