Uttarakhand fire roars over forest rights failure

Aesha Datta New Delhi | Updated on January 20, 2018

A massive fire in the forests at Kotdwar, Uttarakhand, on Monday PTI

The root cause behind one of the biggest ongoing environmental disasters in the country is still blurry, but what is evident is the unceremonious isolation of local communities from forests in Uttarakhand.

The government has employed over 6,000 personnel to fight the fire, and besides the fire department, also deployed the National Disaster Response Force and the Indian Air Force. But, in what has become an oft quoted narrative, forest dwelling communities have been fighting with authorities for the right to live in forests as well as the right to use resources from there for their life and livelihood.

First line of defence

The government has said that more than 75 per cent of the fire has been brought under control. However, the fire has spread beyond Uttarakhand to neighbouring States such as Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh. It is likely to take several decades for the destroyed forest to regenerate.

However, in the name of protecting forests from human intervention co-dependent communities were removed from these protected sites, including sanctuaries. This was also the first line of defence.

“Earlier, the local community, that used to live in or around these forests, would be the first to see a fire, alert the authorities and even put them out,” said environmentalist Anil Joshi adding that these locals depended on things such as dried leaves and branches for their lives.

Early onset of heat

Joshi explained that while there were several reasons behind the massive fire in Uttarakhand that has destroyed over 2,500 hectares of forest – negligible winter rains and early onset of extreme heat (climate change related), that in turn caused heavy litter (dry leaves), and changing ecology – community participation could have averted the disaster.

He requested the Centre and State governments to revise the Forest Rights Act and also to swiftly implement the community forest resources rights of the Act.

Corporate greed of the timber mafia, which sets small fires to weaken trees that can then fall during the monsoon, and eventually gives them claims over land, has been recognised as one of the possible causes for the current fire. However, the other possible cause lies in the invasion of pine into forests where other plants used to exist.

Silent hazard

Pine trees, that are high in resin, are highly flammable, dry out the nearby region, and prevent other plants from growing – turning the region into a tinderbox waiting for a spark.

This silent hazard, however, makes big revenues for the Forest Department – in the range of ₹70 crore to 80 crore annually. The State, however, had decided to cut down major pine tracts last year and was awaiting final approval. The introduction of pine may have been economically attractive, but has, over time, resulted in repeated forest fires and has damaged the ecology of the State to a large extent.

Pine of little use

“Pine has very little use for the local community (as opposed to other trees such as sal, oak and others), so the needles keep collecting on the forest floor. Also, the forest department has failed to involve communities in monitoring and fire fighting,” said Ajay Saxena, Programme Manager, Centre for Science and Environment, highlighting the failure of Forest Rights Act.

Saxena estimates that the fire has already resulted in millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, besides loss of major flora and fauna. India’s emissions in 2013 were around 2,432 tonnes.

Published on May 02, 2016

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