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Himalayan infernos: Authorities fail to wake up to alarm calls

Infernos created by humans char the forests in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand every year.
Last Updated : 25 May 2024, 23:58 IST

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Snow-clad mountain peaks, forested valleys covered in mist, water untouched by humans...a pristine landscape most of us imagine when we hear about the Himalayas bordering our northern frontier. Unfortunately, the human signature is increasingly felt on this perfect image, giving it the shades of ash and smoke. 

Infernos created by humans char the forests in the Himalayan foothills of Uttarakhand every year. This year's statistics are more revealing: More than a thousand fires, over 1,500 hectares of forests gutted, six human lives and innumerable animal lives lost in four months. It was only because of a few providential spells this month that the government could bring the situation under control.    

The perennial issue

The fires that occur annually in the jungles of Uttarakhand are effectively controlled only when the rains come down heavily. The recurring fires only show the absence of any clear roadmap to deal with the disaster. The foot soldiers of the forest department are ill-equipped and are far fewer in number while the officers have no clear database or vision to deal with forest fires. With the growing impact of climate change making the weather drier and hotter, the crisis will only deepen in the coming years. 

The Supreme Court has asked the Central and state governments to prepare a comprehensive plan to deal with the chronic problem. However, there is clear laxity on the part of the governments. For example, despite the orders of an Empowered Committee appointed by the apex court, NGT and the letters written by the Principal Secretary of the Forest Department, requesting not to involve the forest officials in the election process, the district administrations deployed the forest personnel on election duty instead of letting them prepare for preventing forest fires. 

Most of the forest fires are anthropogenic. Villagers usually burn the dry grass in the hope of getting better growth of fodder for their cattle. Sometimes these efforts of limited burning go uncontrolled and cause the destruction of forests. Careless acts by villagers or tourists, leaving a burning beedi or cigarette or a cooking fire during expeditions, are behind it. Bad solid waste management where authorities and villagers burn garbage also becomes the cause of forest fires. 

However, it is important to understand that all forest fires are not detrimental to jungle life. Sporadic forest fires play a vital role in forest ecology by clearing the accumulated weeds and recycling nutrients. These fires play an important role in seed germination also. But the frequent, uncontrolled and large forest fires we witness every year only devastate the rich biodiversity and precious forest resources including trees, bushes and herbs. These infernos ruin the thick top layer of soil - increasing the danger of flash floods in mountainous regions -  and vitiate the air quality.

Officials of the forest research department of Uttarakhand say these human-made forest fires have endangered not only the valuable plant species but also the rare species of birds whose breeding season coincides with fire season from April to June. 

Despite the alarm calls, the state government doesn’t seem to have any blueprint. Uttarakhand has one of the richest and most diverse forests in the country, and this green cover works as a shield for the Himalayan glaciers suffering the wrath of global warming. These glaciers spread along a 2,500-km range from the north to northeast constitute huge reservoirs and are often called the 'third pole' of our planet. The Himalayan forests are important for the existence of these 'water towers' which cater to the drinking water and agriculture demands of around 40 crore Indians. 

Ill-equipped ground force

The forest department in Uttarakhand is facing problems on multiple fronts. The ground force lacks resources besides facing bureaucratic hurdles. There are more officers and fewer forest guards and watchers. Those working on the ground often have no vehicle to reach the spot to douse the fire. They work either on daily wages or are hired on contract. These people have no insurance coverage, and in the absence of efficient equipment, extinguishing fires on dangerous slopes puts their lives at risk.

One effective and conventional way to protect the forests is to create fire lines which separate the parts of the jungle to prevent fire from spreading. However, since the Independence, there has been hardly any review of these fire lines even though the nature and density of forests have changed to a great extent. Following a ban in the 1980s on cutting trees at altitudes above 1,000 metres, forests expanded and many fire lines disappeared. There was a strong need to review this development, but it did not happen.

Uttarakhand has 27 reserve forest divisions and they are divided into several ranges. In several forest ranges, there are no fire lines at all, while some have just a few metres-long fire lines and they remain filled with dry bushes and leaves. The presence of chir pine in large swathes of the forest makes things complicated when a fire breaks out. The pine leaves are highly inflammable and need to be removed regularly during the fire season. The Uttarakhand government has plans to engage villagers to help them collect the pine leaves by paying them a collection incentive of Rs 50 per kg.  

'Ghost villages'

Migration from villages is also a reason for forest fires. More than 1,000 villages in Uttarakhand have been completely abandoned and they are known as 'ghost villages'. The grass and bushes growing in these emptied villages remain unattended and unchecked. When a fire breaks out, this growth of dry grass works as fuel. Climate change, drier weather, lack of rain in winter and less snowfall are all factors provoking forest fires. Therefore, the role of the local community becomes very crucial to deal with forest fires. 

As historian Shekhar Pathak, who has been researching and travelling in the Himalayan region for over 50 years, rightly reminds us, forests can’t be saved from the frequent fires without “a united front”. According to him, this united front should include scientific institutions, the forest department, the administration, villagers and students. 

"Even the army can not control these forest fires unless we have a joint mechanism in place. You can surely create a scene on TV screens where a helicopter fetches water from the lakes and sprinkles it to douse the fire. It may look very daring to some but it shows the forest department and the entire state in a very poor light,” he says. 

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Published 25 May 2024, 23:58 IST

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