For the first time since 1987, Himalayan forest fires are in the news. Back then, widespread annual fires were something new, so mainstream media had carried the news. The government’s response was to send an orange helicopter to dump buckets of water on the rampant fires around Bhimtal. It was busy for a few days until it was realised that the sudden spurt of fire incidents since its arrival was caused by children setting fire to hillsides for the excitement of seeing a real-life helicopter undertaking sorties.
Then the whole scheme fizzled out.
Not a natural phenomenon
Today, fires are being fatalistically viewed as something that happens naturally. In fact, this is a view that is being subtly reinforced at various levels. However, over most of the world, a natural fire would fall in the “rarest of rare” category and to have over a thousand forest fires flare up naturally within a few hundred kilometres would surely qualify as the “strangest of strange”! Lightning bolts are known to cause forest fires in parts of the world like northern China and Canada. However, in the Himalaya, thunderstorms are always accompanied by rain, so even if a tree is shattered by lightning, there is no threat whatsoever of a fire since whatever embers that might have been generated are immediately doused. In the present context, there were no reported thunderstorms while the fires were raging in Uttarakhand in late April and early May.
Apologists for the fires claimed that it was a tradition for villagers to set forests alight in order to force a new flush of nutritious grass as soon as the monsoon rains came. Two simple facts clarify that this is not the case in the present context:
Firstly, the timing for this is all wrong, for even the most backward villager knows that such fires ought to be set towards the end of May and in June, so that the rains, coming soon after, cause the grass to put out new growth. Setting fire in March and April, at the beginning of the dry season, can cause the grass to dry up and die out before the rains come in June.
Secondly, such fires are set to grassy hillsides, not forests. In Uttarakhand, it is the forests that have been set alight for years now. This would not benefit shepherds, since there is no grass within a forest.
The most recent apology for arsonists is that they set fire to dry pine needles covering paths, to make them less slippery. Frankly, this is the first time I have heard of such a practice and if it is indeed a practice, then it ought to be stamped out as soon as possible, since burning down a forest to clear a path is inexcusable at any level.
A section of the press has disagreed with my use of the word “arsonist” to describe a person who sets fire to a forest. However, this is common English usage throughout the world. I am astonished that anyone would seek to exculpate such commonly recognised criminal acts, especially when human lives have been lost in the process and there are legal provisions under Indian law for punishing the guilty. If apologists feel that setting fire to a forest is not a criminal act, they might seek the removal of relevant sections from the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Forest Act. However, as long as these sections remain valid under Indian law, the act is a criminal one, regardless of the convictions of those who would see our forests burn and rivers dry up.
We now come to the question of who sets the fires. Doubtless, there are accidental fires – others are due to carelessness, especially by smokers. These are the sort of fires that are local and, when put out, stay doused. These were the only sort of fires that we needed to fight through the 1970s and early 1980s. Contrary to claims by unnamed “foresters”, there is no record of four to five year cycles for forest fires in the Himalaya – our forest in Jones Estate did not experience any non-accidental fire for 30 years between 1954 and 1984. Nowadays, fires are reignited soon after they are doused, leading to a sense of hopelessness among fire fighters.
There are several groups interested in setting fires. They are sometimes loosely referred to as the “timber mafia” or the “forest mafia”. One report in Livemint, which denies the existence of any human motives to the recent forest fire, states that there are large stocks of unsold wood in the depot in Haldwani which repeated auctions have failed to clear and that this is proof of the non-existence of a “timber mafia”.
“Instead of advocating half-truths, one should check on the large inventory of unsold timber lying in Haldwani, where repeated auctions have failed to clear stocks.”
Considering that wood is an essential commodity for which a market exists, it is clear from the unsold stocks that a cheaper alternative source is available. Since the wood depot is the only legitimate source for wood, it is evident that the market is being amply supplied with illegal timber.
The process is simple – since the 1981 ban on felling green trees above 1000 metre elevation, there have been regular forest fires. The law allows for the removal of dead and dry trees, so timber contractors set out to fulfil this requirement of the law by setting fire to forests with a view to killing trees. After the fires, a highly reduced number of dead trees is reported. Contracts are floated for the transport of the dead trees from the forest to the depot. Contractors remove all the dry trees and often some green trees, too. The reported numbers of dry trees are duly transported to the depot and the remainder is supplied to the market. So great is this “remainder” nowadays that the markets are not interested in the higher priced legal timber available at the depot. The NDTV reports a similar state of affairs with the pine resin supply, where stocks of resin amounting to around 25,000 tonnes in the Dehra Dun depot have lain unsold for a year.
Since there does not appear to have been any change in market demand for the product which is used to make turpentine, there is evidently an ample supply from elsewhere within the state. Another report in Scroll points out that forest department officials often do not plant the full number of saplings that money is sanctioned for and destroy evidence of plantation by setting fire and claiming that all the saplings (including those that existed only on paper) were razed.
“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.”
In addition to the above, there is the “informal sector”, where illegal lumber is supplied on demand by small local contractors after paying off forest guards. Taken together, this is quite a large market and a proportionately large source of arson.
If one considers that such large scale supply of off-the-record timber and resin, among other things, is going on in the west Himalayan states, it is not surprising that there are loud and vehement protests when one questions the “naturalness” of the fires that are set to subvert the law or destroy evidence. After all, exploitation of Himalayan forests has always been lucrative and it evidently still is, regardless of laws and rules that attempt to stem the exploitation.
The area of forest burnt appears to have been grossly miscalculated at all levels, with the government estimating a total of 1,890.79 hectares destroyed until April 29, while other estimates in the press hover around 3,000 hectares in the state. I would point out that the Jones Estate forest in Bhimtal covers around 250 hectares, and that was burnt in a series of fires until April 25, 2016. If one views Jones Estate from a higher point like Gagar, it is a small hill in a landscape of mountains. To claim that the 1,890 hectares (or roughly eight Jones Estates) burning, presumably in separate places over a period of several weeks in an area of 53,566 square kilometres covered by the state, created so much smoke that helicopters found it difficult to undertake sorties is so difficult to believe that one wonders how senior government officials can expect to retain any credibility after presenting such impossible figures. Indeed, I would safely assert that more than 3,000 hectares were burnt in Nainital district alone.
Given the growing water scarcity in villages in the middle and outer ranges of Uttarakhand caused by reduced broadleaf forest cover, which in turn is caused by forest fires, there is a large scale, human made disaster in the making. It is not too late to reverse the trend, but addressing this matter cannot be delayed for much longer. Therefore, it is of national importance that Indian citizens ensure the process of forest arson in the Himalaya is stopped forthwith by an unwilling government and the guilty brought to book.
If the criminals have their way, we will experience the equivalent of a scorched earth policy perpetrated by our own citizens.
Peter Smetacek runs the Butterfly Research Centre in Bhimtal. Read his other pieces about the Uttarakhand fires here.