'The kind of losses the nation is facing are incalculable.'
Rashme Sehgal reports for Rediff.com on how fires are blazing across Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and have reached the doorstep of Himachal Pradesh's capital city Shimla.
The Himalayas have turned into a veritable inferno.
Fires are blazing across Jammu and Kashmir, Uttarakhand and have reached the doorstep of Himachal Pradesh's capital city Shimla.
The rare oak forest stretching from the verdant hills of Mashobra to Anandpur in Himachal are ablaze and though desperate municipal corporation officials of Shimla have pressed the fire brigade into service, acute water scarcity has rendered the fire tenders ineffective.
"I brought my family to Shimla for a vacation. We came here to escape the heat of the plains and now we find ourselves trapped in this situation made worse by the erratic wind patterns and rising temperatures," says chartered accountant Harish Malhotra who had booked himself and his family into a hotel in Anandpur facing Shimla.
The situation is even worse in Uttarakhand where the Char Dham Yatra is at its peak between the months of April to end June when the rains start. This year, lack of winter rains had seen forest fires start as early as the month of February.
The state administration's failure to take effective action has seen this wall of fire stretch from Rudraprayag, Pauri, Almora, Chamoli, Nainital, Chakrata and Dehra Dun districts.
The situation is so alarming that these fires have stretched to the sparsely populate remote hill areas which lack accessibility and where the local population is not in a position to tackle such a major fire.
A thick pall of smog has spread across these districts right down to Rishikesh frightening thousands of tourists who are in the process of cancelling their visit to the shrines of Badrinath and Kedarnath right up to Gaurinath. Tour operators warn of heavy cancellations by tourists triggered by reports of the devastating fires.
"These forest fires are bound to impact tourism at a time when we were hoping that we would see a much larger footfall," says C Ravishankar, managing director, Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam which oversees tourism in this state.
Already, over 3,000 hectares of pristine forest comprising deodars, chir trees and oak have been destroyed. Along with this, an entire eco-system of rare medicinal plants have been lost.
The impact of these fires will be felt on the fragile water systems of these hills which provide the catchment area for all our major rivers.
If this was not enough bad news, the forest department of Jammu and Kashmir has confirmed that the fires have spread to the state's Rajouri district with fires having erupted in and around Bathuni and Gambhir areas.
With no chief minister to take responsibility for the situation, Uttarakhand Governor K K Paul has reviewed the rescue efforts through video conferencing with officials in the field.
Union Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar, who is also in charge of forests, told the media on Sunday that the Centre and he were taking the issue of controlling these fires 'very seriously.'
'Over 6,000 people are presently deployed fighting these fires. We have also granted Rs 5 crore (Rs 50 million) to the state,' said Javdekar who had not visited the areas at the time of filing this report.
The environment ministry also started trial runs Sunday for a pre-fire alert system that will issue warnings via SMS regarding the location of a fire to every state government, the Met department and other concerned organisations.
Javadekar also pointed out that the Union government would study the reasons behind such major fires and prepare an action plan on how to control such fires in the future.
The home ministry has deployed three National Disaster Response Force contingents, army jawans and officers and two Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopters to help douse the fires, but the thick layer of smog is causing a major visibility problem not allowing the choppers to function.
Ecologist Dr Yogesh Gokhale of The Energy and Resources Institute believes the state governments have failed to follow simple management practices including the cleaning up of the forest floors of the accumulated pine needles.
This, Dr Gokhale pointed out, is highly combustible material and if it had been cleared by the local people themselves, this problem would not have arisen.
These pines can be used for a variety of purposes including preparing biomass briquettes and so provide an incentive for the local people to use them.
Dr Anil Joshi, who heads the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation, believes the time has come to revoke the Forest Conservation Act 1980.
"Earlier, the local communities in a spirit of collective responsibility were in the forefront of controlling the fires," Dr Joshi said. "This was because they had a stake in the forests. But after the passing of this Act, the forests have been handed over to the ministry of environment and forests, thereby not allowing the local people to enter these reserved forests."
The MoEF, Dr Joshi maintained, lacks the resources to handle the situation on the ground. "Under the present regime, there is a forest guard posted after every 80 km and there is also a fire watcher who issues an alert in case of a fire. But the local guys hired to be fire watchers in 2015 have not been paid their emoluments to date, so what motivation would they have to give alerts or to put out the fire?"
Dr Joshi did concede that the cause of these devastating forest fires could be the handiwork of either the timber mafia or the lack of rain during two successive winters, which have resulted in a lack of moisture both in the soil and in the air.
Environmentalists agree about the role of the timber mafia. Uttarakhand's Forest Development Corporation is entitled to auction trees which have dried up or are dead. "They now have crores worth of dried trees which can be auctioned and from which they can earn a lot of money," an environmentalist pointed out on condition of anonymity.
"This huge fire shows a complete lack of preparedness on the part of the administration who should have played a much more pro-active role," felt Dr Ravi Chopra, director, Dehra Dun People's Institute.
"Till 30 years ago," he added, "there was an intense relationship between the community and the forest land. Today the alienation is so high that I have seen villagers living at the edge of a forest who will make no effort to douse a fire. They say the land belongs to the forest department so let them put out the fire."
"We need to get local communities involved with forests as was the case 150 years ago," Dr Chopra said.
Peter Smetacek, the Bhimtal-based lepidopterist who is a member of the Uttarakhand State Wildlife Advisory Board, has warned that these fires would have destroyed an entire ecosystem of insects, butterflies, reptiles and thousands of larger animals.
"In 2009," Smetacek said, "we were witness to a major fire and it took two to three years for the population of insects and butterflies to recover. But this time, the situation is much worse and this will have terrible consequences because we all belong to one ecosystem."
Dr Chopra pointed out how in 1991, he along with other environmentalists had calculated the worth of a forest in Jharkhand. "We found that the net present value of a typical tree was between Rs 500 and Rs 1,000. And this did not include the worth of its timber. Today, the cost of each tree in these forests would have multiplied several fold so the losses caused by this fire run into thousands of crores of rupees."
"Even worse is that this fire will result in the soil becoming very dry. Climate change is resulting in fewer spells of heavier rainfall which will see huge amounts of soil erosion," Dr Chopra added.
"All this eroded soil is going to end up in our rivers and dams," he warned. "This will reduce the life span of our dams including the Tehri Dam. The kind of losses the nation is facing are incalculable."