Uttarakhand Forest Fires will Blow Out with the Season. Its Economic, Ecological Consequences will Last

Forest fires in Uttarakhand and other parts of the country have not only wrecked the local economy but have long-term repercussions. It could get worse if stakeholders do not come together to fight the menace
Forest fire in Uttarakhand
Forest fire in UttarakhandPhoto Credit: PTI

Ahead of World Environment Day—June 5—the news is grim. Forest fires are raging across large swathes of forest land across Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Things got worse last month with a pall of smoke lying heavy over the hills.

However, it is the fires in Uttarakhand that have hogged the headlines. This is partly because the Supreme Court has excoriated the Uttarakhand government for its lackadaisical attitude towards firefighting and images of Indian Air Force using helicopter buckets (popularly called Bambi Buckets) to douse fires in Nainital district were flashed nationally.

The state has a forest area of 38,000 square kilometres, according to a 2019 Forest Survey of India report. Since November last year there have been 1,000-plus forest fires in Uttarakhand. November to June is considered to be the forest fire season in India. Six people have lost their lives, thousands of hectares of forests have been burnt to the ground, the loss of flora and fauna is still to be counted. Thousands and thousands of litres of water have been poured in an attempt to douse the flames, according to media reports.

The losses do not include the long-term effects on soil nutrient and the environment. Tourism, a big money churner, is also hit. The state government has already spent close to Rs 20 lakh and counting on controlling the forest fires.

As per the Annual Report 2023-24 of Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change the ongoing four-year National Collaborative Scheme on Forest Fire Management Rs. 22.31 crore has been allotted for a period of four years starting 2022–23 of which only Rs. 3.81 crore has been released so far.

A 2018 World Bank report states that one in four people in India are dependent on forests for their source of livelihood and even conservative estimates around financial losses due to forest fires each year stood at Rs.1,100 crore.

Hills are on Fire

Forest fires in Uttarakhand are an annual affair. But their intensity and frequency over the years have increased. In a paper titled Forest Fires and Climate Attributes Interact in Central Himalayas: An Overview and Assessment, published in March 2023, researchers Usha Mina, A.P. Dimri and Sandhya Farswan say that incidents of forest fires have increased from 922 in 2002 to 1,165 in 2017, 4,714 in 2018 and 41,600 in 2019.

“Extended periods of warm temperatures, changing monsoon patterns including a lack of pre-monsoon rainfall and drought-like conditions increase the availability of dry fuel. This helps forest fires to spread rapidly and worsen their impact,” says Tamanna Sengupta, programme officer, climate change, Centre for Science and Environment.

Forest fires are both natural and man-made. Uttarakhand has been reeling under unnatural high temperatures over the past few weeks. Also, scanty rain and snow last winter made the soil dry. Add needles from the thousands of chir pine to this incinerator and you have a furnace ready to be lit.

Lightning, grazers deliberately lighting a fire to encourage new grass, slash and burn method of agriculture, burning of trash and sheer carelessness (such as throwing a cigarette stub or not putting out a campfire) can lead to raging fires.

Then there are criminals who want to hide illegal logging and jerks who will do anything to make reels (last month Uttarakhand Police arrested three youths who set a forest on fire to create reels).

Necessary Cover

These annual fires deplete Uttarakhand’s forest cover. Forests play an important economic role by generating revenues of their own and impacting other sectors including agriculture, energy, tourism and health. The economic returns over and above its contribution to environment make systematic investment to increase forest cover valuable. Globally, we rank third in net gain in average annual forest area between 2010 and 2020.

According to a media report from 2019, Uttarakhand earned about Rs 350 crore in profits from its forests.

The contribution of the forestry sector to gross value added stood at 1.48% between 2011 and 2016, states Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India a 2018 report jointly prepared by the environment ministry and the World Bank.

Most of the value added by the forest sector came from industrial timber followed by firewood. However, this estimate does not account entirely for the value that forests add as goods and services provided by forests in India are not bought and sold in the formal economy. India’s rural poor are most dependent on forests as cash and subsistence income from forest goods account for a greater part of income of the poorest households.

It has been widely reported that pine needles have added fuel to recent episodes of forest fires in Uttarakhand. The state’s forest department is trying to generate some revenue from the needles.

Last month Pushkar Singh Dhami, Uttarakhand’s chief minister, launched the Rs 50-crore Pirul Lao, Paisa Pao campaign in Rudraprayag district. The project urges people to collect pine needles from the forest floor and sell them at Rs 50 a kilogramme.

Pine needles have commercial value for packaging fruits and when mixed with cow dung acts as fertilizer. Pine needles can also be used to generate electricity. However, bio-energy projects set up by Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency has admitted that it has been “unsuccessful” in this across the six plants set up in the state. The attempt has failed largely because appropriate technology is not available.

Money Spinner

In keeping with the commitment of National Mission for Green India (GIM), one of the eight missions outlined under the National Action Plan on Climate which seeks to protect, restore and enhance India’s forest cover Rs. 220 crore was allocated in 2023-24. This is an increase of 3 per cent over previous year’s revised estimates, according to PRS Legislative Research, a non-profit.

Under GIM, funds are released to the states. This is done to keep up with goals to increase forest and tree cover by 5 million hectares and improve quality of forest/tree cover of additional 5 million hectares of forest/non-forest land benefitting the livelihoods of about 3 million forest-dependent households.

The environment ministry says that the forest cover has increased by 1,540 square kilometres between 2019 and ISFR 2021 assessment.

However, the increase in forest cover has been uneven among the states. While Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha and Karnataka have seen an increase in forest cover, the Northeast has witnessed major loss of forest cover during the same period, says PRS.

Forest cover helps states to monetize. A case in point is the forest and ecology criteria for tax devolution as set by the 15th Finance Commission. According to this, states with high-dense forest cover would have a larger share of the forest cover-based tax devolution than their counterparts with lower-dense forest cover.

Forests contribute to tangible revenues even if states lag in other criteria. For instance, Arunachal Pradesh accounts for 13.3 per cent of India’s dense forest cover and was projected to gain 76 per cent tax devolution due to its forest wealth. Other states such as Uttarakhand, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh and Mizoram would stand to gain 41 per cent, 33 per cent, 32 per cent and 31 per cent of their tax devolution, respectively.

India has also gained a renewed interest in increasing its forest cover as it has committed to create additional sinks for 2.5 billion–3 billion tonnes worth of carbon dioxide stored in its forests by 2030. However, all of this seems difficult to achieve as recent research has shown that forests in India are at a risk of occasional to high incidence of fires.

An Indian Institute of Technology Delhi study by Anasuya Barik and Somnath Baidya Roy, published in December 2023, says “the fire season will be longer by 3–61 days across the country and the pre-monsoon fire season will become more intense over 55 per cent of forests” by 2100 all because of climate change.

Related Stories

No stories found.
Outlook Business & Money