The nation's attention is riveted to the constitutional and legal crisis in Uttarakhand. Politicians of both the ruling party and the opposition are jostling for victory garlands. As they trade allegations, it appears that the fire and smoke that hang over the state are not their priority. If they were, they would have been in their constituencies. Neither have the politicians cared to notice that there has been a drought in the state for the last six months. The bureaucracy in Dehradun and the district headquarters are equally blind to the ground realities.
The forests have been dry since September 2015 and the fires were sparked off as early as February 2016. They became a challenge in mid-April. Then, all of a sudden, the forest department and the civil administration became alert and active. The National Disaster Response Force, the State Disaster Response Force, the Indo Tibetan Border Police and the army were asked to take charge. MI-17 helicopters were dispatched. The number of firemen was raised from 3,000 to 6,000. (But can they be taught how to extinguish fires and save villagers and themselves in such a short time?) More than a dozen people have lost their lives.
Even though regular statements on the fires were released, the full picture did not emerge. When satellite images from the Indian Space Research Organisation showed not only Uttarakhand but also Himachal Pradesh aflame, the lie of the forest department was exposed. When it was being said that the blaze would be brought under control in two days (only good rain can do so), the flames had already consumed more than 3,000 hectares of forests, and more than 1,600 fire-related incidents had been reported. The fire had entered the oak (broadleaf) forests. Fortunately, the fire in the Jim Corbett and Rajaji National Park was brought under control. Fires have also been seen in Binsar and Askot sanctuary.
What was the extent of loss of flora and fauna? This question has faded in the background. Now the concern is how can the remaining forests be saved.
Framing a solution
Forests cover as much as 64.7% (or 3.47 million hectares) of Uttarakhand's 53,483 square kilometres area. Of this, 42% area 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 JS Mehta, 31% of the total forest area (10,621 sq km) is covered by pine, 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 1,000 metres height has benefitted pine trees the most, as this tree is hardy, fast growing and not liked by animals. On the other hand, pine needles decompose very slowly and feed forest fires. But the lack of timely pruning or rotational cutting has meant that pine has started entering the sal forests at lower altitudes and broadleaf forests at higher altitudes.
There's only one way forward: taking preventive measures. Our forests are catching fire at the ground level, not at the level of canopy. Hence, work needs to begin on the ground. In the month of November itself, disaster management teams should set to work in every district. Various departments should contribute to the efforts. People's representatives, women's groups, students, teachers, National Service Scheme volunteers, National Cadet Corps members should take part in the teams.
Fire control lines (at least 10 metres wide) need to be made and kept clean, so that the possibility of fires is eliminated. Information and maps should be used, and both ISRO and the state satellite centre need to give more accurate information. Together, the government, society, science and knowledge systems can control the fires. Only an aware society and a responsible administration can put information and science to use.
Containing pine forests
Pine needles need to be removed as much as possible and used to generate electricity and fuel (the voluntary organisation Avani has successfully started doing this work). The broadleaf forests need to be expanded and water conservation pits (or chaal-khaal) need to be created. Pine is not without its uses: pinewood is good for making homes, it is good as cooking fuel and for funeral pyres and finally is raw material for many industries. Use pine, don't allow it to encroach into oak region. Let it stay in its native area. It will grow again after the fire. The renewal of broadleaf forests is tougher. Make it part of this campaign.
Climate change is a reality. But the Himalaya retain a diversity of weather conditions as evident from the landslides in Arunachal, the fires in Nepal, Uttarakhand, Himachal and snow in some parts of Kashmir 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 account.
Over the last century, there have been innumerable forest fires. In the pre-Independence era, at the time of the Jungle Satyagraha, villagers put out fires in the oak forests . There have been fires in 1995, 2005, 2009, 2012 and 2014. The floods of 2013 limited the fire. Some people see a cycle of two to six years in the fires, but over the last decade, fires have become an annual tragedy. Between 2005 and 2015, more than 5,000 hectares of forests have reportedly been lost to fire in the Kumaon region alone.
This time, villagers have been blamed for the fires. A villager setting fire to the forest would be an exception. Villagers have been putting up forest fires over centuries. Their existence is intimately connected to forests. Displacement, out-migration and the inability to obtain their forest rights might have saddened 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. The children, women and men of the village got involved in putting out the fires. Eight lives were lost, while politicians and administrators were busy with the by-election.
Forest mafia and departments and organisations involved in false afforestation programmes have a greater interest in setting fire to the forest. The fire covers their crimes, just like landslides cover the crimes of the public works department and floods of dam builders. The major triggers for forest fires are drought, the spread of pine forests, 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.
Uttarakhand is filled with fire and smoke. There is no water in the wells and streams. But water and wells are mere symbols: it is the wells of politicians, administrators and the forest department that do not have the waters of wisdom, commitment, strategy and love for the forests. The day the wells of society run dry, the forests on the hills will be destroyed. MI-17 choppers are not the solution. Timely preparation and forming a joint front of the government and society is the only way forward.
We did not learn any lessons from the floods of 2013. Let's try and learn lessons from the forest fires of 2016.
Shekhar Pathak taught history at Kumaon University. He now works with the People's Association for Himalaya Area Research and edits its journal, PAHAR.
Translated from the Hindi by Supriya Sharma.