Those fascinating (and frightening) photos flashing across TV screens and on the Internet of ominously illuminated forests at night or thick plumes of resinous smoke spiraling skywards, we are told, is an annual phenomenon. It has always happened in summer. Nothing to be so alarmed about. Never mind the air pollution; nobody’s coughing like the AAP Chief here! The Forest Department anyway informs us that these are usually ‘ground’ fires and damage to the forest is minimal (though there is no method to value this ‘minimal damage’). To the contrary, this yearly cycle of forest fires is considered benignly ‘beneficial’ to Chir pine forests and is said to aid in their natural regeneration. Hill people have held an age old belief that ‘firing’ Chir forests via grasslands is good for vigourous new flush of grass. As a result neither the forest department nor the people have ever been serious about forest fires. In recent years though, many locals don’t mind forest fires around their orchards or land; it could help make encroachment easier!
As consciousness of global warming and consequent climate change began to seep into the bureaucracy and officialdom “like tea from a tea bag”, sporadic murmurs to do ‘something’ about forest fires and the accompanying release of thousands of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere were heard, here and there, but largely, like many sensible ideas, went unheeded.
Meantime, as mean rainfall steadily declined and mean temperature equally steadily climbed up and the glens and the glades ‘opened’ up, a new actor on the Forest Fires scenario established itself, stealthily at first but openly later. This ‘actor’ is actually a group of Invasive Alien Species (IAS) that does everything except vegetate. The aggressive pack of ‘kharpatwars’ is most efficiently led, right from the Front, by a fellow called General Lantana of Mexico and in Himachal and Uttarakhand have so completely ‘conquered’ the countryside, including most forests and plantations, that our ‘great’ wars in History would pale in significance, were we to declare all out war on this alien invasion. To top it, this ‘actor’ is very good at playing with forest fires!
The ‘mild’ threats of forest fires of earlier times have, due to the synergistic impact of rising dryness and temperatures combined with the high inflammability properties of IAS, metamorphosed into a ‘waiting-to-happen’ man-made ecological disaster, right across the Himalayas. Also, because of this new-age threat of devastating forest fires, it is not just the Chir pine forests but most broadleaved and oak forest (and along with the wildlife they harbor) that are now highly vulnerable to turn quickly to ash.
Here, not just the usual Too Little Too Late apologies of Inaction, but criminal neglect and strategic failure leaps at us like fiendish, flaring red hot flames of hell-fire (No, I haven’t been there, as yet). To understand more fully the ongoing culpability of allowing such strategic and tactical inaction in the first place, a brief crash course on how deeply our forests (and much else) are misgoverned should help.
Long before Global Warming and Climate Change became the reigning scapegoat for mismanagement of our Natural Resources, the steady commercialization of forestry at the cost of its ecological functions, has been backed by Policy that despite token lip service to “ecological balance” remains centered on timber and non-timber revenues. Our biodiversity rich forests have (and are) gradually becoming more like our monoculture plantations (economics?) particularly bereft of native fauna. Recent research in Australia shows that smaller mammals and other fauna in the forests considerably reduce the risk of forest fires and in the event it does occur, the damage is much less. The reason discovered is that this smaller fauna are very efficient at reducing leaf litter content on the forest floor (the basic masaala of forest fires) and help retain more moisture in their burrows.
The management of forests also remains solidly in the shifting and compromised hands of government despite the tall claims made under Joint Forest Management (JFM) of ‘involving’ local communities, in Central and State Government propaganda. Only the few checks to complete decimation of our forests that have ‘worked’ are those that are driven and monitored by the Judiciary. The sporadic recruitment, poor training, absence of a Human Resource Management policy and of course postings and transfers of forest staff remain exercises in political expediency if not outright corruption. Period
This incendiary cocktail has been in the making for a long time now and it gets better (actually worse) every year. The Forest Departments are one of our oldest institutions in the country and most would agree that they are nowhere near being among the best. On the other hand, forestry institutions have shown a steady decline within and a widening gap between what ought to be done and what is actually done (or ignored) over the decades. While much of this is due to political and administrative leadership failure at the top, the real losers are our forests, our wildlife and the people whose livelihood is dependent on them. The better-off, located in the cooling, breezy environs of Chir pine forests have been talking of insuring their summer houses, lately.
Much like our failure to ‘Drought Proof’ our water resources and agriculture, is our failure to ‘Fire Proof’ our forests. Both are possible and plainly linked. The science, the technical fixes have been there for quite some time. The Social fixes, though more complicated and fundamental are also not so esoteric as to be unworkable. We have plenty of money now under CAMPA, thanks again to the Supreme Court. So, why are we flailing to find solutions and address burning issues like escalating and recurrent forest fires?
We are failing as a democracy to get the ‘political fix’ to govern; to carry out its ‘Dharma’.
Nodnat – is a pen name that the writer with deep knowledge of Himalayan flora and fauna and a keen environmentalist has adopted. He hails from Kotgarh, in Shimla Hills and retired as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests from Himachal Pradesh forest department.