Mending the forests, putting out the fires - Hindustan Times
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Mending the forests, putting out the fires

May 06, 2024 02:27 AM IST

The Himalayan forest fires are preventable. But it calls for a joint action front of the State and local communities, with short- and long-term solutions

The general elections are on in the country: Uttarakhand voted on April 19. However, the summer fires threatening the mountain state did not make it to the campaign. Neither has the political class cared to notice that there has been a drought in the state for the last many months. The bureaucracy in Dehradun and the district headquarters are equally blind to the ground situation. Preparations to fight forest fires need to begin in November- December and the forces need to stay alert until the monsoon arrives in the hills in late June.

A fire tears through a forest near Saterakhal village in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. (PTI)(HT_PRINT) PREMIUM
A fire tears through a forest near Saterakhal village in Rudraprayag district of Uttarakhand. (PTI)(HT_PRINT)

The forests have been dry since late September last year, and fires reported as early as December. They became a challenge in mid-April. That’s when the forest department and the civil administration became alert and active. The National and State Disaster Response Forces, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, and the Army were told to take charge. Helicopters were dispatched and more firemen were deployed. At least two people have died in the fires.

Even though the forest department has released regular statements on the fires, the full picture hasn’t yet emerged. The media is talking about fires in Nainital, without keeping in mind that Nainital is a hill station and a district, too. Since November 2023, Uttarakhand has recorded 606 forest fires, in which 735 hectares of forests have been gutted. Even as it was being said that the blaze would be brought under control in two days, the flames had already consumed acres of forests. At some places, including parts of Nainital cantonment, Air Force Area, High Court Colony, the fire had entered the oak (broadleaf) forests too.

What is the extent of loss of flora and fauna so far? This question has faded into the background. The ecological costs can never be calculated: Only the loss of timber is considered. Now the concern is how the remaining forests can be saved till the rains arrive.

Forests cover as much as 64.7% (or 3.47 million hectares) of Uttarakhand's 53,483 square km area. Of this, 42% is under dense forests. Protected areas form nearly 15% of the state’s land and 23% of the total forest cover. According to forest scholar, the late JS Mehta, 31% of Uttarakhand’s total forest area (10,621 sq km) is covered by pine, and 9.5% by oak or broadleaf tree species (3,178 sq km). Mixed forests cover 7,354 sq km and commercial plantations or lesser productive forests cover 5,000 sq km.

The ban on green felling above the elevation of 1,000 metres has benefitted pine trees the most, as it is hardy, fast-growing and avoided by animals. On the other hand, pine needles decompose very slowly and feed forest fires. The absence of timely pruning or rotational cutting has meant that pine has started entering the sal forests at the foothills and the broadleaf forests at even higher altitudes.

There is only one way forward: Taking preventive measures on time. Our forests are catching fire at the ground level, not at the level of the canopy as in California or at the bush level like in Australia. Hence, fire prevention work needs to begin early. In November itself, disaster management teams should start working in every district. Various departments should contribute to the efforts: People’s representatives, women’s groups, students, teachers, National Service Scheme volunteers, and the National Cadet Corps, all should take part.

Fire control lines (at least 10 metres wide) inside the forests and along the roads need to be made and kept clean to eliminate the possibility of fires. Satellite information and mapping should be used. Only an aware society and a responsible administration can put such information and science to use.

Pine needles need to be removed. These can be used to generate electricity and fuel (Avani, a voluntary organisation, and some others have successfully started doing this). The broadleaf forests should be expanded and water conservation pits (or chaal-khaal) must be created. Pine is not without its uses: Pinewood is good for making homes, cooking fuel, and for funeral pyres. It is also a key raw material for many industries. The mantra should be: Use pine, but don’t allow it to encroach on oak territory. Let it stay in its native area. It will grow again after the fire. But the renewal of broadleaf forests is tougher.

The climate crisis is a reality that needs to be dealt with. The Himalayas also experience diverse weather conditions, as evident from the landslides in Arunachal Pradesh, the fires in Nepal, Uttarakhand, and Himachal Pradesh, and snow in some parts of Kashmir and the higher reaches, all at the same time. What is needed is to be prepared with disaster plans well before the onset of floods, fires, and drought. We have failed on this count.

Over the last century, there have been innumerable forest fires. In the pre-Independence era, at the time of the Jungle Satyagraha, villagers set fire to the pine forests but put out fires in the oak forests. There have been fires in 1995, 2005, 2009, 2012, 2014, 2019 and 2023. Floods in 2013 and rains last year helped to control fires. Some people see a cycle of two to six years in the onset of forest fires. But, over the last two decades, it has become an annual tragedy. Between 2005 and 2015, more than 5,000 hectares of forests have been lost to fire in Kumaon alone.

Villagers are being blamed for the fires, but a villager setting fire to the forest would be an exception. On the other hand, villagers have been putting out forest fires for centuries. Their existence is intimately connected to the forests. Displacement, out-migration, and the inability to obtain their forest rights might have depressed them. But, people continue to sacrifice their lives to save forests. In May 2009, in Gangwada village of Pauri district, the fire spread from the government forest to the panchayat forest. Children, women, and men, all got involved in putting out the fires. Eight lives were lost while politicians and administrators got busy with by-elections.

Experts say that forest and land mafia, departments, and organisations involved in false plantations have a greater interest in setting fire to forests. The fire covers their crimes, just like landslides cover the crimes of the public works department and floods those of the dam-builders. The major triggers for forest fires are drought, the spread of pine forests, the official policy of distancing villagers from the forests and the lack of timely fire control mechanisms. The shrinking of the forest bureaucracy to the confines of Dehradun is unfortunate, too.

Symbolically, the wells of the politicians, administrators, and forest department do not have the waters of wisdom, commitment, strategy and love for the forests. The day the wells of society run dry, the forests will be destroyed. MI-17 choppers are not the solution. Timely preparation and forming a joint front of the government and civil society is the only way forward.

Shekhar Pathak, author of Chipko Movement: A People’s History, taught at Kumaon University and is now associated with Pahar Foundation. The views expressed are personal

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