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The Burning Issue

During the beginning of the pandemic last year, there was a lot of uncertainty in the air from both the public and the government. But this was to be expected as nobody had seen a pandemic so severe since the influenza pandemic (1918) more than a century ago. The same, though, cannot be said for the second wave of the pandemic that affected people around the country. More than a year and a crore (13 million) plus cases later, we have not yet learnt the lessons. Negligence and discrepancies are rising while carelessness seems to be the mantra forward.

This is precisely the case with Uttarakhand and forest fires. The state, which was formally carved out of Uttar Pradesh on 9th November 2000, has been on the news ever since for its recurring forest fires. Although small in scale a few decades ago and with longer intervals, these fires have become a menace that occurs almost on a yearly basis. With more than 2/3rd of the land being forest and an abundance of chir pine (pinus roxburghii) whose leaves (needles) are highly prone to catching fire, conditions there are ideal for fires to spread. These fires start occurring around mid-February and continue till the end of June, during the same time when the chir pine sheds its leaves.

While these fires are a recurring occurrence, the scale and intensity of the natural disasters over the last few years have been catastrophic, with 4538 hectares of forest land destroyed in the 2016 fires and 1400 hectares of forest land gone in the latest one. The flash floods, earthquakes, and glaciers melting are nature’s response to our continued disrespect of it.

The Himalayan state, known to be climatologically very sensitive and ecologically fragile, has seen declining rainfall and increasing temperature over the last century. The increase in occurrence and rise in intensity of the recent disasters seems to coincide with these trends becoming visibly more prominent over the last three decades.

The data from India Meteorological Department, Pune, also shows the hill regions of the state warming more prominently than the plains. Combining this with the fact that the winter months of November, December, and February have recorded the maximum rise in temperature while the monsoon months of June, July, August, and September, have shown a cooling trend, it’s clear that the seasonal contrast of the Himalayan region is disappearing, making winters shorter and rainy season drier. Rainfall in the area has also decreased over the last century, with a decline over almost all months. The monsoon months (June-September) show a significant drop, affecting the crops in the region adversely. These changes reduce fertility and adversely affect the water retention capabilities of the soil, making the land dry and impoverished to grow vegetation or fight forest fires. While this means that the region’s natural protective and regenerative qualities are degrading, it still is not enough to cause such massive fires and raging floods all over the state.

This is where greed and the short-sighted nature of man play the most prominent part. According to many residents of the state, these fires result from the practice of burning the forest land to clear out the pine leaves. The pine leaves make the forest floor inhabitable for the region’s flora to grow, including grass, an essential food source for animals and has become harder to find due to climate change. In addition, with the majority population being farmers, almost all households have cattle to feed. Once burned and free of pine leaves, the forest floor creates a better environment for the grass to grow, helping the locals feed their herd of animals.

Harendra Singh Pipaliya, Sarpanch, Nachani village, says, “The situation is so bad that there’s barely any grass or new trees growing.” He says that the government should give the local leaders, such as the village Sarpanch, the responsibility and resources to douse the fires. He further adds that before, the villagers used to take turns to extinguish the fires, and the government used to compensate them for the work, but now there’s no remuneration or any resources provided. He says, “We are doing what we can, but I want to ask the forest department what they have done to control the situation while we are losing our homes and our ancestral undertaking, the forests.”

Another reason for these fires is the alleged illegal trade of timber and clearing the forest land to sell it to the highest bidder. The Forest Conservation Act prohibits the felling of trees in forest land under its purview for commercial purposes. But if the trees fall in forest fires, then a nexus of locals, forest department, and commercial players benefit from it, allowing them to buy and sell trees which would not have been possible otherwise. Moreover, the land cleared by the fires is also allowed to be sold to the highest bidder due to its lack of forest vegetation. Ghanshyam Pandey, a Forester in Door village near Munsiyari, states that human mischief and stupidity, along with natural reasons, are what is causing the forest fires. He says that the forest department is doing what they can, but it is up to the rain gods now due to the spontaneous nature and the scale of these fires. The recent changes to the Forest Conservation Act have also made it more challenging for any land to be deemed a forest and thus come under its protection, with requirements such as a minimum area of 10 hectares, a minimum canopy density of 60 percent, and at least 75 per cent percent native trees.

The cost of development has also been high for the region. According to the data of the forest department cited by TOI, Uttarakhand has lost over 50,000 hectares of land in the last 20 years just to commercial activities, losing most to mining (8760 ha). This comes at a time when the state is demanding a “Green Bonus” from the centre for the conservation and protection of the environment.

Govind Singh, a government school teacher near Jhupulchaura, Almora, says that, during his childhood days, many men from the village used to create small permanent sheds in the jungles to keep a watch on the animals and also to stay close to the natural world. Man needed the wilderness and its many resources, so he had no choice but to care for it. This need created respect among the locals for flora and fauna around them since it was the reason for their survival.

However, recent events show that the bond between man and the jungle that was unique to the people from the forests and mountains is slowly disappearing. And while reducing his dependence on nature, man is also reducing the protective cover of nature around him, to ashes.

Vijay Miral is a director, writer, and photojournalist.

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