Why Uttarakhand is in flames

With forest staffers being co-opted for other duties in a state in ‘election-mode’, our forest heritage may well go up in smoke

The fires started in winter, and summer heat has intensified them
The fires started in winter, and summer heat has intensified them

Rashme Sehgal

This is apocalypse now. Satellite pictures confirm that there are over 150 fires presently raging in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand and nearly 500 fires burning in the forests of the Kumaon.

Six people have died in these fires, including a 65-year-old woman. Dunagiri temple, one of Almora’s most revered shrines, saw pilgrims running for their lives as leaping flames swept across the temple veranda.

In 2000, when the state of Uttarakhand was formed, it had 65 per cent forest cover of which 42 per cent was dense forest. The last 23 years have proved devastating, with 44,518 hectares gutted by frequent forest fires and another 11,649 hectares of forest land having been encroached upon.

This year has been particularly dire because these fires have been simmering since December 2023. Several hundred hectares of land have already been lost, with Nainital, Haldwani and Ramnagar districts the worst affected. It is impossible to calculate the loss of these precious ecosystems.

“The last ten days have been terrifying,” said sociologist Madhvi Daruwala, a resident of Nainital district. “The mountains are literally on fire and Bhimtal lake, which is the source of water in our region, has practically dried up. We depend on local springs for our water supply but the lack of winter rains has resulted in our springs drying up. This is going to create a huge water problem for us.

“The fires started in winter and the forest department should have controlled them then. They simmered through the winter months. Summer has seen them intensify and now practically every district has been affected.’’

Aagnay Budhraja, a resident of Suriya Gaon, Sattal, who works as a contractor using nature-friendly materials, said, “There is so much smoke, it is difficult to breathe. The fire reached right up to my neighbour’s house on Sunday evening. It took us three hours to control it.”

By Monday night, the fires had reached the town of Nainital and the state administration had to requisition help from the Indian army and IAF personnel. “Mi-17 helicopters took water from Nainital and Bhimtal lakes to douse the flames,” said Pramod Kumar, SDM (sub-divisional magistrate) of Nainital.

The state administration claims that 90 per cent of the fires that have spread across Pauri Garhwal, Chamoli, Almora and around the Mussoorie hills are manmade. (Villagers traditionally burned forest floors to stimulate the growth of fresh grass.) A senior forest official said, “Over the last few weeks, dozens of villagers have been arrested for deliberately having caused these fires, often out of sheer mischief.”

Dehradun-based environmentalist Reenu Paul does not accept this explanation. “Some villagers may be indulging in arson, but the majority of fires are the handiwork of the real estate lobby which uses this (burnt) forest land to develop colonies. This has been their modus operandi and they are hand-in-glove with the local bureaucracy. Otherwise it defies imagination that the fires have not been halted by now.

"In fact, they intensified after the state administration unofficially sent out a message that squatters should be called ‘eco-preneurs’ and should not be stopped from occupying forest land. This has seen a huge increase in the illegal occupation across our forests with forest staff turning a blind eye,” she said.

She also decries the government’s failure to release accurate information about the fires. “The top soil has become completely dry owing to lack of moisture and this is causing large stones to dislodge, resulting in landslides in Ramnagar and Haldwani regions. The tourist season has begun and the public must be given proper information so that their safety is not endangered. Look at the way young children were running to save themselves from the fire that swept Dunagiri temple. Thank God there were no casualties,” Paul said.

B.D. Kasniyal, a writer from Pithoragarh, points out, “Air and helicopter services to Pithoragarh and Munsiyari towns remain suspended because of poor visibility from the fires and the smoke. Visibility near the airport is down to 1,000 m, much lower than the 5,000 m required for fliers to operate. The smoke is so dense that even the mountain peaks are no longer visible.”

A large number of tourists in the Sour and Quirala valley have also been affected by lack of visibility because of the thick smoke. “This is alarming because it can increase the number of road accidents,” said a tourist travelling from Jhulaghat to Gaurighat.

Medical officers across the state have been coping with a spike in patients complaining of breathing problems and irritation in the eye. Dr Chandra Rawat, in charge of a primary health centre in Jhulaghat said, “We have seen a sharp increase in patients, especially the elderly, who are having difficulty breathing because of the smoke.”

Dehradun-based senior journalist S.M.A. Kazmi believes the British policy of appointing van (forest) panchayats and encouraging the community to take care of forests was a gamechanger. “Leveraging their understanding of local ecosystems and fire dynamics helped keep fires under control. Youth and women must be engaged in taking care of the forests on which they depend,” says Kazmi.

When a senior forest officer was asked why no effort had been made to control the fires in the month of December, he replied, “The state government has been in election mode for the last six months, and many of our staff were being made to perform other duties. We made several requests for more funds and people to assist in firefighting but to no avail. The state government is indifferent to our forest heritage and is least concerned about losing it.”

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines