Representational image. (HT Photo)
Representational image. (HT Photo)

As forest fires rage in Uttarakhand, spotlight back on colonial-era problem

Experts blame pine trees, introduced by Britishers as part of their focus on commercial forestry, and inaction by successive governments for the failure in controlling the fires
UPDATED ON APR 09, 2021 07:03 AM IST

Around 1,400 such incidents since January in Uttarakhand’s lower hills have put a spotlight on forest fires in the state, where 4,500-hectare forest area was damaged in infernos in 2016 alone. Experts blame pine tree plantation, encouraged by Britishers as part of their focus on commercial forestry, and inaction by successive governments for the failure in controlling the fires.

Pine needles are highly combustible and are the main triggers for the fires. Experts say before the colonial period, forests were a major source of sustenance for the locals, who sourced fodder, fuelwood, timber, fruits and construction material from them and had high stakes in protecting and conserving them collectively. The Britishers declared forests as reserved in 1878 and locals suddenly realised their say in the management of their own jungles had been restricted with regulations imposed over community ownership of natural resources.

The curtailment of forest rights, indiscriminate logging, especially in Kumaon and encouragement of plantation of trees with commercial value like pine during the colonial era contributed to the loss of a sense of ownership.

Officials say the alienation continues and blamed it for the failure in getting community participation in dealing with forest fires. 1 or 2 per kg is paid for the collection of the needles and is hardly seen as an incentive. The state, which has over 71 % forest cover, annually generates nearly 2.3 million tonnes of pine needles.

Forest burning as a form of protest

Between 1916 and 1921, people burnt huge chunks of forest land to register their protest against the Britishers for not allowing them to use forest resources. This was after years of fight for forest rights.

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Environmentalist Ajay Singh Rawat said in 1921, 2.5 lakh acres of forests were burnt in Kumaon in 317 incidents and earlier in 1916, as many as 111,000 hectares were burnt in Nanital, Amora and nearby areas by angry locals.

Forest burning, as a form of protest, has largely ended. But people continue to resort to such a measure occasionally. In 2018, enraged over a leopard killing a seven-year-old child, villagers in Bageshwar burnt a nearby forest.

Invasive pine trees, a major contributor to forest fires

Pine trees have also kept replacing the local trees, especially oak in Kumaon. The state has unsuccessfully tried to seek permission from the Centre to cut pine trees located at an elevation of above 1,000 metres. For the felling trees in an area of more than a km, permission is needed from the Centre under the Forest Conservation Act.

In February, government think tank NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar suggested the state should gradually replace the pine trees with local trees

Pine trees need less water, and due to this reason, they have been growing in abundance. They are mostly resistant to forest fires even as other trees are damaged in forest fires. Unlike water-retaining oak trees, pine trees make the land they grow on drought-prone. This is due to the absence of bacteria in its root system, which reduces the water-retaining capacity of the soil. The pine trees also retard the undergrowth, affect the food supply for herbivores, which has the potential to increase human-animal conflicts. Wherever pine grows, it does not allow oak trees to grow.

Environmentalist Ajay Singh Rawat, who has written books on forests in Uttarakhand, said the failure of the authorities to take locals into confidence has made it difficult to get mass participation in dealing with fires. He added the British were not farsighted when it came to forest management as they did not have much experience in dealing with vast forests in their country.

“They destroyed their forests during the industrial revolution. In India, they introduced the German school of forestry. In Germany, most of the forests were privately owned during the 19th century and in Uttarakhand, forests were transferred to state control in 1878.”

Rawat said in Uttarakhand, as the economy was forest-based, people revolted against this new forest policy. “In 1916, Kumoan Association came into existence and it sensitised people against the British forest management. When this seething discontent reached its climax, people started burning forests to mark their resentment in 1921. After five years again, forest burning became part of the freedom struggle and peoples’ movement here.”

Rawat said the negative impact of British forest policy and forest fires continued even after Independence. “After 1947, people did not burn forests, but they did not support the forest department in extinguishing forest fires.”

Shekhar Pathak, a historian, said the Forest Conservation Act does not allow cutting trees in areas above 1,000 metres. “This has also contributed to the flourishing of pine in higher reaches. The people want to save their forests, but for that forest officials have to come forward to seek their participation in extinguishing forest fires, which need a collective effort of government and communities together.”

Forest fires are generally reported from February to June. They usually peak in May and June. Over 90% of forest fires are man-made. The fires impact biodiversity, be it the microorganisms in the soil, wildlife, small insects, birds and people living in and around the forests, affecting the overall ecology of an area.

The forest department has also failed to prevent the local practice burning forest floor vegetation from May to June for the growth of fresh grass for cattle.

Since the formation of Uttarakhand in 2000, the state has lost over 49,000 hectares of forest land to forest fires. Since January 1, the state has reported 1,150 forest fire incidents that have damaged 1,854 hectares of land.

Till Wednesday evening, over 75 forest fires raged and over 93 acres of forest land were damaged over the previous 24 hours. Of the 1,422 forest fires, the maximum (611) has been reported in Pauri-Garhwal, followed by 220 in Tehri, 179 in Almora and 180 in Bageshwar, according to the government.

Maan Singh, the nodal officer for forest fires, said nearly 5,000 forest staff is engaged in firefighting. “All possible efforts are being made with the help of the locals to check these forest fires. The main challenge is that the state has over 71 % forest cover and forest fires are taking place in many areas this year due to deficient rainfall and rise in temperature.”

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