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Transforming Forest Policy: Democratization And Fire Prevention In Himachal Pradesh – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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Transforming Forest Policy: Democratization and Fire Prevention in Himachal Pradesh

Tikender Singh Panwar

What does the State need to do in order to democratise forest management and curtail raging forest fires?

The story so far: Himachal Pradesh (H.P.) is witnessing widespread forest fires across the region. According to the Himachal Pradesh Forest department, there have been a total of 1,684 forest fires since April 15. These fires have damaged a total of 17,471 hectares of forest land, resulting in significant loss to wildlife. From 2001 to 2023, H.P. has lost 957 hectares of tree cover from fires and 4.37 thousand hectares from all other drivers of loss.

How do forest fires start in the State?

Fires in the Himalayas occur during the pre-monsoon summer period of moisture stress, due to the resultant depletion of snowmelt water. The moisture conditions of the pre-monsoon season, characterised by rainstorms, play a critical role in determining the nature of forest fires. The less moisture there is, the greater the impact of the fires. Human activities such as unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes etc., are also some of the common causes for forest fires.

These fires are also a major source of pollutants, including black carbon, which significantly contribute to glacier melt in the Himalayas and negatively influences the regional climate. The primary causes of these forest fires are faulty forestry practices, and treating forests from a utilitarian perspective, excluding people’s participation.

Have the Himalayan forests undergone a transformation?

The Himalayan forests have been systematically transformed over the last two centuries. A crucial watershed moment in Indian forestry began with the construction of railways in the 1850s. Lord Dalhousie’s understanding about railway construction was that the railways were to be constructed not just to market British goods but also to serve as an outlet for British capital seeking profitable avenues. Unfortunately, the profitability of Himalayan forests continue to be a driving force.

From 1853 to 1910, the construction of around 80,000 kms of railway track led to an assault on forests and the extinction of the customary rights of the people. Between 1869 and 1885, 6.5 million sleepers were made of Deodar, and the area for Chir pines was expanded for timber and resin. Total trees from which resin was tapped between 1910 and 1920 increased from 2,60,000 to 21,35,000. Resin was used for commercial and industrial applications, and its extraction continues to be a major source of production from pine forests.

Verrier Elwin, an Oxford scholar and renegade priest, wrote in the early 20th century that State-managed forestry led to the gradual replacement of the Banj oak, a source of fuel, fodder, and leaf manure, with the Chir pine, which was more valued commercially as a source of timber and resin. Ecologically, Banj forests absorb a high content of rainwater, leading to better moisture retention and water springs in the mountains.

Currently, more than 17.8% of the total 37,033 square kilometers of forest area is covered with Chir pine trees in H.P. Chir forests are very vulnerable to forest fires.

What needs to be done?

Democratisation of forests is essential to ensure that people and communities who have lived in and around forests are made part of the forest management process. The rights of the local community have been periodically curtailed, and as a result, when forest fires start, first responders are nowhere to be found.

The traditional forest rights of Himalayan dwellers included the right to extract wood for fuel, timber, fodder, and other activities. H.P. is under Schedule V of the Indian Constitution, which requires community assent for development activities in the region. However, for large projects like hydro power generation, road widening, and four-lane highways, forests are being diverted with ease.

What the Himalayan States now need is to build mixed forestry and remove pine trees; ensure that both scientific and community knowledge converge and forest management is conducted in a participatory manner; implement check dams and other methods to revive water springs; create environmental services at the village level; and articulate their case with the ongoing 16th Finance Commission, seeking help apart from disaster mitigation funds.

Tikender Singh Panwar is former Deputy Mayor of Shimla.

The article was first published in The Hindu as How can Himachal Pradesh fight against forest fires? | Explained on June 19, 2024.

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

Read more at IMPRI:

World Environment Day: Reimagining Strategies for a Sustainable Future

Understanding the Smart Cities Mission: An In-Depth Explanation

Acknowledgement: This article was posted by Aashnaa Mehta, a research intern at IMPRI.

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  • IMPRI

    IMPRI, a startup research think tank, is a platform for pro-active, independent, non-partisan and policy-based research. It contributes to debates and deliberations for action-based solutions to a host of strategic issues. IMPRI is committed to democracy, mobilization and community building.

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  • Tikender Singh Panwar

    Former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and Visiting Senior Fellow at IMPRI

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