I spent the last two weeks in the Kumaon and Garhwal mountains. It rained in the first week and all the forest fires were doused in Kumaon. The weather changed over the weekend, and by the time I reached Garhwal, it was clear and hot. The trees and the underbrush all dried up quickly. And the forest started blazing.

Every conversation suggested that it’s hotter than ever before, and that the forest fires which are larger than ever before are making it worse. At an altitude of 2,000m near Mori, I could not walk barefoot in the courtyard of one of the few Karna temples in the world, because the floor was baking hot. On winding roads, with sheer drops of thousand feet on the side, we kept driving through thick smoke with no visibility. It’s not safe even when the blaze is doused because the trees burnt to char fall without warning; we missed two near Purola.

At Lakshmi’s dhaba, between Uttarkashi and Barkot, we had lunch along with two forest guards of the Uttarakhand Forest Force. They were on their way back to their territories, after a planning meeting to tackle the fire. They seemed quite relaxed. They said that their tools, technology and force is designed as though for a chulha and with that they are tackling an inferno, so they might as well have a decent lunch. They are all waiting for the rain.

The soaring temperature, the burnt trees, the landslides and the trash-heaps, can’t hide the innate beauty of these mountains. My friend Girin wasn’t as affected because he had never seen these mountains before, while I saw a tragedy. My mood found little resonance with people living there. There is widespread elation from the sharp rebound in the pilgrim tourist numbers this year. Garhwal is home to some of the holiest of Hindu shrines. The region’s economy is driven by pilgrims from all over India. The cataclysmic floods in 2012 and 2013 had brought the pilgrims numbers almost down to zero, with no recovery till last year.

This year, the numbers have shot back to peak levels and the place is buzzing. And it wears a withered look; the pilgrims’ faith is limited to the shrines, its land they treat callously.

In the conversations, few people blamed the much-talked about timber and real estate mafia for the fires. They describe a complex reality, in which all are complicit. At the root is the change in the flora in that area. Widespread deforestation for farming and timber has denuded large swathes of the mountains and a large part of the remaining forest cover of wide-leaf native trees has been replaced by pine. This creates a tinderbox of pine leafs and wild grass in the dry summer. During the British Raj, when the pine came up, it was managed methodically by felling periodically. However, the hard-won battles on saving trees and forest covers in the 1960s and ’70s have also protected the pine. With no felling, it has spread all over.

As in the rest of the county, the regulatory approach over the forests has alienated local communities from them. Despite the progressive improvement in the letter of the law, the spirit of forest administration has remained mired in suspicion of community rights and access, with a ham-handed and punitive approach on the ground. Across Kumaon and Garhwal, people said that this has reduced community engagement with the forests significantly. Earlier, communities managed and maintained the forests as their own, including managing the summer fires. Now, unless there is imminent danger to life or property, they rarely act, assuming that it’s the responsibility of the forest department. Fires can be tackled when they are small, and not when they have become a blaze. This can happen only through vigilant and engaged local communities.

The more wistful narration was about the steady erosion in the connection of the new generations with the mountains. The attraction of better livelihoods and seemingly easier living conditions is powering a massive migration to the plains. By the second generation of migrants, summer vacations remain the one tenuous link. So, it’s not only that communities are letting go of forests, but they are letting go of the mountains. It’s steady and it seems inexorable.

These are the echoes I heard in every place. There are many good people battling these grim trends, with tenacity. But it’s manifest that they are losing the war. The vacuum of collective imagination on a sustainable model of development and effective governance, for the most magnificent mountains in the world, is driving their demise and abandonment. This is an exemplar for how not to do it. An exemplar for how to do it is not far away in the Himalayas: Bhutan.

It’s not just forests that are ablaze, all is burning in the mountains. Many of my friends from the mountains fear that it may already be too late. I hope not.

Anurag Behar is chief executive officer of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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