The state of Uttarakhand had not yet emerged from the wounds of the Chamoli tragedy when it was engulfed in wildfires. According to the Forest Department of Uttarakhand, from January to the first week of April 2021, there have been about 1800 incidents of forest fires in the state affecting more than 2500 hectare of forest area. In the first five days of April, wildfires increased so fast that an area of 567 hectare was affected.
Out of this area 380 hectare was forest reserve and the remaining 187 hectare was normal forest area. To curb the rising incidence of wildfires, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister has demanded two helicopters from the Union Government to put out the blaze. Seven districts of Uttarakhand – Dehradun, Chamoli, Nainital, Rudraprayag, Almora, Tehri, and Pauri Garhwal – have been badly affected by the wildfires.
In the mountainous states, forest fires begin as soon as summer begins each year. After winter, when the ground has large quantities of dry wood, logs, dead leaves, stumps, dry grass and weeds that can make forests easily go up in flames if there is a trigger.
Under natural circumstances, extreme heat and dryness, friction created by rubbing of branches with each other also have been known to initiate fire. In Uttarakhand, the lack of soil moisture too is being seen as a key factor. The highest incidents of forest fires used to occur in the months of May and June but since the past few years one part of the state or the other is affected almost all the year round by wildfires.
Incidents of forest fires in Uttarakhand, however, are not a strange or a new phenomenon. But the increase in the frequency, intensity and timing of these incidents is a matter of great concern. The Uttarakhand Forest Department officials say there are two main reasons for the state’s forest fires; human activities and the climate change.
The Forest Department holds the local people responsible for their human activities. They cite that locals deliberately set fires for growth of good quality grass, to cover up illegal cutting of trees, for poaching and sometimes even to take revenge from government officials.
Second, climate change is accompanied by rising temperatures, less snow, and less rain. Locals, on the other hand, say that the government’s misguided forest policies, anti-nature model of economic development and planting of new tree species in the forests are responsible for the wildfires. The forest fires in Uttarakhand are not due to natural or local activities. The real reason for this is the wrong government policies which have been seen historically too.
Since the formation of the state of Uttarakhand in 2000, about 48,000 hectares of area has been affected by wildfires. The people of Uttarakhand have been suffering from wildfires and deforestation since the British rule.
The people also raised their voices against the British government’s forest policy in 1921, 1930, and 1942. At that time, people opposed the planting of Pine trees in the forests because they felt that the incidence of wildfires had increased in places where the British had replaced the local oak tree with Pine trees. Pine is not a tree of the Himalayan region.
In the 19th century, the British government made a mass exploitation of oak, sal, and deodar trees for commercial use in the Himalayan region leading to a substantial loss of the original cover. To compensate for this, the British government started planting fast-growing exotic species such pine trees in the region in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, the trend continues even today. Pine trees grow faster than oak, sal, and deodar trees, but they need more water than other trees. Pine trees also have the ability to spread from hill base to higher elevation, and from ridge top to lower elevation, thus encroaching upon areas where oak and other broad-leaves trees are located.
But pine trees need more water than other trees. Moreover, they virtually do not have capacity to retain water,its growth has resulted in drying up of springs. The dried needles and seeds of pine trees are highly inflammable. As a result, decrease in the native species of trees and an increase in flammable fuels have led to an increase in forest fire incidents.
The people of Uttarakhand have been protesting against the government’s forest policies and development plans since the 1950s. Although the ‘Chipko Movement’ for forest protection started here, which inspired all the countries of the world to protect forests, unfortunately the people of the state were unable to change the government policies to save Uttarakhand from natural calamities.
Mira Behn (daughter of a British Admiral), a prominent environmentalist despite being a foreign national, wrote a number of articles in newspapers as well as letters to prime minister Rajiv Gandhi on the changing environment in Uttarakhand under the guise of development. In 1949 she remarked on short-sighted policies of ‘development’ being followed in India mindless emulation of the West.
In an article published in the Hindustan Times on June 5, 1950, she clearly stated that something is wrong with the Himalaya, and ‘something’ is without doubt, connected with the forest. She wrote that the deadliest change in the species of trees from Himalayan oak to pine trees. At the time, Mira Behn was writing about the increasing flooding in the plains each year.
Neither the then government nor subsequent governments took it seriously because oak trees were not profitable for the government whereas the wood of pine trees proved to be of great commercial importance. In 1981, a blanket ban was introduced against the felling of standing trees 1,000 meters above sea level, a ban that prohibits the removal of pine trees in the areas where they are invading.
Growing pine trees in the area has caused severe damage to the local flora and fauna. The seeds of the pine tree are spread out easily from place to place due to their light weight. They thrive to the places where they get sufficient air, water, and sunlight. Although the government is well aware of the negative impacts of pine trees on the environment and damage caused by them, it is still not planning any alternative.
Both the Union and State Governments are not serious about the recurring natural calamities in Uttarakhand. On March 15, 2021, the Central Government decided to allow the commissioning of seven under-construction hydropower projects in the environmentally sensitive area of the state following the Chamoli tragedy in February 2021.
Apart from this, indiscriminate cutting of mountains and forests for construction of Char –Dham Marg is still going on without any hindrance in defiance of environmental norms. The Union Government has also made it clear to the apex court that the Char–Dham Marg is not having any negative impact on the environment there, while environmentalists say that as cutting of mountains and forests, Uttarakhand might face another catastrophe in the near future.
If we take a look at the seriousness of the Uttarakhand State Government towards the protection and conservation of the environment, their Chief Minister has been demanding two helicopters from the Central Government to put out the forest fires.
The state environment minister is making a video to be sent to the media pretending to douse a forest fire instead of taking action. How serious the Central Government is about forest conservation is evident from the Additional Chief Secretary Forest’s letter dated March 22, 2021 to the Chief Secretaries of the Forest Departments of the States and Union Territories.
The letter said that the state and union territories cannot impose any environmental or conservation directions for the infrastructure projects in forest areas sanctioned by the Central Government in the forest areas. State Governments may, in exceptional circumstances, impose some additional conditions with the permission of the Central Government.
To control forest fires, the government should give the Van-Panchayat the rights and incentives to protect the forests. At the same time, the rights of the locals should be restored which they were deprived of under the Wildlife Act, 1988. As the locals and the forest panchayats are the first to know about the wildfire incidents.
There should be a plan to reward firefighters and panchayats in some way. Local tree species oak and sal should be planted in place of pine trees to overcome the problem of wildfires. Construction of new hydroelectric projects should be banned completely to maintain humidity in the environment.
Waterholes should be built where necessary in mountainous areas to control wildfires. Indiscriminate deforestation should be stopped for development purposes. At the same time, if the state of Uttarakhand and its people are to be protected from natural calamities, the government should adopt a pro-nature and pro-people economic development model.
This article first appeared in The Citizen: Uttarakhand Engulfed in Wildfires on April 16, 2021.
About the Author:
Prof Gurinder Kaur is a Professor at the Department of Geography at Punjabi University, Patiala. She is also a Visiting Professor at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute