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Understanding Uttarakhand's 'Developmental Pains'

Vidya Bhushan Rawat Vidya Bhushan Rawat
24 Jun 2024

Uttarakhand's forest fires have resulted in the loss of not only human lives but also a vast forest area. This year has been devastating for the state as the number of forest fires rose to extraordinary levels. The latest casualty has been the enchanting forests of Kasar and Winsor near Almora, known for their tranquillity and stunning views. So far, over 1,213 forest fires have been reported in the state between November 1, 2023 and June 14, 2024. Of 1653 hectares of forest land damaged in forest fires this year, 687 hectares have been damaged in the Garhwal region, 833 hectares in the Kumaon region and 132 hectares in the wildlife administrative regions. Five people have died.

During the second week of May, the author travelled through the foothills and the mountainous regions of Kumaon in Uttarakhand. There was a massive fire in the foothills near Nainital. Travelling to the famous Jim Corbett Park, we found numerous patches of forest fire all through our route. The forest fire reached Nainital in the third week of April and endangered the High Court colony area, forcing the authorities to seek the army's help. An MI-17 helicopter was pressed into service to take water from Naini Lake and sprinkle it over the forest.

"The hilly state has reported as many as 31 pine forest fires in various areas since Friday. Bhumiyadhar, Jeolikote, Narayan Nagar, Bhowali, Ramgarh and Mukteshwar areas of the district have been affected," reported PTI, quoting the officials.

Sadly, the foothills of the Terai region were warm like the plains of Uttar Pradesh. The scenery from Kathgodam to Bhimtal in Nainital during May mirrored the annual post-Diwali Delhi atmosphere. The air was polluted, and visibility was lower than usual. The government claimed that the crisis was over and that there would be rain in the Bageshwar and Pithoragarh regions shortly. Due to poor visibility in the Munsyari-Pithoragarh region, the air services had to be postponed for several days.

The fire was doused only after it rained for a couple of days. At a village near Baitalghat, I asked a local person about the reason for the fire, and his answer was shocking. It was not natural, he mentioned. During summer, the dry leaves of Chir (Indian Pine) cover the entire forest floor. The cattle don't eat it, making the whole region slippery. Villagers often burn these dry leaves so the grass grows faster and their cattle have enough fodder. What used to be a quick method has turned out to be disastrous for the Himalayan state. However, this is not the sole reason. Fires are caused naturally as well as deliberately. Malicious attempts were made to create a 'communal divide' on social media by blaming it on the Muslims. Two individuals from Bihar claimed to have deliberately done it, and quick action by Uttarakhand police brought them to book and foiled their propaganda.

Tourists flocking to the state outnumber its entire population. In 2011, the state's population was around one crore, whereas 2.3 crore tourists travelled there. The number of tourists has only grown after the 2013 cloudburst and subsequent floods. A developed tourism industry is good for the growth of any state. Still, the risk for Uttarakhand is that religious tourism has increased multifold, and the government is pulling all stops to promote it. There has to be a limit to exploiting natural resources. How much can the Himalayas bear or tolerate? Mounting pressure on natural resources caused by the increasing visits of outsiders can directly lead to tensions between locals and tourists. Youngsters looking for secluded areas to enjoy privacy can play mischief, ultimately bringing disaster.

At a roadside tea shop about 50 kilometres ahead of Munsyari, a villager informed us that people put fire to protect themselves from wild animals in many places, particularly tigers, leopards, bears, and elephants. The human-nature conflict in Uttarakhand has been on the increase. Human activity like wider highways, railway networks, resorts, etc., in the name of development encroaches on wildlife zones. The innocent citizens of the hills face the brunt of attack from the displaced wild animals. According to the Uttarakhand forest department, 71, 82 and 66 deaths were recorded in 2021, 2022 and 2023 due to wild animal attacks. Of these, two deaths in 2021, 16 in 2022 and 17 in 2023 were due to tiger attacks.

The government apparently focuses on protecting wildlife and forests, but the local communities and their livelihood are disregarded in their planning. The tiger population in Uttarakhand increased by 314% between 2006 and 2022. The state has two big tiger reserves — Corbett and Rajaji. From 269 in 2018, the number of tigers in these reserves has increased to 314 in 2022. There were 173 tigers in locations outside the tiger reserves in the state in 2018. This has risen to 246 in 2022. Rajaji Corridor for elephants is witnessing considerable human-animal conflict. There have been numerous incidents of elephants entering markets and homes in the villages of Bhabar in the Shivalik foothills. There is little effort to protect human lives, making people suspicious of the forest department. For them, all this is being encouraged and promoted for tourism in the state without caring for the local people.

Uttarakhand's hill regions have more forest cover, and the forest department has more authority than the revenue department. The forest department's high-handedness has resulted in people's migration from their homes. The people fear the forest department. They can't act if wild boars destroy their crops. They remain helpless to attacks by tigers and leopards. Most of the younger generation has migrated to Dehradun, Kotdwar, Haldwani, and Rudrapur for better facilities. Older people who live alone in their homes have to suffer from the threat emerging from wild animals. Unfortunately, the forest department has been unable to involve communities and win them over.

Forest settlements that started during the British period denied native people the right to access forest produce while allowing private timber companies outside the regions to exploit substantial natural resources. Uttarakhand's crisis is actually due to curtailing local communities' involvement in managing the state's vast natural resources while handing over this heritage of the Himalayas to cronies from outside the state in the name of development. Recognising the importance of community involvement in managing natural resources for sustainable development and conservation is crucial.

The massive influx of religious tourists during the Char Dham Yatra poses a significant risk to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem. The growth in the number of visitors is extraordinary. During the 2024 Yatra, over fifteen lakh tourists travelled to various shrines in the state in the first 15 days alone. Of the 15,67,095 tourists who visited the state as of May 10, over 6,27,613 visited the Kedarnath shrine, while 3,79,041 visited Badrinath Dham, as per a report by ETV. While the government and businesses are happy and hope the Yatra will break all records, the crisis is much more severe. The Himalayas lack the infrastructure to handle the influx of crowds. Most of the crowd is unmindful of the locals' sentiments or the Himalayas' sensitivity.

The Yatra has become the best PR exercise for the government and state police, working overtime to look after the interests of the yatris from different parts of the country. With state police and SDRF focusing more on the 'teerth-yatris' as if they were freedom fighters, it is clear that the government would lack human resources to handle the forest fires. A small state like Uttarakhand needs to prioritise the basic needs of the local people and not try to impress outsiders who are least bothered about the sensibilities of the Himalayas and its communities.

The issue of forest fires in Uttarakhand has to be seen in the broader context of our natural heritage, which is being treated as a 'resource' with purely for-profit motives. The authorities consider fires only in the context of the management of pirul (dry pine leaves that blanket the entire forest floor during the summer and are highly inflammable). Experts suggest that pirul can be used not only for producing biogas but also for paper products. The most important part of the entire exercise is the involvement of local communities and addressing the issues related to their insecurities.

Equally important is understanding the 'disaster management' methodology. The government still uses primitive methods to control forest fires. It should not only press enough helicopter services but also work on laying out water management and pipes in place and building the disaster management teams to efficiently handle issues. It also needs to equip them with proper tools.

Due to migration, many villages do not have even one family. They are now known as 'bhutaha gaaon' or 'ghost villages'. There are officially 1,564 ghost villages and 650 others, with less than half the population. The crisis of negative growth rate in the population in the hill regions and fear of dominance of outsiders continue to haunt the local communities in the Himalayas. Uttarakhand borders China and Nepal internationally. It is the only border state that sends many of its youth to the armed forces, but it has been impacted by the New Agniveer Scheme, which has left uncertain futures.

The people have been opposing the new land laws and want to protect their ancestral land. Deep in their hearts, they feel that the government only encourages investors—basically outsiders—and that the local people will ultimately depend on the big fat moneyed businesses from the plains.
The new delimitation exercise, meant to redefine and redesign the number of parliamentary and assembly constituencies a state can have, is bound to create unrest in Uttarakhand as the hilly regions will lose their seats. At the same time, there will be an increase in the number of seats from the plains. There is an enormous income gap between the hills and the plains. In terms of resources, the people from the hills do not have land, and most of them will be counted as landless compared to those from the plains, who have extensive land holdings. If not handled sensitively, the mass unrest in the Himalayas can be potentially dangerous. The government must engage with the people and assure them of complete protection.

The people of Uttarakhand will not stand for development that affects their 'pahadi identity'. The mountains and rivers are the soul of the state. The government must understand that it can't handle these issues with mere rhetoric but must be seen as serious about addressing and aligning with the interests of the locals. Though the government projects the state as 'dev bhumi' or 'the land of gods,' except for heavily promoting religious tourism, nothing has been done to protect the sanctity of the Himalayas and its native population.

The people are not averse to development but have experienced how the state's resources have been misused and handed over to outsiders. For the people of Uttarakhand, each river is Ganga, and they have a deep relationship with rivers and mountains. This relationship is based on nurturing and considering them their 'deities.'

The four-lane Char Dham Highway project has been imposed on the state, ignoring the fragile nature of the terrain, resulting in heavy landslides. Landslides and cloudbursts were not unheard of in the past, but the four-lane project has certainly not helped the situation. Nobody denies the importance of the road network, but equally emphatic should have been the response given to the issues raised by environmentalists related to the sensitive nature of the Himalayan zone.

The state has faced many traumatic moments since 2013, when the devastating flood killed more than 5000 pilgrims. It seems that no lessons were learnt from the incident. The devastation at the Dhauli Ganga Rishi Ganga confluence in Raini village in February 2021 was, in fact, not natural but a man-made disaster. Raini village, the epicentre of the Chipko movement, had to be relocated because the land mass was fragile and slipping. In fact, the high court of Uttarakhand imposed penalties on social activist Atul Sati and other villagers who had filed cases in court. They were vindicated when the historical town of Joshimath started sinking even as the nation watched. Everyone except for government agencies felt that what happened in Joshimath was created by various power projects and uninterrupted detonation and excavation of the fragile mountains. The crisis is not yet over. The Silkyara Tunnel crisis of Uttarakhand was internationally reported, and though the lives of so many miners were ultimately saved, it has not stopped anything.

Uttarakhand is the source of the Ganges, Yamuna, Kali, and other smaller rivers and is tied to its identity. Today, all of them face a severe crisis. You can't eliminate the severity of the situation by merely suggesting you worship rivers or that they look beautiful. Rivers are a source of great joy and spiritual solace, but the real question is, what have we done to maintain their sanctity and dignity?

The issue of forest fires in Uttarakhand cannot and should not be seen in isolation but as an issue of our natural heritage, its protection, management and the role of local communities. Planning experts in 'Delhi' and' infrastructure' brought in by big corporates cannot manage the Himalayas. There is a dire need to control the massive influx of people in the region in the name of tourism. Yes, religious sentiments have their place, but the local people, too, have the right to life and protect their natural heritage. Unlike the greedy corporations and cronies looking at the entire region purely for their profit, for the locals, it is a part of their identity. It would be better for the government and other agencies to initiate dialogues with the local people, seek their opinions and rework their plans. Otherwise, sustaining the burden of 'development' will be difficult, as it will only inflict wounds and bring pain to the people of Uttarakhand.
 

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