In 2016, a massive wildfire in the forest of Garhwal region of Uttarakhand gutted around 1,600 hectares of forest land. The fire had also affected the forests of Pauri, Chamoli and Almora districts and over 1,500 villages surrounding the area are at risk.
An extremely hot and dry spell of summer with the absence of any pre-monsoon rainfall had been cited as the primary reason of such forest fire. Besides, no earlier precaution was taken, leaving the forest management unprepared. Another reason for such fire was clearing of timber from chir pine trees, during which, the highly combustible needles are left behind. These needles provide abundant fuel for forest fires.
The forest department estimated a total loss of 3,500 hectares of forest cover in the state last year.
However, with the temperature rising, forest fires continue to disrupt many parts of Uttarakhand. In March alone, 57 hectares of forest land was burnt in a fortnight.
Conspiracy theory behind forest fires
It is alleged that the forest fires benefit timber mafia. Some officials of the forest department are also suspected to be in cahoots with the mafia – selling them dead or dried up trees. The land cleared can also be sold in land transfer cases, which benefits builders.
Forest fires in Uttarakhand started during May-June last year, and the matter was brought under control by mid-April 2017. The initial arrests included 200 people, with investigations continuing in 2017. Five people were sent to jail for setting forests ablaze in different incidents in April.
Vested interest has begun to appear again as forests burnt continuously in three areas close to Nainital Sattal and Bhimtal for 48 hours on 26 April.
The locals and forest department personnel have been fighting to save the burning forests, but the scale of the fires suggest a higher level of coordination.
A local told The Logical Indian that timber smugglers pay as little as Rs 5,000 in bribes per truckload of illicit logs.
Action taken so far
During the 2016 forest fires, the state administration had deployed firefighters into service with assistance sought from the Centre as well. PTI sources had reported, Uttarakhand governor KK Paul had asked that the number of personnel deployed to douse the fires be doubled from 3,000 to 6,000. The Governor had also planned to deploy NDRF companies to conduct rescue missions. The state government was to declare five districts – Almora, Pithoragarh, Nainital, Rudrapur and Pauri, which is a total of 74,000 hectares of land – as drought-affected.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) banned the Uttarakhand government from chopping trees in the State for the construction of roads owing to the fact that the State Government delayed a response for a plea sought by a CBI inquiry regarding the 2016 forest fires dismantling the environment to an exorbitant level.
The Tribunal noted that despite the grant of opportunity the government did not publish any response justifying the forest fires and was also unable to justify the humongous knocking down of trees and burning them for melting coal tar to lay metalled roads in the State.
The Logical Indian Take
Last year’s dreadful and destructive forest fire of Uttarakhand burnt down more than 4000 hectares of forest and claimed seven lives. The fire was finally doused using IAF helicopter fitted with Bambi buckets.
According to a report by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, India, the country has seen a 55% rise in the number of forest fires as on December 2016.
The effects of forest fires include – depletion of the ozone layer, soil erosion, and loss of forest cover, habitat and the livelihood of many tribal and rural people.
The Central Government is also providing assistance to the State Governments under the centrally sponsored scheme – the National Afforestation Program (NAP) “for regeneration of degraded forests and adjoining areas through people’s participation.” The allocated budget for the same in 2015 was Rs.2,500 crore. However, reports suggest that the NAP has not been very successful, owing to the fact that despite huge budget allocation, 40% of the forests in the country are still degraded.
It is crucial that the forest department, state government and the central government come up with a stronger plan of action to protect the forests of Uttarakhand and the country.
The Logical Indian community urges that the government takes action in this regard.