Forest fires in Uttarakhand: Count on women to save environment

Rising number of forest fires in Uttarakhand
The Uttarakhand government must entrust part of conservation efforts to community leaders and women to prevent forest fires.

Forest fires have become a recurring nightmare in Uttarakhand, particularly during the dry season from March to May. Each year, the intensity varies, from less severe to highly destructive fires. The government of Uttarakhand and the forest department engage in annual rituals of high-level inquiries and meetings, only for their efforts to dissipate with the arrival of the rains. This cycle of neglect continues, with no substantial planning or action for the future until the next dry season arrives. Despite discussions about community mobilisation almost every year, once the forest fire threat subsides, the forest department reverts to its old ways, treating the community with a colonial mindset.

According to media reports, by May 8, 2024, approximately 1,312 hectares of forest have been burned, resulting in six deaths—the highest number since 2016. The forest department reports 68 fire incidents affecting 120 hectares within 24 hours. Sixty individuals have been arrested, and over 390 FIRs have been registered against unknown individuals as of May 8, 2024.

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Women, community, and forest conservation

A critical question arises: why are the custodians of these forests, especially women, not rushing to save them? Historically, women have been the guardians of Uttarakhand’s forests. The Chipko Movement is a testament to their dedication, where women went to great lengths to protect the forests, enriching the ecosystem and sustaining biodiversity.

However, the women face arduous lives, often under threat from wild animals and lacking support from the forest department. They endure hardships, including inadequate medical facilities, exploitation, and a lack of recognition for their role in forest conservation.

Governance failures and forest fires

The forest department and society’s proclaimed commitments to equality, social justice, and gender justice have failed to translate into tangible support for women. Environmentalists and journalists often exploit women’s plight for financial gain under the guise of eco-feminism, without addressing their profound suffering. This has led to unchanged conditions for women, despite the exploitation of their efforts to save the environment.

Education has become a tool for rebellion for women in Uttarakhand. They see education as an escape from their suffering, empowering them to seek better opportunities in cities. This migration has led to a gradual divergence from forests, rivers, and mountains, further neglecting the environment.

The picturesque mountains of Uttarakhand hide the harsh reality faced by its residents, especially women. Efforts to save forests and landscapes often prioritise external interests over the needs and experiences of hill people, leading to further neglect and exploitation.

Questions and solutions

The plight of women in Uttarakhand’s forests highlights critical questions that demand urgent action. Why should women save a land where they face relentless suffering and exploitation? The government has failed to protect women from wildlife attacks, which alienates them from conservation efforts. Additionally, women receive no recognition or support for protecting crops from destructive wildlife. The authorities have not provided tangible benefits such as green bonuses, free electricity, or healthcare. The lack of recognition diminishes their motivation to safeguard the environment.

To address these issues, forests should be handed over to community leaders, especially women, recognising their traditional rights and empowering them to manage the land. The government must prioritise improving their living conditions by providing proper healthcare, education, and basic facilities. Acknowledging their contributions and offering tangible benefits will motivate them to continue their role as protectors of the environment.

The sustainable conservation of Uttarakhand’s forests depends on addressing the challenges faced by the women who safeguard them. Empowering these women, recognising their rights, and improving their living conditions are essential steps. Without such measures, the cycle of neglect and exploitation will continue, further endangering the forests and the communities that rely on them.

Supreme Court intervention and future steps

Recently, the Supreme Court asked the Uttarakhand government to take preventive steps against forest fires, rejecting temporary solutions like cloud seeding. With the recent rains bringing temporary relief, the question remains: will state authorities frame long-term solutions, or will complacency prevail?

The increasing frequency of forest fires in Uttarakhand is due to a combination of natural phenomena and human activities. The state’s forest cover spans 24,305 square km, with highly flammable Chir Pine trees covering 3.94 lakh hectares. Prolonged dry spells, excess biomass, and human activities such as burning forest floors for agriculture contribute to the crisis.

Forest authorities propose removing fuel sources like Chir Pine needles to lessen fire intensity. Strategies to prevent and manage forest fires include early detection, deploying fire watchers, engaging local communities, and establishing fire lines. Satellite-based remote sensing technology and GIS tools have been effective in improving fire prevention and management.

To save Uttarakhand’s forests, water, agriculture, and mountains, the government and planners must prioritise the well-being of women, recognising their essential role as forest custodians. Without addressing the underlying issues, the problems will only worsen, perpetuating the cycle of neglect and exploitation.

(Bachchi Singh Bisht is the founder of Jan Maitri Sangthan, Nainital.)

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Dr Prem Bahukhandi is a researcher with experience in varied fields such as environment, economy, and society. He is a trustee of Friends of Himalaya, a non-profit organisation based in Dehradun.