Since 1984, the forests of the Western Himalayas have burned every summer. There were forest fires before then, too, but when locals extinguished them, they would remain extinguished. Since 1984, the doused fires spring up as soon as the firefighters return home, fueling a sense of hopelessness. Today, barely anyone attempts to fight a fire, knowing that whatever is salvaged will soon be set ablaze anyway.

Earlier, forest fires were accidental (there is no record of a natural forest fire from the Himalayas). Today, they are intentional. Traditionally, villagers would set fire to grassy hillsides so that with the first rains, a new flush of nutritious grass would appear.

Today, forests are being set on fire to kill trees so that timber contractors can stay in business, commercial builders can clear land of trees to negate the difficulty of obtaining felling permission, villagers can stock up dead fuelwood for cooking and warming themselves, and various other reasons. The main trigger for this phenomenon was a 1981 governmental ban on the felling of green trees over 1,000 metres above sea-level.

Over the years, the regular fires have had several consequences. There is little or no regeneration in broadleaf forests, the composition of forests has changed from broadleaf dominated, humid evergreen forest to dry stands of chir pine, which with its resin-rich leaf litter are fire traps in summer. In addition, perennial water springs have dried up or become seasonal, leading to acute water shortages in upland villages. Wildlife has been exterminated as well, except for highly adaptable creatures like macaques and wild boar, which have shifted to agricultural fields for sustenance.

Spread of the chir pine

In Indian mythology, Ganga was deputed to water King Bhagirath’s Himalayan kingdom as reward for his penances. She had not been consulted about this and threw a tantrum, promising to wash away the earth if she were forced to leave heaven. However, the gods had committed themselves and could not go back on their word. Lord Shiva saved the day by assuring the other gods that he would spread his dreadlocks over the mountains to protect them from Ganga’s fury and that after percolating through his tangled tresses, she would emerge on to the plains as a peaceful, life giving river.

Dreadlocks were a very apt analogy used by the ancients to evoke an image of Himalayan broadleaf forests. The fury of the southwest monsoon breaks over the ranges every year, but the heavy downpour is met by a dense canopy of leaves and broken down into a fine spray, which percolates into the soil and recharges the springs and streams that water upland forests and villages.

This is the sort of forest that is required to stabilise water systems in the Himalayas. Historically, such forest was the mainstay of Uttarakhand’s economy, for it provided fodder, humus, perennial springs, fuel, food, medicine and all other human requirements. Dense broadleaf forests covered the hillsides and valleys, while poorer soils along the crest of ridges and very steep slopes was colonised by stands of chir pine (Pinus longifolia).

All this changed with the growing population and European ideas applied to the exploitation of Himalayan forests. A rising population meant greater pressure on forests and European forestry meant entire hillsides were cleared for timber and replanted with commercially useful species, generally chir pine. The spread of chir pine was helped by the annual forest fires set during the past 30 years, so that today there are very few strands of healthy broadleaf forests in the middle and outer ranges of Uttarakhand.

Clumsy efforts

The extensive area under chir pine led to problems of a different sort – the shedding of pine needles and cones at the beginning of the hot season ensures plenty of fuel for wildfires, as the resin rich humus covers the ground. When this catches fire, broadleaf forest dies out, enabling the chir pine to spread further. Consequently, chir pine has now moved down from the ridges to cover hillsides, valleys and entire hills. Perennial springs that existed on such hillsides dry up, for the rainwater that would normally have percolated into the soil and fed them through the year rushes down into channels, streams and rivers that disgorge themselves onto the plains, causing floods. In short, Shiva’s dreadlocks have been destroyed and Ganga’s fury is now untamed.

The government has attempted to tackle this problem, albeit rather clumsily. The ban on felling trees over 1,000m above sea level resulted in annual fires and an increased decimation of forests.

The need to spread forest cover was addressed by plantation efforts – by 1995, the money spent on tree plantation was enough to cover the present day state of Uttarakhand with four layers of trees. However, it's dreadlocks that are required, not plantations. By definition, a forest is a self-regenerating community of plants and animals. The government tries to pass off plantations as forests. Were it to focus on regenerating actual “dreadlock” forests, no funds would be required. All that would be needed is protection. However, millions of rupees have been siphoned off under the garb of planting forests, which is an oxymoron. Rather, even a part of this money would yield huge returns if it were used to hire, train and motivate village forest protection squads, who could safeguard fenced catchment areas from cattle and fires.

Seeking solutions

We now need to focus on preventing forest fires by prosecuting forest arsonists and culling chir pine trees up to 30 years old on forested hillsides and valleys. These trees are not natural growth but have sprung up in the wake of forest fires. This will enable broadleaf forest to re-establish itself, and in about 20 to 30 years stabilise underground water resources. The effect will be the rejuvenation of previously perennial upland springs that have become seasonal, a reduction in flood fury during the monsoon, an improvement in tourism as wildlife returns, and the reduction of man-animal conflict, especially with regard to the depredations of wild boar and rhesus macaques which have no food left for them in forests.

Ignoring this way forward will result in increased depletion of broadleaf forests, exacerbation of the acute water shortage over most parts of Uttarakhand, the breakdown of upland agriculture and the eventual abandoning of villages. This would have a disastrous effect on our nation.

At the same time, this model could be profitably applied to other Indian rivers, for India has the advantage of controlling the entire length of most of its rivers. That all of them face severe trouble today is proof of the failure of policies relating to them. Yet, all Indian rivers, including Himalayan ones, are rain fed and allowing “dreadlock” forests to grow back without interference would help subsurface water to recharge in the watersheds and headwaters, reducing floods, stabilising perennial flow in the rivers and giving our nation much needed water security.

I have been working towards this for the past 30 years, developing a model of bio-indicators to judge the health of a natural ecosystem using butterflies, moths and other creatures with reference to the groundwater potential of an area. So today, we have not only the problem, but also a very cheap, simple solution to it. All that is needed is the political will to apply it.

Peter Smetacek runs the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal.