Forest – Fires of Uttarakhand

November 25, 2019

Munsyari.  As the official ‘ Fire Season ’ crosses the half-way mark, with increasing number of both sites and affected area under forest-fires mounting unabated ultimately forcing Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar to come out in defence of on-going officials efforts, suggesting that the losses suffered in resultant reduced ‘carbon sink’ is unlikely to adversely affect the Indian commitment re-iterated recently on the Earth Day, and earlier at the Paris COP meet. Be that as it may, it is quite on the cards that this Fire-Season is going to be the most disastrous from the point of view of losses due to Forest-Fires, even since the state came on its very own ( 2000 – 2015 ), and this certainly calls for an in-depth examination and analysis of how Uttarakhand’s has improved its Forest-Fire management regime during this period ? The very first question that deserves to be examined is – are Forest –Fires something which is not only inevitable but bound to be further aggravated as our engagement with the phenomenon called ‘Climate Change’ enter a more critical phase ? Further, how far is the Forestry bureaucracy responsible for perpetuating some of ‘myths’ that one has been hearing, like ( i ) almost all fires in forests are man-made, only motives are varied ( Sanjay Gubbi ), ( ii ) Forests Rights Act, 2006 are a death-knell to Indian Forests ( Shyam Sunder & Parmeshwarappa ), ( iii ) Forest –fires are handiwork of Timber-mafia, and so on ?

Additional Issues Deserving Examination

This time over this deeper analysis must be undertaken in conjunction with several other added queries, some of these are clearly, ( i ) to what extent continuation of a few un-scientific, or at least scientifically untenable unilateral and ad-hoc policy decisions like ‘banning of all green -felling above 1,000 m asl‘ despite their proven untenability’ have contributed to the gravity of the disaster, ( ii ) how seriously forest-fires have been taken both at the State-level and at the district-level, as an integral and important ‘disaster risk reduction’ in our revised State Disaster Management Plan and, like all other disasters, are forest-fires taken as a joint –responsibility of the state disaster risk reduction architecture, than just a responsibility of the Forest Department alone, and ( iii ) to what extent peoples’ participation is ensured through a forest-fire preparedness exercise in close collaboration with now more than 12,000 Van Panchayats, long advocated as the principal players of any such protective measure ? Besides these, what follow-up action has really been taken up on the recommendations made by Uttarakhand –specific recommendations like the Khosla Committee that was constituted in the aftermath of the immediate past worst known Forest Fires in 1995 ?

A Major Failure of Forestry Discipline

“Acceptance of forest fires as a natural and unavoidable phenomenon”, claim Shyam Sunder and Parmeswarappa, two senior Indian Foresters in their recently published book, “ is one of the major failures of the forestry sector in India in the post colonial period ( Forest Conservation Concerns in India, Bishen Singh MP Singh, 2014, p. 205 ). Strongly countering the oft-repeated alibi, during the worst-times like the present one, they on the other hand aver that ‘one of the main reasons for the reservation of forests, commenced in 1860s, was to save the forests from fire !’ Brandis, the Father of Forestry in India, was indeed proud to assert, in his monumental description of Indian Forestry in the early years that “of the 47.5 million acres of reserved forests in British Indian Empire, including forest leased from native states, so less than 17 million acres of 36% were successfully protected from fire in 1895” ( Brandis 1897, p. 126 ). The author –duo informs, sadly enough, ‘today, our assessment is that barely 25% of the reserved forests escape the annual fires. Except for certain evergreen forests, no other forest type in India, is today free from threat of the annual forest fires.’ What has gone wrong and what are the measures that have been taken, particularly in context of the forest types that exist in out forest-predominant mountain States ? As this acceptance of blatant failures comes from two of the most senior foresters, produced by the Indian Forestry regime and administration, it is all the more serious an acknowledgement than what could have been flung at the entire forestry-sector from a non-forester or so called silvicultural scientist, or for that matter an ecologist. For various ICFRE institutions and the Forest Research Institute, as well as the Ministry of Environment & Forest & Climate Change ( MoEF&CC), this major failure calls for a comprehension review and reflection and major perceptional-shift.

Ranger’s Promotion was denied

Shyam Sunder recalling his own training days, 1950s, mentions how in those days ‘ a ranger’s promotion was denied if his range had serious forest fires, even though the majority of these were accidental. Thermometers were maintained in range offices to keep a watch on fire risk.  Once the critical temperature above which the risk of fire increases were reached, the staff was put on alert. But those were also the days when the staff at range and lower levels had the time to take care of natural forests, unlike at present. Pointing to the increased load of work, Shyam Sunder also notes, that during those the extent of annual plantation in a range was never more than 40 hectares, presently it could be more than ten times to this extent, in ten different sites. They were also free from having to attend meetings and from political interference.

While Shyam Sunder’s examples of Karnataka, or even of the damage from forest fires in higher altitudes of Western Ghats, above 1,000 meters, may not be very applicable to the Himalayan forest types, his comparisons with the Indonesian island of Kalimantan ( former Borneo ) in context of higher variability of climate temperature as well as precipitation, caused by global warming, may not be entirely out of place. We are also a witness to accidental fires, being caused this year due to extreme dry periods ( April 2016, to be more precise ), like peat fires of Kalimantan that may burn for months on end, threatening the health and livelihoods of local population and causing large scale regional haze. This burning also is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, contributing further to global warming. This year this regional haze, has been a significant feature, as now it’s almost more than a month that, right from Munsyari down-wards, right up to where one can see its just haze and haze, obstructing direct sun rays, and playing games with micro-temperatures. All one sees is a strange red-colour sun, with a naked eye, throughout the day ! Only the other day this writer, expecting a dry-sultry hot night, at a place like Thal ( usually unbearable during this time of the year ) rather quite bearable, if not entirely pleasant !

Lessons of Khosla Forest Fires Commission ( 1995 ) 

Last comparable forest fires that caused huge damage to property and lives occurred during the summer months of 1995. The summer of 1995 was very severe with fire engulfing vast forest areas of both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Author Parmeswarappa was also a member of the Khosla Commission appointed by the Government of India – it toured Tehri, Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh extensively. The Commission in its report noted that ‘ ( i ) fires usually originate in the Civil and Soyam forests under the charg   e of the revenue department and forests administered by elected village bodies respectively, where no pre-emptive measures are adopted. These forests than spread to the large blocks of reserved forests, wherever contiguous; ( ii ) In the case of reserved forests, the negligence of resin tappers seemed to be responsible for initiating fires. Similarly ( iii ) negligence of pilgrims visiting shrines, ( iv ) farmers burning agriculture residues, and ( v ) in a  few cases incendiary fire also resulted in major fires.’

Chir Pine Forests and Ban on Green Felling

Sunder and Parmeshwarappa single out, case of Chir Pine forests, occurring in the zone between 2000 ft  and 4,000 ft altitudes, where “ ( vi ) unscientific Government policies banning felling in forests above 3,000 ft and ( vii ) prohibition of green felling all over, have resulted in crops of all ages, instead of distinct age groups earlier maintained though silvicultural management. Further, ( viii ) dearth of funds has also been mentioned that has prevented the earlier practice of running ground fires in winter months, ( ix ) ( which results now ) in accumulation of pine needles and in years when the summer is severe and relative humidity is low fanning strong winds, a ground fire ascends to crown and engulfs the entire forest, as Chir burns green. The Commission added an interesting phenomenon, then peculiar to Uttarakhand in 1995, when they also observed that ‘ in summer months, forest rest houses and vehicles are commandeered by the Deputy Commissioners of the districts to cater to the visiting dignitaries and their families, escaping from the heat of the plains’ !  Parmeswarappa also recounts comments made by two villagers, the first one was to the effect that ( x )  ‘ with no works being taken up in the forests, visits of forests officials to the forests has come down, and the second, ( xi ) during his childhood, the villagers used to feel that prevention and control of forest fires were their responsibilities while presently it is viewed as the sole problem of the forest department.’

A Totally Changes Scenario

Arguably, except the conditions caused by Climate Change i.e. higher variability of climate temperature and precipitation, twenty years down the line, particularly after the formation of Uttarakhand state in November, 2000, none of the conditions, as many as eleven in all, could be said to be either applicable or transferred to any other department, than Forest department itself, squarely. Let us quickly cover each of them cited above, for the benefit of a far more comprehensive examination of an inter-disciplinary Committee or Commission, after the current ‘Fire-Season’  is finally and truly over:

( i ) The scenario with respect to the so called Civil and Soyam Forest is far from applicable, as soon after the state was formed,  a two-pronged drive was mounted by the newly constituted Forest & RD Commissioner Branch, and most of the C&S forest area was converted into the Van Panchayats, their number between 2000 and 2010 more than doubled, from less than 5,000 to more than 12,000 Van Panchayats, covering almost every revenue village of mountainous districts; their Rules being changed more than twice, in 2001 and again 2006, bringing almost all kinds of stakeholders, reservations for SC/ST and Women and even landless, all section hitherto denied rights and privileges. No village institution could have been more inclusive and representative. Further, all Van Panchayats were brought under a full-fledged Principal Chief Conservator of Forests ( PCCF ), and various Rules enacted making forest-crimes more strict, amending Criminal Procedure Code ( Cr PC ), perhaps the only state giving the powers of confiscation of property used in committing any forest offence, allowing so called ’secret funds’ for securing inside-information ! Forest-Guards were made the Secretary to the related Van Panchayats, even eliciting severe criticism of those who wished these Van Panchayats to be strictly self-governing bodies ! Surely, if these Van Panchayats are ineffective, or not being involved in saving forests from forest –fires or any other illicit activity-the responsibility of their behaving in such a manner has to be explained by those who have been provide almost all controls, including their funding, utilization and motivation to undertake forest –conservation, including protection from forest fires,

( ii ) Besides, coverage of almost all non-reserved forests via the Van Panchayat, change of their administrative architecture, including bring Forest department itself, ending their hitherto ‘splendid isolation’ by bring them in far closer contact with various rural development sectors ( FRDC Branch ), addresses their most of the so-called problem of isolation-at least in Uttarakhand, since 2000,

( iii ) As regards the resources, today, if anything the Forest and Environment , suffers from the ‘problem of plenty’ rather than the deficit of funds, as mentioned by Parmeswarappa ( quoting two villagers), which should have resulted in far more visits, and hence closer contact with the villagers- a simple look at the several National Missions, as many as eight at the last count ( see the framework of SDGs at the NITI Aayog website ), makes it a mind-boggling number, add to this the resources frozen under what is known cumulatively as the CAMPA funds-the administration of the latter is also resting exclusively with the Forest officials,

( iv ) While all other reasons listed by Parmeshwarappa are quite internal to the Forest bureaucracy, it was again up to the Forest sector bureaucracy to get the problem of ‘Forest-fires’ effectively under the Disaster Management, now Forest Risk Reduction regime ( now the new Sendai Framework of DRR, 2006 ). It is entirely the exclusive responsibility of the Forest department officials to ensure that the sectoral Action Plan of the State Disaster Action Plan, covers all aspects related to forest-fires, including its relief and rehabilitation components, as it is the responsibility of each of the various sectoral departments like say irrigation, hydro-power, agriculture, water resources etc,

( v ) As regards the issues that are mounting up every day, namely, the Climate Change, ironically here also, it is the Ministry of Environment & Forests and Climate Change ( MoEF&CC ), which is the Nodal Ministry, and also the parent Ministry at the Centre, for the Forest department. How effectively is the State Action Plan on Climate Change being planned, approved and getting funded is again a sole and central responsibility of the Forest department, where this activity is squarely anchored, in almost every state.

Re-inventing the Forest Sector & Fixing Accountability

In a state like Uttarakhand, a mountainous and forest-endowed state, if any sector needs to be re-invented and made far more accountable, it is out and out Forest department and its various responsibilities. It severely suffers from a leadership failure, accountability –deficit, distancing from its major stake-holders – and this writer having seen both the 1995 Forest –fires, while he was the Director of UP Academy of Administration, where a score of diagnostic workshops and seminar were held, as far back as in 1995 and onwards, even though when Forest department did suffer from most of the difficulties cited by the Khosla Commission ( 1995 ). It does not need re-iteration that it was this early realization only, which led to not only re-structuring of the erstwhile APC organisation into FRDC Branch, the only one in the entire country, establishment of DMMC, campaigns that converted large Civil & Soyam areas into Van Panchayats, covering almost cent percentage all revenue villages, flow of substantial funds, via scores of projects ! What begs the question is – what is the new issue that has cropped up, which is not officially under the control and responsibility of this Department ? It is plain and simple –lack of accountability that comes from administrative and leadership failure –pure and simple. Shyam Sunder mentioned, withholding of Ranger’s promotion, as a solution. It has to be far more drastic – under the present circumstances, as Forest department has, what is called ‘ Its Back to the Wall’ – the Wall of Public Accountability ! No alibis are either acceptable or should be believed now.

  • S. Tolia, the writer, as he watches hundreds of hectares of rich Uttarakhand endowment sacrificed to official apathy and indolence believes that it’s simply a case of many sided criminal negligence for which a clear accountability is long over-due.
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