The Indian Forest Service was established during the second half of the 19th century, largely in response to the perception that Indian forests would not be able to long sustain the ongoing lawless persecution they were facing at the time. Since Britain had no Forest Service to speak of, the person invited to set up the service was Sir Dietrich Brandis, a German forester. In retrospect, it was an excellent choice, for the decisions he made were sound and Indian forestry is still based on those insights and solutions. His main brief was to secure what was left of Indian forests and create sustainable models for supply of various timbers, including a mix of softwoods and hardwoods. Britain at that time did not produce much timber herself and depended on imported wood to build her fleet. Stabilising groundwater did not form part of Sir Dietrich’s brief and the subject was not addressed.

Lost in translation

However, a problem arose from the fact that English was a second language for Dietrich.In German, there are three words to describe what is covered under the word “forest” – a “Forst” is a plantation of commercially important forest trees; a “Wald” is a natural forest while the closest term to describe “Urwald” is a primeval forest. The terms “Forstwirtschaft” and “Waldwirtschaft” both translate as “forestry” in English. Dietrich failed to establish an official difference between Forst and Wald, since it was considered unimportant at the time.

The result of this oversight has been far reaching and, on the whole, negative for India. Throughout the country, State Forest Departments have undertaken the planting of forests. No one clarified to them that by planting, one obtained a “Forst”, not a “Wald” – that is, a plantation, not a forest.

The question, naturally, is: What are we hoping to achieve by the process of planting forests (which term, incidentally, is an oxymoron)? If it is lumber, then establishing and exploiting plantations is what the forest departments are trained for. If it is “re-greening the countryside”, then one might question whether any public funds should be allocated for such an exercise, since there is no measurable target against which the success of the outlay can be judged. However, if it is watershed management or the need to re-establish or stabilise ecosystem services like water springs, what is needed is an Urwald, not a Forst or a Wald, for it was from the Urwald that perennial springs arose.

When our target is unclear, it is obvious that we will not meet with success in our endeavour, so it is no surprise that there is not a single success story in all the “watershed management” and “afforestation” drives that the public has paid for throughout the country.

It is for this reason, too, that India has not managed to satisfactorily define a forest so far. After making the distinction between a Forst, a Wald and an Urwald, it is evident that it is vital to protect the Wald and Urwald, not the Forst, for the Forst is a man made wood planted with the intention of being commercially exploited. The ecosystem services sought to be legally protected would be vital to the nation regardless of whether the Wald or Urwald is on public or private land.

Blanket bans

Blanket bans are never a good thing and another example is the blanket ban on felling green trees over 1000-metre elevation, imposed by the government in 1981. I have shown elsewhere how this resulted in a cycle of man-made forest fires that were lamely assigned to “natural causes”.

Following three causes have been claimed for forest fires:

1. The magnifying effect of a dew drop on the rays of the rising sun. This does not seem valid in a Himalayan context. Because if there were enough humidity for a drop of dew to be present, then the forest debris would be too damp to take fire.

2. The clash of falling rocks creating sparks. There is little flint in the Himalaya to spark easily and there are no rock falls in the dry season; if this were to happen, the evidence would be there after the fire; however, no such evidence has ever been found or reported.

3. Thunderbolts. I have witnessed more than a dozen thunderbolts smashing trees and in all cases, it was accompanied by rain, so there was no scope for a fire to start.

The highly improbable possibility of two branches rubbing together in a wind storm and producing enough heat to ignite is defeated by the fact that any wind strong enough to cause dry branches to rub together so furiously will also have a chilling effect on the area that would potentially ignite.

This blanket ban on felling has made it impossible to clear the extensive plantations of Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) planted in the western Himalaya. Note that these trees were intended to be felled in due course, for they are Forste, not Wälder. The failure of the Forest Department to “harvest its crop” has resulted in these trees reaching maturity and with repeated forest fires set to burn their resin rich leaf litter, clearing the undergrowth as well as spreading to neighbouring hillsides and ravines previously under broadleaf forests. The repeated forest fires have enabled the Chir to spread on a scale it has probably never experienced before, with grave consequences for the broadleaf evergreen Urwälder of Himalayan Oak species.

Easy solution

All over the country, Urwälder have been cleared for commercial purposes. Today, they survive in small patches in protected areas, sacred groves and private forests. It is these Urwälder that gave rise to our perennial springs and rivers. India has the great advantage of controlling the entire length of almost all of her rivers. Yet, with the destruction of the Urwälder in the headwaters and catchment areas, we have effectively reduced most of them to seasonal streams. Rather than addressing the question of stabilising our underground water resources through permitting Urwälder to grow back (for there is no way of planting them), we have resorted to so-called “solutions” like linking rivers or building large dams, neither of which have had much success in any other part of the world where they were attempted.

It seems likely that, as long as permitting Urwälder to grow back remains a cheap, easy solution to the biggest challenge facing our nation, it will attract no interest from decision makers. After all, there is no need for a great deal of money to be sanctioned to achieve positive results. We do not even have a word to refer to Urwald, on which our very existence depends! We vaguely refer to the “core area” of a sanctuary or national park, to a sacred grove or an old-growth forest when we mean Urwald. To kick-start the process, I suggest that Urwald is referred to as “pristine jungle”, since “jungle” is an anglicised Hindi word that best conveys the image of what the ancients meant by Lord Shiva’s dreadlocks, which covered the Himalaya to protect them from being washed away by the fury of Ganga’s descent to earth in the form of the south west monsoon.

Peter Smetacek runs the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal. Read his other pieces about the Uttarakhand fires here.