The famed Indian summers are once again turning the entire Sub-Continent – India, Pakistan and Bangladesh – into an oven with no respite. However, during the last two decades another sinister impact of scorching summer heat has been witnessed in the Himalayas. The world’s loftiest and one of the longest mountain chains is suffering from the threat of increased forest fires which are wrecking havoc in the hill region.
States like Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have been witnessing a spurt in the phenomenon during the first decade of 21st century. These fires have destroyed large swathes of land in Hamirpur, Bilaspur, Solan, Una, Kangra, Shimla, and Sirmaur districts of Himachal Pradesh. Himachal Pradesh has a total area of 55,673 sq km; forests constitute 37,032 sq km. Around 8,267 sq km of forest area are prone to sporadic fires every summer.
Situation is so grim that the Himachal Pradesh forest department has prepared a forest fire calendar and weaved many activities around it to contain the growing menace. In Uttarakhand a 2012 assembly question-answer revealed that 30,000 hectares of land has been affected by forest fires since the state came into existence in the year 2000.
The most devastating fire in 1995 destroyed 677700 hectares of land in both the states and timber worth more than 17 crores was lost. Four years later in 1999 an additional 50000 hectares of forest land was destroyed in Uttarakhand due to forest fires. In Himachal the year 2012 saw a spike in forest fires in comparison to 2011 when 16104 hectares were affected by it whereas a year earlier this statistics stood at 1758 hectares.
Many reasons are being attributed for the growing menace of forest fires. Historically the promotion of mono-culture is seen as one of the main culprits. The British rulers and their companies used teak and oak wood to build ships and deodars to construct railway sleepers. For this purpose large areas of pristine teak, deodar and oak forests were cleared over a period of 75 years between the 19th and the 20th century. These trees were replaced by Chir-pine trees for turpentine used in varnish.
This promotion of mono-culture for purely economic reason continued even after India attained Independence in 1947.
As a result native forests in Himalayas slowly transformed with Chir-pine being the dominant single species. It flourished at the cost of the other species. Today the rising temperature due to climate change and presence of large tracts of Chir-pine, rich in resin, become instant fodder for forest fires during summer seasons.
As the pine tree doesn’t let anything grow underneath itself, even grass dies making the land barren. It exposes the soil and thus is not a good holder of water and binder of soil. During monsoons, even light shower results in heavy soil erosion. During non- monsoon months lack of water retention in the soil leads to water scarcity in the area.
This coupled with longer spells of summer and growing temperature make resin heavy Chir-pines a prime contributor in aggravating the impact of natural process of fire.
Another reason is human intervention which is a result of growing demand for land for grazing, agriculture and new settlements. Just before the monsoons, in many places in the hills the farmers or the shepherds set Chir-pine forests on fire in the hope that by the time monsoons come the cleared land will produce better pasture land.
The dominance of Chir-pine at the cost of other trees and the resultant forest fires destroy cultivable land, kill wild life, threatens livelihood of people living in close proximity to the jungles and increases pollution.
The long term impact of both the events is much larger. The soot belched out in copious amount tends to settled down on glaciers increasing their ability to soak up sunlight. This accelerates their warming and can threaten the survival of glaciers. A report by Divecha Center for Climate Change at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore suggests that rising deposits of carbon on glaciers will increase the rate of melting in the lower regions of Himalayas. They in turn will have disastrous impact on water channels in the Indo-Gangetic plains.
As pine forests destroy any chances of development of grasslands, shrubs and other shade loving flora they effectively force monkeys, wild boars, neelgai and burrowing animals as well as pests to forage for food on cultivable land. These animals and pests attack crops. The situation is so grim that in many places animal menace, rising aridity of land, drying up of water channels, increased soil erosion and flash floods have forced farmers to stop cultivating a large part of their farmland.
This has given rise to the problem of shrinking cultivable land, revenue for the state and increased poverty for the farmers as well as rise in distress migration. Even the Gaddi tribals who traditionally depend on their large number of sheep and goats find it difficult to get grass lands for their herds.
In case of Gaddis it also infringes on their forest rights thereby creating a situation of deprivation of human rights. As the herbivores are deserting jungles and camping near agricultural land close to human settlements, the carnivores are following them too. This has increased the chances of man-animal conflict. So the mono-culture is practically playing havoc with the natural food chain.
The Himachal Government has created a forest fire calendar to warn the relevant authorities at the right time to deal with the menace. It has also created village level communities for plantation activities. Similarly in Uttarakhand, till 2012, there were 1151 crew stations and 38 master control rooms to decrease response time to meet forest fire.
The National Remote Sensing department covers forest fires in real time. And Uttarakhand Space Application Centre (U-SAC) has created maps that show forest fires on a daily basis. While controlling forest fires is one part of the problem planting new trees is the second part of the story. Both the states have also undertaken reforestation programmes. Even the central government has taken note of the problem and is aware of the importance of conserving the Himalayan ecology.
Under its national action plan for climate change it has created a special mission for Himalayas. The National Mission for Sustaining the Himalayan Ecosystem aims to evolve strategies to conserve the existing resources and reclaim the land degraded due to natural causes and human interference. Great importance is being accorded to afforestation programme and the Green India Mission aims to increase the green cover in the country by 10 million hectares in next 10 years by investing Rs 46000 crore. The cabinet has given a nod for the first Rs 13000 crore in March 2014.
This high priority is also a reflection of the government’s growing concern about the water scarcity. It is a known fact that re-forestation as well as afforestation programme can help in this regard as forests hold water and recharge water bodies. The flagship scheme under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) has also made it clear in its second phase that special care should be given to create assets that promote green cover and conserve water.
However, many attempts at reforestation or reclaiming degraded forest lands have fallen short of their goals as locals and their needs have not been taken into account. Most of the government departments work in silos, unaware of each others’ approach. The forest departments are under extreme stress to show numbers and results.
In the last 40 years due to a lot of pressure by various civil society groups the forest departments have resorted to planting fast growing and hardy exotic species which are not native to Himalayas in a bid to complete their plantation targets. Even the World Bank has encouraged the plantation of Chir-pines as cash crop which can yield resin, a high value resource for manufacturing industry.
Similarly the horticulture department, irrigation department, forest departments rarely work in tandem. A lot of literature is available with these departments throwing light on the fact that mono-culture and promotion of chir-pine at the cost of other trees has resulted in disaster. The need is to take that knowledge to the ground. Apprise the planters, farmers, shepherds and civil society as well as corporate and government employees to plant a variety of trees to save their eco-system.
There is an urgent need to take locals into confidence and help them with right mix of development approaches, management techniques and scientific knowledge to re-grow native forests and benefit from it. Himalayan eco-system holds the key for the survival of the biggest and the most populated river basin in the world, the Indo-Gangetic plains. They are home to 600 million people. Health of this mass of humanity and their survival depends on healthy Himalayas.
Till the time the hills will provide healthy glaciers, strong rivers and vast green cover, the granary in the plains will thrive. It is therefore imperative to save the Himalayas to save India. In this space corporate entities, funding agencies and civil society can come together to restore Himalayas to its pristine glory.
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