How the media got the Uttarakhand fire story wrong
In its short-sighted approach, the media conveniently blamed locals without questioning the forest department and govt policies
Social media has its benefits. A fire in Uttarakhand would normally have got peripheral coverage on television and newspapers. But due to the dramatic pictures going viral on social media, it became more than just a regional story, and soon reporters from mainstream media houses were being sent to cover the fire that has engulfed parts of the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and now Himachal Pradesh.
Having scanned newspapers and news channels in the last 48 hours, even digital websites that usually present a more nuanced analysis, it is sad to observe that most have fallen prey to the Delhi syndrome. And that is seeing a story from our Delhi-centric world view. That’s why words like “timber mafia”, conveniently blaming local people for the fire, dominated most media reports in print, online and on most broadcast media.
While one digital website screamed that “timber mafia” and “greed” were to blame, activists in studio debates on news channels were crying foul, asking for those who caused this massive fire tragedy in which hundreds of acres of forests have been burnt down to be categorized as “arsonists,” who should be arrested by the police.
Across different forms of media, there was one single unified response—put the blame squarely on the people residing in Uttarakhand for this. Across the board, there has been no questioning of the role of the forest department, the development policies in the state or the politics of tyranny between the state and the communities that are often the root causes of such fires.
Geologist Ramamurthi Sreedhar led an extensive study with Hem Gairola, founder-member of think tank Himalayan Centre for Community Forestry, when the last major fire happened in the hills of Uttarakhand in 1996. In their report of 1996, Sreedhar and Gairola outlined six complex reasons why these fires happen. Among the reasons is a delay in the release of funds to the forest department for creating fire lines, especially post-March when the financial year has ended. The creation of fire lines is done by forest guards, some of whom are employed on a contractual basis for this purpose.
Another reason cited in the report for fires is the review of afforestation targets. In the run-up to such a review by senior forest officials, there is an increase in incidents of fire. The most common excuse then is to say that targets were not met because the area caught fire, once again exposing corruption in the region.
Ongoing feuds between the forest department and local people over access to forest produce is yet another reason why some fires are set.
Sreedhar rules out the “timber mafia” in the region as the cause of fires. Environment lawyer Ritwick Dutta points out that with a ban on the large-scale felling of trees in the region, it doesn’t make sense for an organized timber mafia to be operating there. “No one wants to question the large-scale deforestation in Uttarakhand due to roads and large dams, but it becomes convenient to blame local people when such forest fires happen,” he says.
According to Ravi Chopra, an environmentalist based in Dehradun and a former member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority (NGRBA), “This year, the major cause is the high temperature and the lack of rainfall. There has been speculation about it being a man-made fire but there is no proof as such.”
In Uttarakhand, the Chir pine tree is found in abundance in both the Garhwal and Kumaun divisions. Many are blaming the “needles” or needle-like leaves of the tree, which are highly inflammable, for the fire. In 2015, the Uttarakhand forest department had even suggested large-scale removal of the Chir pine trees to control fires.
However, environmental experts suggest other approaches to reduce the fire hazard that pine needles pose. Gradual replacement of monoculture pines or inclusion of broad-leaved species in pine forests could be solutions. But these are long-term solutions which the forest department must work on.
In the meantime, if the media in its short-sighted way continues to blame the locals, then we will only add to the policies that have in the past alienated local people from the forest. Worse still we will continue to design interventions that exacerbate such tragedies. Let’s understand the historical and ecological reasons before blaming “local people”, calling them “timber mafia and arsonists”. That’s the nuanced perspective the media needs right now.
Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of Green Wars: Dispatches from a Vanishing World.