The inferno that razed the ‘fire of Uttarakhand’s forests' will impact its life deeply

Sumitranandan Pant, prominent poet of Chhayavaad era and a native of Kausani near Ranikhet, called the blossoming of beautiful rhododendron flowers in the mountain forests ‘the fire of the forest’. This season, there are no rhododendrons in sight. They have been devoured by the real fire that has ravaged almost all of Uttarakhand, and entered neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

According to the reports, at least 2000 hectares of the forest lies in embers. Tourist places, small hill towns and villages are suffocating in smoke. The tourism industry, one of the biggest sources of income during the peak season, has come to a standstill and environmentalists are concerned over the eventual damage to the glaciers which have started melting at an alarming rate. Defence personnel and disaster management brigades have been busy dousing the fire but they are up against a Herculean task. As there is no elected government in Uttarakhand, everything depends on the bureaucratic machinery under the Governor. One does not know how Union Minister Prakash Javadekar claims that ninety percent of the fire has been put out, even as the Uttarakhand High Court has taken a suo motu cognizance of the tragedy and asked the central government to file a reply.

What or who caused the forest fire in the hills remains a mystery till date. There are many versions to the story. Some call it an act of vagabond local boys and negligent village folks. Some blame it on the forest department’s annual exercise and some say it is the handiwork of the timber mafia which is in a nexus with forest officials. After the promulgation of new Forest Act in 1981, which put a ban on the felling of trees above a height of 100 meters, forest fires have been on the rise but nobody has been held responsible yet.

Earlier, the forest adjoining a cluster of villages belonged to people — to their panchayats rather — who were dependent on it for fuel wood, fodder and timber for building houses. I still remember my boyhood days when people, particularly women, would set the fences of their fields on fire so that rich nutritious grass could grow when rains came. When fire spread beyond the fields and reached nearby trees, the women would extinguish them with the help of a green branch of pine or oak or some other tree. One of the Hindi short-story writers, Suresh Uniyal has written a beautiful story on extinguishing such fires.

Representational image. PTI

Representational image. PTI

Some people believed that the fire in the jungle was ignited by forest officials in order to get green patches after the rains and the nomadic tribes also set the forests on fire but always doused it if it threatened to spread on a vast scale. It was a time when the timber and land mafia were nowhere in the hills. When people got alienated from their collective or panchayati forests, they started ignoring the fire, became disinterested in dousing it, and now with the massive migration and dislocation from the villages, there are not many people who have the traditional wisdom of putting out fires. The irony of the situation is that our ‘learned’ environment minister has put the onus on the poor village folks rather than looking into the mafia angle to it, and highlighted the need to tell them that’ such activity is destructive’!

It is true that today’s Uttarakhand is a parched land because of scarce rains, dried up perennial or seasonal water sources and loss of humidity in the forest land. Some environmentalists believe that less broadleaf trees and the overgrowth of pine trees have also contributed to the problem. Their needles and cones can easily catch fire; the fire situation has been worse in the areas where pine trees are in abundance. All this has definitely to do with the development model adopted all over the country without considering specific local or native needs.

Scientists and environmentalists will go on debating this for long, but what is clear is the fact that the fires have astonishingly increased after the villagers were deprived of their forests. When the jungles were in the hands of the villagers, they were managed with a fine balance between the daily needs and the environmental necessities. Once this relationship was broken, a conflict of the nature and the people sprang up, resulting in massive human migration. Forests took over agricultural land and deserted villages.

It took a long time for the people of Uttarakhand to overcome the disastrous floods of Kedarnath valley in 2013. Now the great waves of fire and the mountains of smoke hovering around the valleys threatens to have a greater impact on the ecosystem of the state. Mighty trees ablaze with their ponderous branches and ancient tree trunks crashing to the ground make for disturbing visuals. The fury of waters may bring geo-ethnographic changes in certain areas, but the ravaging fires destroy the core of the earth, its water, air, habitat and environment as a whole.

The author is a Hindi laureate from Uttarakhand and has written many books.

Updated Date: May 03, 2016 18:14 PM

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