Uttarakhand forests go up in flames amid Dhami govt’s indifference

Uttarakhand forests go up in flames amid Dhami govt’s indifference

The high carbon content in the state has turned this pristine hill state into a gas chamber, impacting the health of its people, especially the elderly who are complaining of irritation in the eyes and extreme difficulty in breathing.

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Last Updated : 02 June 2024, 21:32 IST
Last Updated : 02 June 2024, 21:32 IST

Forty per cent of Uttarakhand’s once dense forests have been burnt to cinders. Fires have been seen burning in practically every forest-covered district, from Pauri Garhwal to the Kedarnath valley; from Bhimtal and Sattal to Munsiyari.

Every one of the one thousand fires that have burnt down these forests have been recorded by both the forest department and satellite images, and can be downloaded easily. Yet, we have the
state government lying through its teeth and informing the Supreme Court
that only 1% of the forest cover has so far been affected.

We have a prime minister who swears by the holy shrines of Kedarnath and Badrinath, and has been at the forefront of encouraging millions of Indians to participate in the Char Dham yatra. He and UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath have talked about the need to create other sacred ‘dhams’ around the ancient temples located around Almora and Mukteshwar.

And yet when the fires swept through the Kedarnath valley, destroying an entire ecosystem, not a word of concern was expressed by either of these leaders.

Last month in Almora, fires burnt down a part of the sacred Dunagiri temple. The fire spread so quickly that devotees with young children were seen scrambling for their lives. There was not a word of sympathy from Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Singh Dhami or his Forest Minister Subodh Uniyal, both of whom were absent from the state when huge tracts of forests were going up in flames.

Even when the local media was highlighting how the fires had reached Naini Tal, the town of Bhowali and the districts of Ramnagar and Haldwani, resulting in a fire-induced haze that led to the cancellation of flights to the Naini-Saini airport in Pithoragarh, Dhami was missing in action.

There are many alarming aspects to this disaster. These fires ignited from the month of November onwards and began to spread due to the absence of winter rains and snowfall.

Not only have the fires left six people dead and torched thousands of birds and other reptilian creatures, which were unable to escape the blaze in time, but these fires also have dried up thousands of springs that are the source of drinking water for the local people. These springs feed into the local lakes. With two of the largest lakes in Kumaon, Bhi Tal and Saat Tal lakes practically dry, the water situation is precarious.

The high carbon content in the state has turned this pristine hill state into a gas chamber, impacting the health of its people, especially the elderly who are complaining of irritation in the eyes and extreme difficulty in breathing. Hospitals across this hill state are inundated with the elderly complaining of suffering ‘psychological trauma and suffocation’.

The forests around Badrinath are also aflame. For the residents of Badrinath, this has come as a double whammy since they have had to struggle with land subsidence for the last three years.

While the state government failed to come up with a proper rehabilitation package, residents of this ill-fated town are worried these forest fires and the dense smoke that has engulfed the surrounding hills and valleys may adversely affect tourism, which is their livelihood. But the most shocking part is that despite the tremendous setback, the state’s bureaucrats and politicians continue to remain indifferent.

The entire brunt of controlling the fires has fallen on the shoulders of the understaffed and ill-equipped foresters who are working 10 to 12 hours at a stretch, armed with little more than garden rakes and branches of trees to try and control huge plumes of fire that is devouring everything in its path.

By now, the state government, which claims to be cash-rich, should have ensured proper firefighting equipment for its forest staff, given that fires are an annual feature and are increasing in their intensity and duration.

Last year, the state recorded 773 fires; this year, the tally has crossed 1,000 fires and over 2,000 hectares of forest land has been affected. The forest department claims that the majority of these forest fires are man-made. Villagers are known to set fire to dry pine needles in order to clear pathways and fields. But this is not the whole story.

Dehradun-based environmentalist Reenu Paul does not accept this explanation.  “Some villagers may be indulging in this arson but the majority of fires are the handiwork of the real estate lobby which uses this (burnt) forest land to develop colonies,” she said. “This has been their modus operandi and they are hand-in-glove with the local bureaucracy; otherwise, it defies imagination that these fires have not been halted by now. These fires intensified after the state administration unofficially sent out a message that squatters should be called ‘eco-preneurs’ and should not be stopped from occupying forest land. This has seen a huge increase in the illegal occupation across our forests with the forest staff looking away.”

No state could be so careless with its legacy as has been Uttarakhand. When the state was formed in 2000, it had 65% forest cover, of which 42% was under dense forests. The last 23 years have proved devastating, because 44,518 hectares have been gutted due to frequent forest fires while another 11,649 hectares of forest land has been encroached upon.

Interestingly, the state government had sought the Supreme Court nod to fell around 1.5 lakh trees that have grown on the fire lines in the upper reaches of the Himalayas, which they see as a major cause of concern in tackling the fire menace. But environmentalists have another question: why has the state government allowed massive encroachment to take place in the ravines which were the natural fire lines to combat this menace?

The state government has finally decided to slap the Gangster Act on arsonists who are responsible for igniting these fires. Offenders will be prosecuted under the Forest Act, Wildlife Protection Act and Damage to Public Properties Act along with the UK Public and Private Property Damage Recovery Act 2024.

The sections under which they will be charged seems like a long list indeed, but the truth is that once a forest is burned down, it will take many decades for it to recover; sometimes, it may never recover. It is the public at large that is paying a heavy price for such callous indifference.

(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist)


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