India is again wasting valuable time, effort and resources on a national scale as it races to forestall an impending water crisis. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change is conducting massive afforestation drives, planting native species. But a forest is a self-sown, self-regenerating community of plants and dependent organisms, from microbes to elephants. A forest, by definition, cannot be “planted”. Since afforestation is interpreted to mean the planting of forests, it is an oxymoron. What is created when one plants trees, native or exotic, is a plantation.

In Hindu mythology, the Ganga is personified as a goddess, who, vexed at being forced to descend to earth, threatened to wash away the offending king Bhagirath’s kingdom. To contain her anger, Lord Shiva spread his dreadlocks over the Himalaya, so when Ganga descended in a fury, she was lost in them. By the time she emerged at Haridwar, her anger had evaporated and she was a calm, benign river.

Dreadlocks are the perfect analogy for the dense forests that once covered not only the Himalaya but also the headwaters of peninsular India’s rivers. Our rapacity and mismanagement of these rivers and streams after independence have reduced them from perennial to seasonal, leaving us on the brink of water wars. The dreadlocks have been shaved and, according to prevailing wisdom in the environment ministry as well as the governmental research community, combed, trimmed hair – plantations – is equivalent to Shiva’s dreadlocks in controlling surface and groundwater systems.

That this is false and will have disastrous consequences for the nation is studiously ignored. The environment ministry, in its various avatars, has planted forests since independence, with no results to show for the vast sums of money spent. By 1995, the money spent on planting forests in what is now Uttarakhand was equivalent to what it would cost putting the entire state under four layers of trees. On the other hand, when my father settled on a forest estate in Uttarakhand’s Bhimtal in 1951, he set aside five acres of what was then a tea plantation to grow back into a forest. Seventy years later, it is the finest forest for miles around. Not a single tree there was planted; the land was merely protected and the forest permitted to grow. No cattle or humans were allowed in. This is all it takes to regrow forests anywhere in India.

The Bhimtal forest estate around 1890. Photo courtesy Peter Smetacek
'Seventy years later, the estate is covered by the finest forest for miles around.' Photo courtesy Peter Smetacek

Protecting their turf

Why, one wonders, are state forest departments not doing this? Firstly, if forests grow back, they will not have a problem to address. Secondly, there will be no vast sums of money to spend. These are the primary reasons leading us inexorably towards a water crisis of such magnitude that one fears to imagine the consequences. Two consequences though are certain – famine and violence. Already, over a thousand villages in Uttarakhand have been abandoned because of destroyed water systems, the impossibility of growing crops because of federally protected crop pests such as wild boar and monkeys, and a government that ignores the village and blindly follows dreams of industrial development.

Under public pressure, the Indian government has moved decisively to stop the scourge of forest fires in the past two years. State forest departments had sold an unconvincing yet officially accepted narrative that fires were inevitable and they needed vast sums of money to put them out. But when existing laws began to be applied and forest arsonists arrested, the results on the ground were undeniable: there were fewer fires than the year before. Also, the forest officials did not have any reason to demand funds for putting out fires.

In the same way, the Union environment ministry’s false narrative that forests have to be planted and it needs money to do so has to be exposed. That is the only way our native forests will be allowed to grow back. We have done it in Bhimtal, the ministry can do it nationally. The difference is that we did it of our own accord, the ministry is paid to do so.

For proponents of building check dams to tackle the water crisis, it needs to be pointed out that most Indian rivers, especially those in the peninsula, were historically perennial. There were no check dams on them.

Suffice it to say that allowing forests to regrow naturally is what we as a nation should work towards, for two reasons. First, it is a long-term solution that will never again need any investment and does not carry any downsides such as siltation or displacement. Second, it is practically free. All that is needed is that money being thrown away on “planting forests” is used to improve the condition of state forest departments’ field staff and augment their number. We need to revert to status quo ante which had worked well for thousands of years, not a new narrative of joining rivers, building dams and depending on reservoirs.

Identifying catchment areas for protection should not be a difficult task. Getting the cooperation of local communities should not be insurmountable either, given the benefits that will accrue to them. We had some trouble protecting our forest against the first generation of villagers my father had settled, but the second generation is themselves protecting the forest better than we ever could since the benefits of having it are obvious to them.

The biggest stumbling blocks will come from within the government, where people used to getting plantation funds will find themselves bereft. But then the most severe opposition to putting out forest fires also came from within the government and that was overcome.

The time for arguing and self-seeking has run out. Disaster is in the process of overwhelming us. We must set our course right now, so that in 30 years we will be on the way to stabilising our water resources. If the same mindset that has effectively destroyed our natural water systems continues to chart the plan for their rejuvenation, then disaster is the foregone conclusion.