Of Summertime, Sunshine and Forests that Catch Fire


Of Summertime, Sunshine and Forests that Catch Fire

As the Governor’s cavalcade entered Raj Bhawan in Nainital on the morning of April 27, a dark cloud appeared from behind a clump of tall Deodar trees to the west. It grew quickly and hung ominously over the heritage structure nestled among acres of landscaped golf links. I stood on the expansive lawn and wondered how the cloud had been conjured up so suddenly on a clear morning. As I looked on, I realised that the apparition was an unusual grayish-brown. This was no cloud; it was smoke from a forest fire on the hill beyond.

The Raj Bhawan is the summer residence of the Governor of Uttarakhand, but since the state is under President’s rule, the Governor has been bound to the capital city of Dehradun. At the end of April, he made a short trip to Nainital to inaugurate a seminar on disaster management and training organised by the North-Eastern Railway. Nearly the entire district administration was on hand to receive him (I counted about 20 cars.) This smoke cloud hanging over the residence of the de facto ruler of the hill state with the complete state machinery in attendance was in a way an honest, if unfortunate, comment on the situation. Nature was furious and governance was rendered helpless.

I asked one of the Governor’s staff, who had accompanied him on the chopper, what it looked like from up there. He looked at me and shook his head. “It’s all burning,” he said.

For people who have been born and raised in Uttarakhand, forest fires are something we associate with the advent of the warm season. It is the season of deep red kaafal berries, succulent yellow hisaalu, and ever-increasing tourists. It carries with it the scent of summer flowers and burnt out clutch plates. Hotel rates double, railway reservations become impossible, long lost friends call to inveigle an invite. And yes, forest fires happen.

Every April-May, dried leaves on the forest floor burn and make way for fresh grass. The fires can look dramatic and scary (especially at night), but are usually restricted to a particular hill and burn themselves out without much fuss. In fact, growing up I often wondered why our forest fires remained so manageable while in other parts of the world – California and Australia – they caused great damage to life and property. These are ground fires and rarely reach the crowns of the trees. The terrain consists of steep hills and the fires travel upward and on reaching the top of the hill they burn out. They also largely affect pine forests, however, the taller pines escape unscathed, as their branches don’t hang low.

However, this year something was different. On the day of the Governor’s visit, I was working late into the night when I thought I smelled something burning. I looked around the house; all was well. Yet, there was this distinct smell. I went outside and realised the smell was everywhere. A thin veil of smoke hung in the air. There was no fire in Nainital, but the smoke from the blaze nearby had descended on the valley. I knew then that this was far more serious than the forest fires that break out every year.

Once the world woke up to how grave the situation really was, photos of burnt hillsides travelled furiously on social media and the headlines evolved like a developing narrative: “Dangerous Forest Fires in Uttarakhand”, “Forest Fires Destroying Our Forests”, “Land and Timber Mafia Burning Our Forests”. The comments came thick and fast, and frothing at the mouth. The photographs had taken on a life of their own and reached the hallowed status that is reserved for internet royalty; they had gone viral.

The sight of the forest fire was at once terrible and beautiful. Like a subterranean Balrog escaping the Mines of Moria. If only Gandalf were close at hand.

I decided to drive around and see for myself how bad it really was. En route to Mukhteshwar, I passed one of the affected areas close to Jamrani village. I crossed three OB vans reporting from the scene.

Rocks lay strewn all over the road having come loose as the shrubs and grass around them burned. Pieces of smouldering wood and in some places whole trees had also fallen. Not just pine, but even oak forests had suffered. The soil was charred black, and bushes, shrubs, and creepers had been burned. I was sure a wealth of bugs and microorganisms had been lost. However, by and large, the tall trees on either side of the road stood reassuringly upright.

I reached my favourite spot in Mukteshwar and looked down on the undulating valley. This spot had given me some of my most treasured views of the snowcapped peaks in the region. But that day, there was only a gray haze. As the sun set, the true magnitude of the fires became visible. Lines of bright orange flame could be seen right across the wide valley. In the 38 years I have spent in the hills, I had never seen a sight like this. It was at once terrible and beautiful. Like a subterranean Balrog escaping the Mines of Moria. If only Gandalf were close at hand.

The Uttarakhand administration swung into action as the news of the fires made national headlines. The Centre sent three companies of the National Disaster Response Force to assist the rescue operation. A toll-free helpline was set up to report incidents of fire and District Magistrate Deepak Rawat had widely shared his personal mobile phone number so that people could call him directly for assistance. All of the vehicles of the fire department were pushed into service. The Indian Air Force deployed Mi-17 choppers equipped with Bambi buckets, which dropped 50,000 liters of water a day.

My hotelier friends were engaged in a different kind of firefighting. The same friends, who had forwarded the WhatsApp messages urging media attention, were now facing cancellations at their hotels because of the same. They began to flood my feed with stories of how the crisis was being blown out of proportion. Vitriol now flowed in the opposite direction. It was symptomatic of the convenient and selective outrage that has come to characterise our age.

By May 3, fires in my district were largely under control. The administration had been in an overdrive though skeptics may argue that the fires actually burnt themselves out.

What is not yet under control is the rumour factory that is running overtime. The cause of the fires continues to be debated and claims and counter-claims abound. The most sensational claim was that the land and timber mafia set the forests on fire. The land mafia would grab the land for construction, once the timber mafia had removed the wood from the singed forests. This line found ready favour with social media activists who vehemently denounced this faceless “mafia” and waxed eloquent about human greed and environmental callousness. Other allegations did the rounds – the most popular being that the villagers set these fires to ensure fresh grass grew for their animals to graze on.

Uttarakhand Forest Fires

The fires can look dramatic and scary, but are usually confined to a particular hill and burn themselves out without much fuss.

Hindustan Times/ Getty Images

This churning rumour mill only proves to me how little people know about our land and its people. Fires have, no doubt, been common practice for people in villages to get rid of the layer of dried leaves on the forest floor, but they have largely been localised and controlled. As Padma Shri awardee Dr Ajay Rawat, the person at the forefront of research on the forest culture or Aranya Sanskriti of Uttarakhand, told me, “Forest fires have been mentioned even in ancient texts like the Mahabharata.”

I find these simplistic views on culpability being put forward mainly by urban friends, recent migrants to the hills, and the forest department which is keen to avoid any blame. There is talk of educating and sensitising villagers. The inherent hubris displayed in this view is galling. We are talking about educating people who have lived in this area longer than there have been towns and forest departments. Knowledge should actually flow in the opposite direction.

The forest department cites the arrest of two or three people caught in the act of setting fires as definitive proof of ill-intentioned villagers being the cause, when, in fact, the individuals caught were labourers involved in the collection of leesa or pine resin. The forest department gives out lucrative annual contracts for the collection of this valuable forest resource. It is widely used in the manufacture of paper, soap, cosmetics, paint, varnish, rubber, and polish. The workers involved in resin collection often clear paths to get to the hard-to-reach tracts of the forest by burning leaves.

The truth behind the fires is actually a rather old trope of Indian bureaucracy – heavy at the top and cash-strapped at the bottom. There is a shortage of people on the ground and an excess of people behind desks. Fire lines have not been maintained and even with the yearly recurrence of fires, no concrete measures have been taken to address them. I am a great admirer of some of the success stories that the forest department of Uttarakhand has managed to script. The annual birding festivals and training of local forest guides around national parks is a case in point. But this is failure. Failure that has been compounded by the unusually dry and mild winter in the state this year.

Winter precipitation provides much-needed water to springs and water bodies, and aids in the decomposition of fallen leaves. However, the lack of winter rain and snow has meant that the ground is parched and covered with a thick layer of dried leaves. (The deficit of rainfall from September 2015 onward was a cause of concern and ample warning.) The Nainital Lake is at its lowest ebb. The forests are a virtual tinderbox ready to burst into flames with a single spark and sadly there are no easy culprits to blame. Global warming is on all of us.

As the nation screams, the villages remain largely indifferent to the fires. Khimanand of Satoli village said that wildfires happen every year. He shrugged it off with a fatalistic acceptance that characterises hill folk. If the fire comes close to your home put it out, if it doesn’t let it be.

As I write, I can hear the first raindrops hit the tin roof of my house in Nainital. A friend has just messaged from Uttarkashi to say that it is raining heavily there. It seems the prayers have been answered. While I rejoice about the rain, I know that without the camera crews, once again complacency will settle. From front-page news, my beloved hills will move to the last page, and from there disappear until another fire spurs social media to shame the government.

But I hope before this fire disappears it at least does the job of burning our apathy. We can apply ourselves better to address environmental issues. Optimism is essential. It’s the beginning of change. Because whether we like it or not, in Uttarakhand or elsewhere, we are all in this together.