Tinderbox in the Himalayas

The full extent and impact of the >forest fires in Uttarakhand can be assessed only after they have abated with better weather conditions, but the furious blaze that has swept the hill State drives home the truth that governments are yet to find scientific ways to tackle the phenomenon. This Western Himalayan region, with its mix of colourful forests, including moist deciduous, tropical dry deciduous, temperate and sub-Alpine types, turns into a tinderbox during severe dry seasons. It is striking that whatever little research has gone into the fires in this area points to accidental or intentional involvement of people in starting the blaze, most frequently in the chir pine forests. Setting the vegetation afire in some forests helps produce richer grazing lands by bringing about better botanical diversity on the ground, and a large number of incidents are caused by those in search of fodder. The fires have been most numerous in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions, with conflicting reports on the death toll. Disaster response was, by all evidence, slow in coming. The Centre, which bears responsibility for administration as the State is under President’s Rule, got into the act only after the inferno had spread alarmingly. The >decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not have achieved much, since a couple of thousand hectares had to be covered. Fortunately, incidents of fresh fires now seem to be on the decline.

It is ironical that the spectacular Himalayan forest region, known worldwide thanks to the campaign waged by activists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna to save trees, should face such an annual scourge. It is possible that the changing patterns of climate may be exacerbating the problem; more research is required to conclude whether the El Niño that set in last year, marked by a lack of pre-monsoon showers, also played a part in intensifying the fires. The Uttarakhand government should learn from the severity of the experience, and involve its large rural communities in preparing for the future. Some of the studies reported by organisations affiliated to the Union Environment Ministry point to the effective intervention of community-led ‘ van panchayats’ (forest councils) in preventing fires. Progress can be made also by providing environmental education to local residents and officials. Significantly, the use of biomass alternatives, including cooking gas, has had a beneficial impact on fire risk, and this must be expanded. Equally, the clearing of ecologically important natural oak forests can be reduced by tapping the plantation sector, which could give preference to growing useful fodder and timber trees. Saving what remains of old forests that were mostly cleared during British rule to produce railway sleepers and to feed cantonments, and stopping further spread of pine trees planted over several decades for narrow economic reasons, are crucial for the health of the Western Himalayas. The imperative is to stop the havoc wrought by man-made fires, and compensate those affected.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 10:31:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/tinderbox-in-the-himalayas/article8548077.ece

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