Forest fires in Uttarakhand: An open letter to the Prime Minister

Honorable Prime Minister,

Uttarakhand’s forests are in flames, and a month after the fires started the infernos have become a matter of  worry and concern for the Government, and a source of breaking news for the media. Blame games have started, with allegations of a mysterious forest mafia being the culprit, and even of a subtle Chinese plot to destabilise this border area currently doing the rounds. It is easier, no doubt, to discuss the how and why of this tragedy behind closed doors in air conditioned environments than to be out there on the field encouraging and supporting the men fighting raging fires with nothing more than a primitive rake and chappals, and considering what measures need to be taken at the grass roots to prevent further annihilation in May, which looms ominously ahead.

Speaking plainly, and with no offense meant to any of the individuals who comprise the behemoth called Government, the real culprit is the enemy within, whether in the form of antiquated rules, corruption, lethargy, or sheer stupidity, which nobody wants to speak about.

Consider these facts, which I trust would vindicate my stand. Binsar Sanctuary, which I will use as an example, is one of the last oak and rhododendron forests left in Almora District, and home to   rich biodiversity. It is the source of water for thousands of villagers in the populated areas on its periphery. It is also a popular tourist destination famous for its peaceful and dense forest inhabited by many species of birds and wildlife, with incredible views of the Himalayas.

The fact is that while Government earns revenues from toll fees at the Sanctuary gates, the money disappears down the black hole of Treasury and is not utilized to hire locals to undertake activities ( as laid down in the British forest manuals, and, I suppose, unchanged since ) to prevent fires. In fact, local fire watchers have not yet been paid for services rendered last year. Moreover, an enlightened DFO recently took upon himself to have trees cut and soil dug up to make a duck pond, which, according to him, would amuse tourists. Precious funds are thus wasted, which could have been used to buy basic equipment for firefighting and proper kits for the field staff.

The fact is that the Van Nigam removed all the timber from trees fallen outside the Sanctuary area due to the weight of an unprecedented snowfall in December 2014, and presumably sold it at a profit to dealers in the plains. Did the revenues earned thereby come back in some form to Binsar? No, of course not. In fact, Government refused to let locals clear the debris of fallen trees inside the buffer zone of the Sanctuary, in spite of written warnings that the same debris would become dynamite in summer. They did not even remove it themselves, and the result is that 80% of Binsar is burnt.

The fact is that Binsar, in spite of being a Wildlife Sanctuary, does not come under the jurisdiction of Corbett Park but under the Civil Forests, which is in fact nothing more than an arm of the Van Nigam. Since no revenue was to be reaped, the pathways and firelines carefully crafted over a century ago have not been kept clear for years, and controlled fires in winter, considered necessary to prevent hazards, are at best executed in a desultory manner near the motor road heads. Because, presumably, funds meant for this are diverted, pocketed, or spent on trivial whims and fancies of people In Charge.

The fact is that for the most part, the field staff of the forest department are brave and sincere men who go beyond the call of duty to tackle emergencies like fires, but they are neither provided extra man power, nor equipment, nor are they felicitated and encouraged by Officers who look upon them as personal errand boys on the rare occasions that they deign to visit Binsar. The fact is that those In Charge have become lazy and slovenly, and have insulated themselves from reality by maintaining aloofness and perfecting the art of being “ in meetings”.

The fact is that when a calamity takes on proportions which cannot be concealed, and when the media highlights the story, Government wakes up from its slumber and lo and behold, we have NDRF jawans from Bihar struggling to keep their balance on the hillsides, clueless about how to fight fires in difficult mountain terrain. It’s the equivalent of sending off locals from Binsar to fight floods in Bihar. Thus funds which could have been given to locals with knowledge and skills to prevent this situation are wasted.

The fact is that particularly this year, Government should have known that the combination of a drought like situation due to no winter rains and accumulated debris from the previous year’s snowfall were warning enough of a disaster waiting to happen, and in spite of this absolutely no preventive measures were taken. The explanation given is that there were no funds. The more likely reason is that Government was too busy embroiled in the political turmoil in Uttarakhand to pay attention to trivia like the high probability of devastating forest fires.

It is my humble appeal to the Government to please act sensibly before it is too late, and take concrete measures to tide, in particular, the terrified wildlife of Binsar over the brutal summer. Binsar needs officers who are not afraid of walking the walk, for starters, and who have a moral authority over the men under their command. It needs funds to hire locals to patrol the forests and to control fires which inevitably will happen once the inflammable pine needles fall off the trees in May. The men need basic equipment and a good back up team to provide food and water when firefighting. That’s all. That, surely, is not a lot?

On the long run, Binsar needs a whole lot of things, beginning with policy changes. Until and unless local populations are made partners and active participants not just in conservation measures, but more importantly in reaping direct economic benefits from the forests, they will obviously remain alienated and take the view that Government forests are burning, why should we care? In the case of Binsar, protective fencing needs to be put up so that subsistence farmers on its periphery can grow crops and rest assured that wild boar won’t destroy them. Timber needs to be allotted to local bodies, not the Van Nigam. Employment through MNREGA schemes can be done in the form of massive plantation drives in the burnt areas, planting local broad leafed species instead of pines, which were imported by the British to raise revenues from forests, and which continue to be a source of revenue to the Department even today. Women need to be involved in efforts to nurture plant nurseries and protect plantations. Water sources need to be preserved and water conservation methods put in place. However, without a drastic change in policy, none of this will happen. The Government does not want the people to “interfere”, but is oblivious of the huge damage it is causing through callousness and indifference. Not only is Government incapable of doing anything themselves, they will do their utmost to prevent others from taking action as well. If the situation in Binsar Sanctuary mirrors the state of affairs across Uttarakhand, then my anguish and anger is well justified.

Yours sincerely,

Mukti Datta ( A resident of Binsar – Almora – Uttarakhand)