Nature or Locals: Who is to Blame for Uttarakhand Forest Fires?

Forest fires in Uttarakhand not only destroy the ecosystem, but also make living in the hills an onerous task.

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Forest fires across Uttarakhand have been a pressing problem for decades.

At least 295 new forest fires were reported from different parts of Uttarakhand on 21 May itself, prompting Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat to reprimand the officials concerned for their "lack of preparedness".

Garhwal region is the worst-hit, and Pauri district is the worst-affected in the region, Chief Conservator of Forest and nodal officer for forest fires B P Gupta told PTI. The number of forest fire incidents, which stood at 741 on 20 May, shot up to 1,036 the next day.

Locals say these forest fires not only destroy the ecosystem, but also make living in the hills an onerous task.


For the Locals, By the Locals?

“Forests don’t just catch fire. Forests are set ablaze and out of absolute carelessness or for short term personal benefits. If you try and light a fire, and you can’t light a bonfire. You use one pine needle, and in 10 seconds that entire thing is going to go up in flames because that is the nature of the plant,” said Nitya Budhraja, a resident of Sattal in Nainital district.

Anand Sankar who runs an NGO called Kalap Trust said that the conflict between the locals and the forest department, for not being allowed to use its resources locally, is the major reason for the forests being set on fire and it has been going on for decades.

There is a lot of disagreement between the forest department and local communities on how forest resources must be managed, utilised by the communities and work towards conservation.
Anand Sankar

“The problem here is historically there has been conflict between whoever has been in power (the British or the Indian Government) and the local people. Once people in power started staking claim to these local resources of the mountain people, conflict was inevitable. Forests were cut down to sell timber and replanted with fast growing pine trees,” Sankar added.

He said that locals set fire to pine trees which spreads rapidly to adjoining forests.

The hills face acute water shortage – with water supply in some areas restricted to two times a day – which makes it difficult to contain the fire.

It (Pine trees) sucks out all the groundwater, and leaves the entire area dry. Our mountains are dry and we face water shortage.
Nitya Budhraja

Ecological Destruction

Professor Ajay Rawat, an ecology expert and former professor at the Kumaon University said that such fires have long lasting ecological impacts that stretch as far as Bangladesh.

“The economy of the villagers, which is forest-based is certainly being affected with the burning of forests. Their sources of fodder and fuel are diminishing, which is increasing the active working hours of the women in fetching fodder and fuel as they have to negotiate a distance of 8 to 10 km. This has a direct bearing on their health,” said Rawat.

Rawat said that the threat of wild animals like panthers has also increased owing to forest fires as they are leaving the forests and coming towards human settlements.

“From the ecological view point, Uttarakhand is extremely important. It is the catchment area of the Indo-Gangetic Plain where more than 40% of the Indian population resides. The fertility of the Indo-Gangetic Plain depends upon Uttarakhand; Moreover, if there is an ecological disturbance in Uttarakhand its impact cascades down right up to Bangladesh,” said Rawat.

Who Is to Blame?

While some residents say that fire in pine forests spreads faster due to the highly inflammable nature of the trees, others say that the forest officials are hand-in-glove with the locals who set them on fire.

“Sometimes forest department people, to hide their own mistakes about how the forest is being managed, burn certain areas of it so that when there is a survey by seniors, the mistakes are well-hidden. This is something new that I heard and sounds similar to the kind of rumours on timber mafia or whatever,” said Sharma.


Budhraja said, “The forest department is definitely hand-in-glove, it’s impossible that such large-scale fires occur right under their nose and they are not aware of it, it’s impossible. You try lopping a branch of a tree because it might fall on your house and break your roof, they are going to come and ask you for permissions and come after you. How is it when entire Uttarakhand is burning, they are not aware of it?”

Misplaced Protective Measures?

Sharma said that the concept of ‘protected forests’ in these areas is misplaced.

“The whole system of protected forests is anyway being questioned a lot because one person taking care of the whole forest is very difficult, earlier there was a whole community looking after it. So anyway the whole system of taking care of it is illogical,” she said.


Rawat opined that the culprits behind setting the forest on fire must be dealt with strictly.

“Those culprits involved in incendiarism or inciting forest fires should be dealt very strongly as Uttarakhand is a very sensitive and internationally important area. It is flanked by two international boundaries, on the east is Nepal and on the north is Chinese-occupied Tibet. It could be done to disturb the equanimity of the region and to damage the environment.”

Sankar said that working together with the local communities is the ideal solution to the problem.

Work with the local communities. Right now the discourse is painting local people as villains. They are the ultimate guardians of these forests. Empower them, don’t isolate them. Work towards common ground that leads to conservation as well as protection of local livelihoods.
Anand Sankar

(With inputs from Nitya Budhraja and Desna Sharma.)

Photo Courtesy: ANI, PTI, Facebook/Ema Smatecek, Facebook/Uttarakhand Burns Silently, Facebook/ Uttarakhand Fire and emergency Services

Video Courtesy: ANI, Facebook/Uttarakhand Burns Silently, Facebook/ Uttarakhand Fire and emergency Services)

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