Hellish Fires In The Himalayas Due To The Three Deadly Environmental Sins

Hellish Fires In The Himalayas Due To The Three Deadly Environmental Sins

The peace and quiet of the hills, where saints set up their ashrams, has been irretrievably shattered and the purity of the environment contaminated

Bhavdeep KangUpdated: Wednesday, May 08, 2024, 08:19 PM IST
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Representative Image | Pixabay

The Himalayas, once synonymous with snow, spiritualism and Lord Shiva, now bring to mind floods, fires, landslides and earthquakes. The Devbhumi of Uttarakhand, the ‘land of the gods’ where saints meditated in the mountain fastness, now seems to be the object of divine wrath. All thanks to three deadly environmental sins.

Forest fires raging in the hills are the latest in a series of ‘natural’ disasters in Uttarakhand, and have been attributed to ‘heatwave conditions’, ‘low precipitation’ and ‘climate change’. The ugly reality is that these disasters are anything but natural. They are a direct consequence of human hyper-activity in a fragile ecological zone.

Deforestation is the first of the three deadly sins. Environmentalist Peter Smetachek once compared the primary forests of the Himalayas to Shiva’s dreadlocks, which caught precious water and released it slowly in the form of rivers and streams. The hydrological metaphor of Shiva’s matted hair trapping the Ganga waters, absorbing their destructive force and then letting them flow gently to the earth, is particularly apt in the context of Uttarakhand.

Any denizen of the state will tell you that an oak forest is a water catchment. The banj (oak) improves the moisture level of the soil and is a natural air-conditioner that lowers atmospheric temperatures, thereby attracting rainfall. Where there is oak, there are streams. Conversely, when oak forests are cut, the streams dry up.

Destruction of oaks and their displacement by the famously flammable chir pine is seen as a leading cause of forest fires. One study found that between 1991-2017, oak forests decreased by 29% and pine forests increased by 74%. Without Shiva’s matted locks to break the force of water cascading from the heavens, water is lost as runoff instead of sinking into the soil and recharging springs. According to Global Forest Watch, Uttarakhand lost 27 kilo hectares (kha) worth of tree cover between 2001-2023 with Nainital district alone losing 11 kha.

Today, most oak trees look like telephone poles, with their leafy branches hacked away by village women to serve as fuel and fodder. The decimation of oak forests by timber mafias and developers has led to unsustainable pressure on oaks by local communities.

Forest fires have led to further loss of biodiversity. Little action is taken, even as foresters acknowledge that more than 90% of fires are manmade. In 2016, when massive fires raged across the Kumaon hills, an investigation was ordered into the role of the timber mafia in setting fires (so that charred trees could be logged). Nothing came of it.

In addition, invasive species have displaced native vegetation. In the last few years, ‘kala baans’, known as the ‘Mexcian devil’, has proliferated. Unpalatable and possibly toxic to herbivores, it will drive native plants into extinction, experts warn. With the state failing to act against the weed, locals have taken to setting it on fire — at the risk of sparking forest fires!

The second deadly sin is overconstruction. Hill towns have become denser and larger. Multi-storeyed structures have crept up the slopes to the crests of hills, thanks to improved road accessibility. Not all roads are government-built. Private landowners also run their JCBs on the fragile slopes, with or without environmental clearance.

Developers have chopped down entire forests to create mini-townships on the slopes of the Shivaliks. Realtors offer wooded land to outsiders for constructing holiday homes, assuring them that clearing the land of trees will not be a problem. The cutting of hills and forests for new housing, tourism- and infrastructure-related projects has destabilised slopes. Denuded of green cover, they have become prone to landslides.

Open fires are a daily occurrence in inhabitated areas. Where leaf litter was once used as fertiliser, it is now burnt along with trash. Plumes of smoke from the backyards of resorts are visible to all, except the authorities. In the dry season, when even a casually discarded cigarette or bidi can set a forest ablaze, no action is taken against open fires.

A major cause of overconstruction is the progressive dilution of land laws that restrict non-residents from buying land. Public protests and demands for a tough new land law elicited promises from the state government, but little progress. Under public pressure, the purchase of land by non-residents has been temporarily banned as of January 1, 2024.

Overtourism is the third deadly sin. Some five crore tourists are estimated to have visited Uttarakhand in 2022. Temple tourism is thriving but ironically, spiritual seekers leave devastation in their wake. Massive traffic jams on hill roads leading to tourist towns are now a common feature, as are shoals of plastic waste on the surface of water bodies and tourist spots marked with ugly heaps of garbage. They are gathered and burnt.

Tourism has also led to overextraction of water. Permission for tubewells is easily obtained by hotels. Villages are starved of water, but hotels fill up swimming pools with abandon. The traditional naulas — stone-lined basins fed by underground streams — have dried up or disappeared. Mindless construction has also resulted in aquifers drying up, and blocked natural water channels, leading to flooding during the rains.

Noise pollution is an inevitable fallout of the increasing traffic. Heavy trucks laden with construction materials rattle noisily through the hills blowing their air horns (technically banned) and tourists play music full blast. The impact on the avian wildlife of Kumaon, which attracts birders across the world, is not counted.

The peace and quiet of the hills, where saints set up their ashrams, has been irretrievably shattered and the purity of the environment contaminated. As Uttarakhand continues to burn, perhaps the best way to propitiate the gods would be to show a healthy respect for the Himalayas.

Bhavdeep Kang is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author

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