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Uttarakhand’s Fiery Struggle: Forests, Fires and Fragile Ecosystems

Vidya Bhushan Rawat writes, Uttarakhand’s forest fires have devastated vast areas and claimed human lives, highlighting the complex interplay of natural and man-made factors. Increased tourism, environmental mismanagement and human-wildlife conflicts exacerbate the state's ongoing crisis

Uttarakhand’s forest fire has resulted in the loss of not only human lives but also huge forest areas. This year has been devastating for Uttarakhand as the number of forest fires in the state rose to an extraordinary level. The latest casualty has been the enchanting forests of Kasar and Winsor near Almora known for its tranquility and stunning forestry. A report published in The Hindu says, ‘forest fires in Uttarakhand have now engulfed an area of 1438 hectares, with 1065 incidents between November 1 last year and May 13, 2024. Five people have died. However, State Wildlife Department officials have claimed the situation is under control.

During the second week of May, I travelled in the foothills as well as the High Mountain regions of Kumaon in Uttarakhand state. There was a massive fire in the foothills near Nainital. Travelling to the famous Jim Corbett Park, we found numerous patches of forest fire all through our route. It was a sad spectacle. The forest fire reached Nainital in the third week of April and endangered the High Court colony area forcing the authorities to seek army help. An MI 17 helicopter was pressed into service taking water from Naini Lake and sprinkling it over the forest.

‘The hilly state has reported as many as 31 pine forest fires in various areas since Friday. Bhumiadhar, Jeolikot, Narayan Nagar, Bhowali, Ramgarh and Mukteshwar areas of the district have been affected, officials were quoted saying by news agency PTI.’

The sad part was that the foothills of the Tarai region were warmer like the plains of Uttar Pradesh. A journey from Kathgodam to Bhimtal in Nainital during May reflected the crisis of Delhi during the post-Diwali period. The air was polluted and visibility was lower than elsewhere. The government claimed that the crisis was over and shortly there were rains in Bageshwar and Pithoragarh regions too. Due to poor visibility in the Munsiyari-Pithoragarh region, the air services had to be postponed for several days.

It rained for a couple of days resulting in dousing the fire. At a village near Baitalghat, I asked a local person what was the reason for the fire and the answer he gave was shocking. It was not natural, he mentioned. People do it so that the green leaves grow and their cattle have enough fodder for food. During the summer, the dry leaves of Chir and Pines cover the entire forest area which the cattle don’t eat. It also makes the entire region slippery. Many times, villagers burn these dry leaves so that the forest grows greener faster and the cattle can have enough fodder. What used to be a quick method has turned out to be disastrous for the Himalayan State. However, this cannot be the sole region. Fire causes are natural as well as deliberate mischief. Attempts were made to create a ‘communal divide’ on social media blaming it on Muslims but that was nothing but purely mischievous. Two individuals from Bihar claimed to have deliberately done it and a quick action by Uttarakhand police arrested them and foiled their propaganda.

uttarakhand and environmental crisis forest fire
There is not much ice in the Himalayas, black patches visible. A matter of grave concern | Author

So far over 1213 Forest fire incidents have been reported in the state since November 1st, 2023 till June 14th. ‘Of 1653 hectares of forest land damaged in forest fires this year, 687 hectares have been damaged in Garhwal region, 833 hectares in Kumaon region and 132 hectares in wildlife administrative regions.’

The forest fire incidents are not new and we had seen it from childhood but the forest department and people would work hard to douse it. It needs to be understood that more people as tourists are entering Uttarakhand’s hills than its entire population. In 2011, the population of the state was one crore i.e. 10 million and 2.3 crore (20.3 million) tourists travelled the state. After the disaster of 2013, the number of tourists grew and the government too made all efforts to increase that. For any state to grow, tourism is a good industry but the risk for Uttarakhand is that it is religious tourism that has increased multifold and to promote it the government is going to any extent. The question is there has to be a limit to exploiting natural resources. How much can the Himalayas bear or tolerate?

Therefore, various natural calamities that are happening in the Himalayas also need to be understood fairly. With more pressure on natural resources and more visits from outsiders, growing tension between locals and outsiders might increase. Young boys and girls in the plain areas are looking for secluded areas to enjoy their privacy. In these zones, anybody can play mischief or prank which can ultimately bring disaster. There can be various reasons apart from a possible mischief. It can also be a protective measure in a village to protect them from wild animals or protect their crop from them. So, it is not that people are putting up fires to preserve the fodder for their cattle. At a roadside tea shop about 50 kilometres ahead of Munsiyari, a local villager informed me that at many places people put fire to protect themselves from wild animals, particularly tigers, leopards, bears and elephants. The human nature conflict in Uttarakhand has been on the rise resulting in the killing of innocent people. With more national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, Tiger zones, Elephant corridors, wider highways, railway networks, resorts and so many other things in the name of ‘development’, it is the innocent citizens in the hills who face this attack from the wild animals.

‘According to the Uttarakhand forest department, 71, 82 and 66 deaths due to wild animal attacks were recorded in 2021, 2022 and 2023, respectively. Of these, two deaths in 2021, 16 in 2022 and 17 in 2023 were due to tiger attacks.’

The focus on protecting ‘wildlife’ and forests is important but why are local communities and their livelihood not included in the future planning? The wildlife is increasing but human lives are endangered and leaving. ‘The tiger population in Uttarakhand increased by 314% between 2006 and 2022. The state has two big tiger reserves — Corbett and Rajaji. From 269 in 2018, the number of tigers in these reserves has increased to 314 in 2022. There were 173 tigers in locations outside the tiger reserves in the state in 2018. This has increased to 246 in 2022.’

uttarakhand environmental crisis forest fire
The burnt forest at Munsiyari, Pithauragarh district | Author

Similarly, Rajaji Corridor for elephants too is witnessing the huge animal-human conflict. In the villages of Bhabar in the Shivalik foothills, an increasing number of elephants are now entering into markets and homes of the people. They frequently enter into market areas, railway tracks and on the river banks resulting in accidents. There is little effort to protect human lives resulting in people becoming suspicious of the forest department. For them, all this is being encouraged and promoted for tourism in the state without caring for the local people.

The tiger population in Uttarakhand increased by 314% between 2006 and 2022. The state has two big tiger reserves — Corbett and Rajaji. From 269 in 2018, the number of tigers in these reserves has increased to 314 in 2022. There were 173 tigers in locations outside the tiger reserves in the state in 2018. This has increased to 246 in 2022.’

Uttarakhand’s hill regions have more forest cover and the Forest department has more authority than the revenue department.  The high-handedness of the Forest department has resulted in the migration of people from their homes. For every activity, people have the fear of the forest department. They can’t act if the wild boars destroy their crops. They remain helpless to the attack by Guldar, Tiger or leopard. Most of the families from the hills have migrated to the plain regions such as Dehradun, Kotdwar, Haldwani, and Rudrapur for better facilities. Those older people who live alone in their homes have to suffer the threat emerging from the wild animals. Using fire to protect themselves from wild animals has been an old practice among the native people the world over. Unfortunately, the Forest Department has not been able to involve communities and win over them. Forest settlements in the Himalayas started during the British period resulted in denying native people the right to access the forest produce while allowing private timber companies from outside the regions to exploit the huge natural resources. Uttarakhand’s crisis is not involvement of the local communities in managing the vast natural resources of the state while handing over this heritage of the Himalayas to cronies from outside the state in the name of development.

The massive influx of religious tourists during the Chardham yatra is posing a great risk to the fragile Himalayas. The number of visitors is growing extraordinarily and in the first 15 days alone over fifteen lakh tourists were travelling to various shrines in the state.  Out of  15,67,095 tourists who visited the state as of May 10th, over 6,27,613 visited Kedarnath shrine while 3,79,041 visited Badrinath Dham as per a report by ETV.

uttarakhand and environment crisis forest fire
The water level is dryng in Ramganga, a matter of great worry. | Author

While the government and business groups are happy and hope the Yatra will break all records, the crisis is much more severe. The Himalayas do not have the required infrastructure to handle this much crowd. Most of the crowd is unmindful of the sentiments of the locals as well as the sensitivity of the Himalayas. They come from a religious purpose and are unmindful of the huge health risks. Coming from the low line regions to an altitude of nearly 4500 meters above sea level and attempting to do things which are against your body’s strength has resulted in serious health hazards. Equally important to understand is that our body takes time to acclimatize when we go from areas where the temperature is boiling nearly between 45 to 50 degrees to areas where it is reduced to 1 degree or zero degrees. Most of the time, the pilgrims are not educated about these possible risks due to temperature differences and they insist on going to complete the yatra.

‘’Of the total 116 pilgrims who lost their lives during the one-month-long yatra, 80 per cent died of heart attack, officials said on Thursday. State Health Secretary Dr R Rajesh Kumar stated, “Our biggest dilemma arises when a pilgrim insists on embarking on the journey to the Dhams despite adverse health check-up results. Although counselling is provided to make them understand, in cases of non-compliance, they are required to sign an undertaking. In specific circumstances, elderly and medically vulnerable pilgrims are also advised to return.”

The yatra has become the best PR exercise for the government and state police which is working overtime to look after the interests of the yatris from different parts of the country. With state police and SDRF focusing more on the ‘tirth-yatris’ like ‘freedom fighters’, it is visible that the government lacked the human resources to handle the forest fire issues. A small state like Uttarakhand needs to put its priorities accordingly as per the basic needs of the local people and not to ‘impress’ the outsiders least bothered about the sensibilities of the Himalayas and its communities.

When I travelled to Munsiyari located at a height of about 2,500 meters above sea level, it rained during the night bringing down the temperature to below 10 degrees Celsius. The uninterrupted rains in both Almora, Bageshwar and Pithoragarh district resulted in dousing the forest fire. At the Nanda Devi Temple in Munsiyari, I saw big trees burnt. It was sad to see our forest zones and important trees burnt to ashes.

The issue of forest fire in Uttarakhand has to be seen in the broader context of our natural heritage which is being treated as a ‘resource’ purely for-profit motives. The authorities consider it purely from the ‘management’ of ‘Pirul’, which means dry pine leaves which cover the entire forest region during the summer and are highly ‘inflammable. Experts suggest that Pirul can be used for not only the production of biogas but also for paper products but the most important part of the entire exercise is the involvement of local communities and addressing the issues related to their insecurities and uncertainties of life. Equally important is to understand the ‘disaster management’ methodology of the department which was using primitive methods to douse the flame. The government should not only think of pressing enough helicopter services to sprinkle water on the disaster zones but will need to work on putting enough water resources, and pipes and build the State Disaster Management Teams to handle Forest Fire issues too efficiently and it needs to equip them with proper tools.

uttarakhand and environment crisis forest
A sign board in Uttarakhand | Author

Uttarakhand has 71% of its total land mass under forest which is among the highest in the country. This has resulted in an enormous crisis for the people. The locals feel that the government want everything for ‘tourism’ and ‘publicity’ without engaging and involving the local communities, a practice that has evolved since the auctions of forest areas started resulting in a mass protest movement known the world over as Chipko. Uttarakhand’s main crisis is the government’s dependence on insensitive bureaucracy that wants to lord over the local communities making them unwanted and vulnerable to exploitation in their land.

Lack of access to basic amenities, job market crisis, frequent attacks of wild animals and undue dominance of the Forest Department on revenue issues compel people to migrate to cities like Dehradun and Kotdwara. There are not even a single family in many of these villages now known as ‘Bhutahagaaon’ or simply ‘ghost villages’. ‘There are officially 1,564 ghost villages that are uninhibited, and 650 others with less than 50 per cent population.’

The crisis of negative growth rate in the population in the hill regions and fear of dominance of  ‘outsiders’ and ‘lowlife’ people continue to haunt the local communities in the Himalayas. Uttarakhand has a border with China and Nepal. It is the only border state which sends a huge number of youths to the Indian armed forces but at the same point of time has been impacted by the New Agniveer Scheme which has created a crisis of uncertain future for them. The people have been opposing the new land laws and want to protect their ancestral land. The feeling is embedded deep in the heart of the people that the government is only encouraging ‘investors’ basically ‘outsiders’ and the local people will ultimately become dependent on the big fat moneyed business wheeler-dealers from the plain areas.

The new delimitation exercise which is meant to redefine and redesign the number of parliamentary and assembly constituencies, a state can have, is bound to create huge unrest in the hills of Uttarakhand as the hilly regions are bound to lose their seats while there will be an increase in the number of seats from the plain region or lowline areas. There is an enormous income gap between the hills and the plains. In terms of resources too, the hilly people do not have land and most of them will be counted as landless if compared to the plain regions which have large land holdings. If not handled sensitively, the mass unrest in the Himalayas can be potentially dangerous. The government needs to speak with the people and assure them full protection. The crisis is not the ‘promise’ of ‘development’ but what is the ‘development’ and the involvement of local people. Uttarakhand people are not ready for a development that affects their own ‘pahadi identity’. The mountains and the rivers are the soul of the state and no pahadi can grow if they are damaged. Our identity as hill people is that of the rivers and mountains and the government must understand that it can’t handle these issues with mere rhetoric but it must be seen as serious in addressing these sensitivities of the Himalayas and its people.

Sadly, the government has projected the state as ‘devbhumi’ or ‘Land of gods’ but except for promoting religious tourism heavily, there is nothing which can be said, is being done, to protect the sanctity of the Himalayas and its native population. It is not that people don’t want ‘development’ but they have also seen how the state resources have been misused and handed over to outsiders. For the people of Uttarakhand, each of its rivers is Ganga and they have a relationship with rivers and mountains. It is a relationship based on nurturing them and considering them their ‘deities’.

The four-lane Char Dham Highway project has been imposed on the state ignoring the issue of the fragile nature of the terrain which has resulted in heavy landslides. It is not that landslides and cloudbursts were unheard of in the past but the four-lane project has not stopped them. Landslides and accidents continue to happen. Nobody denies the importance of the road network but equally emphatic importance should have been given to the issues raised by environmentalists related to the sensitive nature of the Himalayan zone.

The Himalayan state faced some of the most traumatic moments since 2013 when the devastating Himalayan Tsunami killed more than 5000 pilgrims. It seems little lessons were learnt from the same. The big devastation at the Dhauli Ganga Rishiganga confluence in Raini village in February 2021 was not a natural disaster but a man-made disaster. Raini village, the epicentre of the Chipko movement was being relocated because the land mass was fragile and slipping. The high court of Uttarakhand imposed a penalty on social activist Atul Sati and other villagers who had filed a case in the court. Later, the sinking of the historical town of Joshimath near Badrinath was watched by the entire country. Except for the government agencies, all other people felt that what had happened in Joshimath was purely the crisis created by various power projects and uninterrupted tonalization and excavation of the fragile mountains. The crisis is not over and the blame will be laid on someone else. The Silkyara Tunnel crisis of Uttarakhand was internationally reported and though the lives of so many miners were ultimately saved it has not stopped anything further. Uttarakhand is the source not only source of the Ganges, Yamuna, Kali and other smaller rivers but they are its lifeline and identity. Today, all of them face a serious crisis. You can’t do away with the severity of the crisis by merely suggesting you worship rivers or they look beautiful. They are indeed a source of great joy and spiritual solace but the real question is as to what have we done to maintain their sanctity and dignity.

Hence the issue of forest fire in Uttarakhand cannot and should not be seen in isolation but as an issue of our natural heritage, its protection, management and the role of local communities. You cannot manage the Himalayas through planning experts in ‘Delhi’ and ’infrastructure’ being brought by big corporations and their experts from outside. There is a dire need to control the huge influx of people in the region in the name of tourism. Yes, religious sentiments are there but local people too have the right to life and protect their natural heritage. Unlike the greedy corporations and cronies who are looking at the entire region purely from their ‘profit’ motives, for the natives, it is not the natural resources for their profit but the natural heritage and identity they live with. It would be better for the government and other agencies to initiate a dialogue on its development model with the local people and seek their opinion on the issues otherwise the tiny Himalayan state would find it difficult to bear the ‘burden’ of ‘development’ which will only inflict wound and bring pains for the people Uttarakhand.

Vidya Bhushan Rawat

The author is an activist and is currently working on Impact of Ganga and its tributaries in the Himalayas and the plains of India

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