Quick Edit | The Hills are on Fire

Uttarakhand has to literally switch to the fire-fighting mode to stop the spread of forest fires. And the state must adopt long-term tourism policies for sustainable growth
Firefighters try to douse a forest fire in Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar
Firefighters try to douse a forest fire in Uttarakhand’s Bageshwar Photo Credit: PTI

“Greed...is good,” Gordon Gekko had quipped in the 1978 film Wall Street. But unbridled greed can have calamitous consequences. Look no further than Uttarakhand. Home to lush mountains and valleys, gurgling springs and quaint villages, the state is being slowly but surely turning into an incinerator.

In our headlong rush for development, we have lopped off trees, hacked into mountains, dammed rivers all to build roads, hotels and other touristy facilities. And then there are the tourist hordes.

Forest fires are partly natural; human intervention by destroying nature has not helped matters. The numbers send a worrying signal: according to media reports since November last year there have been 910 incidents of forest fires in Uttarakhand; thousands of hectares of forest land have been scorched; 44,600 litres of water have been used in a desperate bid to douse the flames; till May 10 five people have lost their lives; and the economic cost has run into lakhs of rupees (and we are still counting).

The state of affairs in Uttarakhand has been quite grave over the years. Its hill stations, religious and adventure sites, and wildlife sanctuaries are a magnet for tourists. The Char Dham Yatra being the biggest attraction. The tourism inflow to Uttarakhand is expected to increase and is projected to reach around 67 million by 2026.

A recent World Tourism & Travel Council (WTTC) report has pegged India as the 7th largest tourism economy globally in terms of absolute size and has predicted sectoral growth at 7 per cent between 2017 and 2027. The Uttarakhand Tourism Policy, 2023 states that tourism is a key contributor to its growth story. The policy acknowledges that the growth in the tourism sector of Uttarakhand has come about organically and without coordinated planning. The effects of this are fairly visible.

Tourism is responsible for nearly 8 per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. More tourists mean higher carbon footprints. There is only that much that Uttarakhand can accommodate and facilitate. In its 2023 policy it has proposed partnership between government, private sector players and locals to achieve sustainable tourism. Can this ambition be truly achieved without causing more havoc?

A 2014 publication supported by Oxfam titled Uttarakhand: Development and Ecological Sustainability states it rather succinctly, in the repeated indications of massive climate change in the state over the last decade a very measured and ecologically sustainable development is the only way, going forward. Also, sustainable development and its attributes have gained newer connotations since it was first defined in the Brundtland report, 1987. It cannot continue to only mean development that meets the present needs without depriving the future generations. It has to include mindfulness of here and now in the face of the frenzy of disasters that we have already unleashed. There is no longer any room for mistakes here. We may want more but we have to pay heed to what our nature can accommodate and its clear warning signs.

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