Greed for land, not timber mafia behind Uttarakhand forest fires

Nivedita Khandekar
Nivedita KhandekarApr 30, 2016 | 18:19

Greed for land, not timber mafia behind Uttarakhand forest fires

Five lives have been lost and almost 1,600 acres of land have been gutted by yet another forest fire that has been raging in the Uttarakhand Himalayas for almost a week now. Hundreds of villages/clusters have borne the brunt of the disaster. While many among the local population have dismissed it as a routine and annual feature, a few of those who are alert and aware claim that forest fires have been growing in size every year. The reason is obvious - human greed for more land.


Almost 50-55 per cent of the total forest cover in India is prone to fires annually, normally between February and mid-June. This is the time when soil moisture is at its lowest. More than any other part of India, it is the Himalayan belt that is prone to such fires, especially when there is less rain in the pre-monsoon period. The pine forest in Garhwal and Kumaon hills are susceptible to forest fires more than any other kind of forest.

It is not that the authorities are not aware of this. The India State of Forest Report 2015 mentions that it is the tropical thorn forest, tropical dry evergreen forest and subtropical pine forests that are most prone to heavy, moderate and occasional forest fires.

The overall forested area in India has been consistently going down for many decades, only to have started increasing recently. It is another debate that the environmentalists and government authorities do not agree on what is called a forest. Increased industrial activity post-independence and the inherent need to increase agricultural production caused the maximum damage to the forest land.


Timber mafia, natural disasters such as tsunami in coastal areas and cloudbursts in the Himalayas have led to destruction of large tracts of forests. But forest fires have been listed as one of the major causes of loss of forest cover across India and that too on an annual basis.

With such an extent of human greed, no amount of technology can help tide over the loss of natural resources. 

"There have always been such fires in our hills. It happens every year. It is just that advent of social media has made information easily accessible," SK Joshi, a resident of Haldwani, at the foothills of the Himalayas, said.

Immeasurable loss

Indian forests are hardy and can withstand such fires. But the vegetation on the ground is completely charred in such fires, which does lead to a loss. Forest fires have a significant effect on the environment. It leads to severe loss of biodiversity. In case of the Uttarakhand fire, there have been reports of loss of forest cover, loss of human lives. However, there was apparently no loss of wildlife.

"When thousands of hectares of jungles burn, there is bound to be loss of wilflife," said Yogi Arvind, a Rishikesh-based ascetic, who wonders across Uttarakhand to research on traditional medicinal herbs and spread awareness about environmental issues.


According to the "Forest and Fires" chapter of the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Vital Forest report, "The forest fire also cause widespread damage and are responsible for large emissions of carbon into the atmosphere. In some regions, there is evidence of an ever-increasing number of fires affecting larger areas and burning with greater severity. Climate change and lack of sustainable land use policies are contributing factors in this increase."

Lack of pre-monsoon rain leading to drier forests grounds - more vulnerable to fires than moist ones - has been attributed to increasing changes in the climatic condition in the hills. The report further warns: "As deforested areas expand, changes in the landscape and micro climate occur: the forest floor dries up, which, in turn, makes it more vulnerable to fire. Ecosystems can change as a result of fire." Alarmingly, all this is applicable to India, especially hill states such as Uttarakhand facing human invasion.

India has pledged to increase its forest cover and improve the quality of forests as part of its action plan to combat climate change. India's action plan - officially called the Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs) submitted to the United Nations (UN) promises "to create an additional carbon sink of 2.5 to 3 billion tonnes of CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent through additional forests and tree cover by 2030". Hence it becomes all the more imperative to rein in such incidents of forest fire so that damage to the rich biodiversity can be minimised.

Technology for monitoring fire forests

Indian forest authorities have been using satellite images to detect active forest fires. Incidences of such forest fires are uploaded daily to the INFFRAS - the Indian Forest Fire Response and Assessment System website during the February to June season.

Even the Uttarakhand government's department of forest website gives a daily listing of forest fire information and also provides a forest fire map. Then there are pre- and post-fire warnings to look at and also forest sensitive zone maps.

All this information is available right up to the district and tehsil levels. There is also forest fire vulnerability mapping done by the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change, which is shared with the state governments for controlling forest fires and reducing damage arising out of it.

But no amount of technological help has been able to prevent forest fires, a recurring annual phenomenon. Manoj Mishra, a former Indian Forest Service officer, says that there is no way to prevent such fires, but satellite imagery helps in real time monitoring of such fires.

Earlier, forest fires, especially in remote and inaccessible hilly areas, would be detected only when it spread to larger areas. Now, with real-time monitoring, it is indeed possible to put it off, provided the area is accessible.

Forest departments have two types of firefighting techniques. One involves clearing stretches of ground vegetation in between forest areas to arrest the spread of forest fire and the second, beating the fire, in which department officials with help from the local community actually beat off the fire with certain equipments. The second option is, however, possible only where people can physically reach. "The third technique is expensive and mostly employed in the developed world. Helicopters are used to spray either water or carbon-dioxide to douse the fire," the Mishra informs.

No timber mafia but greed for land

There was also talk about the timber mafia being the cause behind the increasing incidence of forest fires, something that Mishra summarily dismissed. It is not deliberate as has been said about the recent spate of forest fires, he insisted.

Drawing from his wanderings across the hill state, Yogi Arvind, however, said that forest fires clear the forest of additional vegetation and then comes in handy for humans to "occupy" it. "The rich and the wealthy from the plains are always in search of land to build their houses, resorts and hotels here in the hills. The locals too are involved in such condemnable activity," the monk told me over the phone.

Add to it the increasing problem of migration from Uttarakhand, which has rendered a number of villages literally empty. Garhwal has seen this phenomenon more than Kumaon. Those left behind indulge in robbing, rather than exploiting, the natural resources of an area and grabbing land for petty sums.

Indeed, with such an extent of human greed, no amount of technology can help tide over the loss of natural resources.

Last updated: April 30, 2016 | 18:19
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