The recent forest fires in Uttarakhand reflect a clear case of human greed, fuelling the drive for commercial expansion at the expense of the environment, and calls for long-term changes in the collective psychology rather than localised, isolated solutions.
Forest Fires in India: State of Nature
Forest fires are caused as a result of a chemical reaction between oxygen, fuel and heat. In themselves, forest fires do not have the negative connotations they have come to acquire today. For a long time, they have been used by local communities, globally, to clear land for fresh crops. The fires would get extinguished naturally. In case of forest fires, oxygen, especially in summer months during high temperatures, reacts with plants to cause wildfires. Increasing dryness due to rising temperatures compromises the ability of trees to retain moisture and also causes changes in the kind of trees that grow, thereby leading to forest fires.
The natural process is directly linked to soaring temperatures. It is set to keep worsening as a result of climate change. Forest fires ensure the release of immense amounts of black carbon into the atmosphere contributing to emissions, while the destruction of forests destroys the green sinks that absorb the carbon dioxide, fuelling climate change. Last year alone, by September 2015, forest fires had consumed nearly 9 million acres of land in the US.1
In India, the prevalent drought conditions throughout the country have worsened the onset of forest fires. Uttarakhand has not witnessed rains since the last monsoon. This leaves very little moisture in the soil and helps to kindle fire at the very first instance, even by such things as casually leaving behind an un-extinguished cigarette.
In India, the overall condition is worsening, with the year 2016 being witness to the maximum number of forest fire incidents since the last four years. In December 2015, the environment ministry released the India State of Forest Report. According to the report, India’s forest cover is 701,673 sq. km which is about 21.34% of the country. As per the Forest Survey of India data, almost 50% of India’s forest areas are fire prone. The major forest fire season in the country varies from February to June, with estimates that about 6.17% of Indian forests are subjected to severe fire damage annually.2
How did We Reach this Stage?: Politics of Development
Despite its many disadvantages, the forests of Uttarakhand are increasingly becoming peopled with the commercially-viable pine trees. Unlike the earlier decades, where forest fires would be a part of the natural ecosystem process, today they are a direct result of human greed. Globally, countries of South-east Asia, especially Indonesia, have seen the worst kind of such fires in recent times, due to its interest in palm-oil cultivation and other forest-clearing agricultural practices.
It is an entirely intentional man-made process, which has resulted from natural-resource exploitation for commercial purposes.
In the state of Uttarakhand, this process has been rigged and deliberate. It has played out in the name of development, through both legal and illegal means, involving timber mafia, commercial builders, and the collusion of local villagers. Illegally, timber mafia has found a viable way, through forest fires, to ensure the killing of trees so that villagers are forced to sell their timber. Commercial builders and prospective home-owners find a convenient way of clearing the land of forests so that they can build their commercial and residential buildings. Villagers, though to a much lesser extent and out of necessity and lack of awareness, seek to use dead fuel-wood for cooking and warming purposes.
The regular man-made fires were a direct consequence of a 1981 policy ban on felling of trees that are 1000 meters above the sea-level, leading to increasing destruction of forests. The policy was imposed by the Indira Gandhi government in response to the Chipko movement to save forests. However, the flipside is that only tall chir pine trees – which are the main source of wildfires – could not be felled, while broad-leaf trees were executed ruthlessly. Currently, the government’s appeal to overturn the policy is pending with the Supreme Court.
This has encouraged the extermination of wildlife over a period of time, the gradual destruction of the traditional humid and evergreen broad-leaf forests of Uttarakhand has given way to chir pine forests instead, leading to the drying up of several water springs and local lakes in the areas near Nainital. This year, particularly, the water level has been exceptionally low, and with the added necessity of IAF helicopters lifting water from lakes to douse fires, the water scarcity has reached acute proportions.
The phase-out of broad-leaf forests has also led to unmitigated flood disasters, like the one in the state in 2013, due to excess monsoon. For, broad-leaf forests had traditionally provided the dense canopy of leaves that filter the inrush of monsoon rains and helped to reinvigorate lakes and water springs as well. They also provided humus to the soil, besides being the source of fodder, food, fuel, medicine and other local requirements. This is no longer the case.
According to a local expert, “all this changed with the growing population and European ideas applied to the exploitation of Himalayan forests. A rising population meant greater pressure on forests and European forestry meant entire hillsides were cleared for timber and replanted with commercially useful species, generally chir pine.”3
The policy solutions that have been advocated for the protection of forests have, so far, been clearly obtuse. They reflect the imprint of Western greed-driven ideas that remain unengaged with the local ecosystem. Everyone clearly knows that deliberate destruction of broad-leaf forests for the purpose of commercial growth and timber smuggling which has led to forest fires are a result of human greed. Yet, the so-called experts are advocating merely legal-institutional solutions – such as prosecution of mafia, gradation of forest data, community participation and international best-practices – and the restoring of natural forest balance.
The focus is on planting more trees. The government is planning to spend nearly Rs 41,000 crore to enhance India’s green cover from the current 21.34% to 33%, with the states getting access to 90 per cent of the money – generated from the fees paid by private companies since 2006 to the Government of India for allowing them to set up projects in forest areas.4
All this is being done in the name of achieving the climate change targets. But what kind of Afforestation is being done? There is only a sporadic increase in forest cover in some states, like MP and Chhattisgarh, and a decline in others, like Uttarakhand.
Since 1995, the funds being channeled for plantations in Uttarakhand have been more than sufficient to ensure an adequate forest cover. Yet, the policy is indiscriminate – or deliberately obtuse –on what kind of plantations should be done. It only encourages pine tree plantations that neither help in times of floods nor prevent forest fires, besides encroaching upon the land of local villagers for commercial ends. As an expert points out, “the government tries to pass off plantations as forests”5, while the actual generation of traditional forests would require no funds at all.
This is similar to Europe and US. In Europe too, recent research has shown the sham being perpetrated in the name of combating climate change through Afforestation. Not very different from Uttarakhand, even though Afforestation in Europe has accelerated over decades, the plantation of commercially-viable conifer forests instead of broad-leaved ones has ensured that there is no net reduction of greenhouse gases.
In US, which is amongst the worst victim of wildfires, the causes are again driven by greed and deliberate destruction of forests. Fire leads to further fire. And the US, in the 20th century, in its quest for commercial success saw the natural forest fires as a threat to houses and lives and to the valuable timber and therefore started extinguishing them.
But even if we were to do proper Afforestation by planting broad-leaf trees, to what extent can this work? Or even if community participation and regular prosecution of violators were there, to what extent can it be a long-term solution? These ideas have not even worked internationally. Mere solutions do not even remotely address the roots of the problem, which lies in a deterioration of human consciousness to such an extent that to satisfy our momentary material and psychological self-interest, we are willing to sacrifice the environment that sustains us.
A Fundamentally Flawed System
Forest fires are just a small part of the larger environmental crisis facing us. Our intellectual advancement has ensured that Science has placed monstrous machinery at our disposal. “A structure of the external life has been raised up by man’s ever active mind and life-will, a structure of an unmanageable hugeness and complexity, for the service of his mental, vital, physical claims and urges…Man has created a system of civilisation which has become too big for his limited mental capacity and understanding and his still more limited spiritual and moral capacity to utilise and manage, a too dangerous servant of his blundering ego and its appetites.”6
From the collective point of view, this advancement of Science has led to material oneness in the life of humanity. But this intellectual advancement and spread of education has not gone hand-in-hand with the refinement of our morals and conscience. We have become coarser and more utilitarian than ever. Everyday, Science discovers new means of managing nature.
Take the instance of climate change. We are unwilling to own up responsibility for destroying the planet and have even refused to take action. We are engaging in exchanging credits and doing green projects in lieu of destruction we cause to the environment – just like throwing money at the problem after causing harm. Similarly, Science is now enabling us to explore ways to manipulate nature through technologies like geo-engineering to control global warming.
The reason for these blunders is that these issues pale in front of our formidable individual and collective ego. There is both an intellectual ego and arrogance and an incessant vital craving for more and more satisfaction of our desires and animal propensities.
“All that is there is a chaos of clashing mental ideas, urges of individual and collective physical want and need, vital claims and desires, impulses of an ignorant life-push, hungers and calls for life satisfaction of individuals, classes, nations, a rich fungus of political and social and economic nostrums and notions, a hustling medley of slogans and panaceas for which men are ready to oppress and be oppressed, to kill and be killed, to impose them somehow or other by the immense and too formidable means placed at his disposal, in the belief that this is his way out to something ideal.”7
Yet, we hope we are now turning away from this path and groping for higher light. “A life of unity, mutuality and harmony born of a deeper and wider truth of our being is the only truth of life that can successfully replace the imperfect mental constructions of the past which were a combination of association and regulated conflict, an accommodation of egos and interests grouped or dovetailed into each other to form a society, a consolidation by common general life-motives, a unification by need and the pressure of struggle with outside forces. It is such a change and such a reshaping of life for which humanity is blindly beginning to seek, now more and more with a sense that its very existence depends upon finding the way.”8
- Arnold, Catherine. Nature World News. September 23, 2015. http://www.natureworldnews.com/articles/16959/20150923/wildfires-decrease.htm
- Agarwal, Mayank, and Nikita Mehta. Livemint. May 2, 2016. http://www.livemint.com/Politics/pzqeyf4y9sKu52DDbXMKcI/Understanding-the-Uttarakhand-forest-fire.html
- Smetacek, Peter. http://scroll.in/article/807517/the-uttarakhand-forests-werent-always-burning-this-is-how-we-started-the-fires
- Complete Works of Sri Aurobindo, Vol.22, p.1090, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
- Ibid., p.1091
- Ibid., p.1092