The devastation was inevitable in the Uttarakhand flash floods. There were signs, few subtle, most others blaring. Many an article was written in the press through the decades which highlighted that disaster was in the making.
Mira Behn, a prominent environmentalist and a household name in Garhwal, wrote many articles in the press as well as letters to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi bringing to the notice the dire consequences of neglecting the ecological system in the Himalayan region.
Unwittingly, she became one of the torch-bearers of modern India’s environmental movement.
The following are excerpts of her article published in The Hindustan Times on June 5, 1950 titled ‘Something is wrong in the Himalaya’
“Year after year the floods in the North of India seem to be getting worse, and this year they have been absolutely devastating. This means there is something radically wrong in the Himalaya, and that “something” is without doubt, connected with the forests.
I have become painfully aware of a vital change in the species of trees which is creeping up and up in the southern slopes — those slopes which let down the flood waters on the plains below.
This deadly changeover is from Banj (Himalayan Oak) to Chil (sic) pine. It is on at an alarming speed and because it is not a matter of deforestation, but change from one kind of forest to another, it is not taken sufficiently seriously. In fact the quasi-commercial forest department is inclined to shut its eyes to the phenomenon, because the Banj brings them in no cash for the coffers, whereas the Chill pine is very profitable, yielding as it does both timber and resin.
But what are these crores of revenue worth if all, and more than all of the amount of money, has to be spent each year on trying to repair the damages caused by floods?
The Banj leaves, falling as they do, year by year, create a rich black mould in which develops a thick tangled mass of undergrowth (bushes, creepers, and grasses), which in their turn add to the leaf-mould deposit and the final result is a forest in which almost all the rain water becomes absorbed. Some of it evaporates back into the air and the rest percolates slowly down to the lower altitudes.
The Chil pine produces just the opposite effect. It creates with its pine needles a smooth, dry carpet, which absorbs nothing, and which at the same time prevents the development of any undergrowth worth the name. In fact often the ground in Chil pine forest is as bare as a desert.
But why are Banj forests disappearing so fast? It is not merely that the forest department spreads Chil pine, but largely because the department does not seriously organize and control the lopping of the Banj trees by the villagers for cattle fodder.
When Banj trees get weak and scraggy, from overlopping, the Chil pine gets a footing in the forest, and once it grows up and starts casting its pine needles on the ground, all other trees die out.
If the intruding Chil pine is pushed back to their correct altitude, and the Banj forests resuscitated, the burden on the present trees will, year by year, decrease, and precious fodder for the cattle will actually become more plentiful
The Banj forest are very centres of nature’s economic cycle on the southern slope of the Himalayas. To destroy them is to cut out the heart and thus bring death to the whole structure.
The forest of the Himalaya are the Guardians of the Northern Plains, which, in their turn, are the Granary of India. Surely such guardians deserve the utmost care and attention that the Government can give them.”
By Mira Behn