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The Nakima Chronicles: A Sikkim treat that charms gourmands

The Nakima Chronicles: A Sikkim treat that charms gourmands

It’s the season for the rare, slightly bitter flower-vegetable with a sweet aftertaste. Locals make a beeline in front of vendors selling it in Gangtok. And, there’s a recipe too.

By: Satyadeep Chhetri

Nakima, an edible flower with medicinal properties. Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

Gangtok, Sikkim.

Twenty-six-year old Shreya Upreti lived in Pune for nine years before returning to her home state of Sikkim recently. One thing she missed in Pune, known to be a gourmand’s paradise, is nakima, an edible flower with medicinal properties. Last week, she ate her first nakima in a long time, and the very first spoonful brought back a lot of food memories, she told Gaon Connection.

“The first time my mother made it for me, I was eighteen. I hated it. It was awfully bitter, and my mother kept getting me to eat it, insisting it was good for health, and high in protein and Vitamin C. After the third or fourth time, I think I fell in love,” she laughed.

Today, nakima is her favourite flower-vegetable.

So, what is nakima that gets people all nostalgic and warm?

Nakima is a part of Sikkim’s traditional cuisine. Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

In September and October, the air in Gangtok, the capital city of Sikkim located 1,650 metres above sea level, is slightly nippy and humid. The monsoon is waning — rain lashes down occasionally and temperatures dip to about 18 degrees Centigrade or less. This is not the regular tourist season, and locals get to enjoy their city and its peace and quiet. The weather is also perfect for the growth of nakima, a rare, slightly bitter flower-vegetable.

Come mid-September, and nakima flowers burst forth from plants that grow from rhizomes. The plants grow to a height of two-and-a-half feet and the flowers are found closer to the base. Ideally, this plant grows in a temperate forest at an altitude of 4,000 feet above mean sea level  and above.

Nakima is also popular in Nepal and Bhutan; in the latter, it is often cooked with meat. Research shows that besides being easy-to-cultivate, this plant also has high nutritive (protein and fibre) and therapeutic values, and has the potential to be more popular among end-users.

A study at the Department of Horticulture, Sikkim University, Gangtok, in 2014-15 collected inflorescence from all four districts of Sikkim — East, West, North and South — to see how it ranks on fat, fibre, protein, sugar, Vitamin C, etc. The idea was that knowing its full nutritional profile would help increase production and marketing “in and outside the State of Sikkim”.

Nakima flower which is cooked as a vegetable in Sikkim. Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

Right now, not many people outside of Gangtok know about nakima. Even those living in nearby towns like Kalimpong, Siliguri and Darjeeling and the other sister states of the North East are not really aware of this rare treat, which people willingly pay a huge price for.

This year, the initial crop hit the market in the first week of September with a sale price of Rs 600 a kilogramme (kg). By now, those living in Sikkim, which is India’s first fully organic state since January 2016, know to identify organic produce from hybrid, just by seeing texture, judging weight and checking for the natural fragrance of any produce. Ironically, nakima calls for none of these attributes; you just have to spot it. It does not have any unique aroma or colour; it is just green-purple inflorescence, and looks like asparagus shoots.  Where the magic happens is when one begins to cook it. Blanching removes bitterness and lends a deep purple colour to the flower. The texture of the final output is like something squishy.

Sometime in early October, 1997, nearly a quarter of a century ago, I got introduced to nakima when a family in West Sikkim decided to visit relatives living in Gangtok. As tradition dictated, they brought along some soft fresh churrpi (Himalayan cheese made by curdling curd with citrus juice) — a hardened variety made from yak’s milk goes by the same name too — farm fresh vegetables and a bunch of light green and violet flowers that looked like asparagus shoots — Nakima, the bearer announced, with a smile.

That evening, the family tasted a delicious vegetable that has lost much of its bitterness and taken on a lovely sweet aftertaste, and which paired wonderfully well with warm rice. This was followed by a visit to the Sunday haat at Lal Bazaar, the local vegetable market — these days, the huge Kanchenjunga Complex is where all vegetables are sold. The shopkeepers wondered about the sudden interest in a deeply traditional ingredient used in small pockets of Sikkim. “It grows in the wild and is a pain to harvest. Also, there’s no demand for it here,” informed an old woman at the market. Another insisted it was the food of the underprivileged, and that people would not pay for it.

From 1997 to 2020, a lot has changed. Nakima is sold at a fortune now. Nakima farmer Ashok Limboo from West Sikkim said they waited for the flower to bloom earlier so that they could make more money from selling it. The first flush of inflorescence fetches around Rs 600 a kg in the retail market in the first few weeks, before simmering down to Rs 200 to Rs 300 a kg by October. By the first week of November, nakima is a happy memory and a fond hope for the next year. 

Once grown in the wild, these plants have now been domesticated and grow at an altitude of almost 1,200 metres to 1,500 metres above the mean sea level. Collecting the nakima adds to the cost — people have to head into thick forest and pluck the flowers off the base of the plant. The demand for naturally grown nakima is another reason for the steep prices. While nakima is now grown commercially to supply the burgeoning demand, it tastes best when plucked in the wild and cooked when still fresh.

Nakima. Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

Google ‘nakima’ and you’ll find videos of people walking through green patches to harvest the flower and then cook it either plain or with meat.

Many farmers in the adjoining hills have taken up nakima farming for its high-economic value. It is also said to help maintain blood pressure, though a definitive study has not been conducted.  My middle-aged sister calls it the ‘amrut’ (nectar) of the monsoon when the only vegetables one has access to are varieties of gourd and squash (chayote). It is only with the onset of winter that regular vegetables are back in the market in Gangtok.

Nakima flower-vegetable recipe

Wash and clean the florets and slice the stacks vertically. 

Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

Blanch in  hot water and drain the water. Some prefer retaining this nutrient-rich water for cooking.

Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

Add mustard oil to the kadhai and fry juliennes of onion till translucent. Add diced  garlic and tomato with half a teaspoon of turmeric powder and salt (You could add green chillies or red hot Himalayan cherry peppers too).

Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

The blanched nakima is added to this and cooked till the oil separates. You could either eat this plain or jazz it up with pork or even churrpi and radish.

Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

The next time you are in Sikkim around the onset of winter season, do ask your local host or hotel to prepare this dish. It will mark a departure from binging on momos, which are lovely, but overshadow the other culinary gems of Sikkim.

Pic: Satyadeep S Chhetri

Satyadeep S Chhetri is associate professor with Sikkim Government College. He is an avid quizzer and a science communicator. He is also the governing body member of two non-profits — ECOSS and SAATHI-Sikkim.

SHRINKING GLACIERS OF LADAKH – A CLARION CALL

SHRINKING GLACIERS OF LADAKH – A CLARION CALL

Ladakh is often called an “Arid desert” as it falls in “rain shadow zone”. The main sources of irrigation are perennial rivers with fairly large drainage basins and streams originating from higher contours in funnel shaped valleys with drainage basins/ catchments confined within spurs. While gravity canals taking off from rivers irrigate moderate to low lying land along river valleys, small water channels known as “khul” in revenue parlance taking off from streams irrigate land on higher contours in valley settlements.

Till recent past, Ladakh used to be pollution free and heavy to moderate snowfall through winter ensured availability of water for irrigation as also recharge aquifers and replenish glaciers. Life thus sustained through millennia till global warming due to rapid industrialization and local pollution due to emissions from fossil fuel had a profound effect on the fragile ecosystem of Ladakh leading to receding of snowline, depleting glaciers and drying up of springs. Although the effects are all round, some hard evidence of glaciers receding/ shrinking at an alarming rate would make planners sit up & take notice:

  1. World famous Nun Glacier at Parkachik in Suru valley, Kargil abutting left bank of river Suru have receded by around 500 mtrs and also shrunk in expanse, thus exposing the debris underneath as is evident from Plate -1.
  2. Drung-Drung glacier at watershed of Penzila in vicinity of Kargil-Zanaskar road have receded by at least a km and shrunk in expanse forming a glacial lake and exposing glacial debris as is evident from Plate



    Similarly, glaciers feeding tributaries to river Suru have also receded considerably.
  3. Situation of glacial melting in Leh is more alarming.“Stok khangri” glaciers famous among mountaineers have almost disappeared.
  4. Khardongla at around 18300ft altitude on Leh-Nubra road, where a bridge was laid over a glacier crevasse on Northern side to cross over till a decade ago, is bereft of any glacier and a dusty road at 18000ft is a sign of “coming events cast their shadow before”. At Changla on Leh-Durbuk road, at almost similar altitude to Khardongla, the road passes through glacial debris of what was once under glacier.
  5. A recent study by Kashmir University’s Geo Informatics Dept. revealed that glaciers in J&K are melting at an alarming rate. According to the study, Zanaskar range is losing thickness @ 117 cm per year followed by Ladakh range @ 46 cm per year. Evidently, over the years the snow line has receded considerably, which is a cause of alarm and hence “A Clarion call”.

Meteorological data reveal that rate & spread of snowfall have decreased over the years and average temperature have increased accelerating rate of melting, thus causing gradual depletion & shrinking of glaciers. It also had a profound effect on recharging of underground aquifers, which is noticeable from gradual decrease in flow of streams and springs.

A recent report on “Assessment of climate change over Indian region” by Union Ministry Of Earth Sciences have concluded that Hindukush Himalayas has warmed @ 0.2 degree per decade during last 70 years, leading to decline in snow cover & glaciers.

Signs of springs drying up are evident from recent social media posts by concerned citizens. A resident of Gompa village in upper Leh posted a picture of dried up “Spang” (a lush green patch fed by spring), where animals graze & wanted to know the cause. Indian Express recently published an article on village Kulum near Upshi in Leh district, where villagers, unable to carry out traditional agrarian practices due to drying up of spring, were forced to abandon village due to water scarcity in 2012. They returned only when “Ice Stupa’s” were built to conserve winter flow in shape of ice, providing much needed water at time of sowing. The Article goes on to warn that with increasing average temperature and shrinking glaciers, several villages in Ladakh have imminent danger of turning into ghost towns.

In Leh District scarcity of water for irrigation in near future are likely to be felt mainly in Leh town & villages on higher contours (Pho) located along southern foothills of Khardongla-Changla axis from village Shara to village Umla and beyond. In Kargil district, villages lying between river Indus and Wakha nallah dependent on seasonal snow including Soth area, villages in upper Phokhar-Pho nallah and upper reaches of Kargil Town, to cite a few, face frequent draught when snowfall is less as glaciers feeding these streams have almost vanished. There may be many more villages facing similar situation of water scarcity in both Districts, which may have escaped my notice.

Mitigating measures:

Though there are many brilliant minds in Ladakh, who can suggest better solutions/ alternatives to mitigate adverse effect of global warming & climate change on the fragile ecology of Ladakh, yet I thought it my bounden duty to put forth some suggestions from an Engineers point of view for further discussion amongst all stake holders:-

  1. Engage consulting Glaciologists & Hydrologists of International repute for in depth study of causes, measures to prevent further shrinkage & possible replenishment of glaciers. In Leh Town, study of effect of large number of tube wells at shallow depths drawing water from subterranean flow of Leh nallah & its effect on reduction in surface flow should be carried out through reputed hydrologists. As an interim measure, only deep tube wells drawing water below water table of Indus River should be allowed.
  2. Survey, investigation & feasibility study of potential irrigation projects from perennial sources i.e. rivers for vulnerable villages through dedicated Engineering Divisions in both Districts. In order to bring additional area within command of proposed irrigation project, a combination of gravity canal, reservoir and lift by solar/ Hydro power or vice versa can be thought of to bring additional area under command at lower level to compensate for loss of cultivable land in higher reaches.
  3. In Leh, some potential sites which come to my mind are:- a) A combination of gravity canal & lift by solar/ Hydro power taking off from Indus up steam of Igoo village upto Stakna Head works to cater to lower areas of Sakti & adjacent areas. b) A canal taking off from tail of Stakna Hydel project upto Choglamsar & beyond (This may require short tunnels, aqueducts& siphon) followed by lift across ridge to irrigate lower areas of Leh town. Similar potential sites downstream of Leh town on either side Indus River can be explored.
  4. One of the many causes of depletion of glacier at Khardongla & Changla is due to emission from large volume of traffic plying round the year. The viability of providing a highway tunnel across these passes should be explored to reduce effects of carbon emission.
  5. For villages high up in valleys- both in Leh & Kargil Districts, which remain outside command of proposed irrigation projects taking off water from rivers, the only hope apart from natural intervention would be the concept of artificial glaciers or “Ice Stupas”(Plate-3) conceptualized by SECMOL led by Magsaysay awardee Sh.Sonam Wangchuk, which have given hope to villages facing acute scarcity of water in both Leh & Kargil Districts. However, for this to succeed, UT Administration & LAHDC’s should approve it as “Water conservation project” in water deficit villages to be fully financed by Govt. under MGNREGS or any other scheme.



  6. In water deficit areas of Kargil Snow check dams built in narrow portion of valley in past proved effective to retain snow avalanches, thus increasing the period of melting. These are gravity structures of dry stone masonry in crate wire mesh, which are flexible and easy to maintain. Such avalanche retaining structures can be thought of in valleys where moderate snowfall triggers avalanches.
  7. In Kargil & Zanaskar, there are huge potential of new irrigation schemes on rivers zanaskar, Suru, Drass and its tributaries. All such potential sites should be surveyed for feasibility and a shelf of DPR’s is prepared for taking up as per priority. To bring land on higher contours under irrigation, a combination of gravity canal & lift irrigation by solar/ hydro power pumps can be explored.

Conclusion

History is replete with instances where civilizations have thrived on dependable irrigation system and also of civilizations, which perished only because of failed irrigation systems – be it natural or manmade. It is an irony that although Ladakh & particularly Leh District have vast tracks of barren land on either side of river Indus, yet only a fraction of this natural resource has been utilized for irrigation. One of the reasons for this could be economic prosperity, which tourism brought to the region in last three decades. However, the recent pandemic has proved how fragile this economic prosperity is. Also, with a large number of educated youth competing for a limited number of jobs, the prospect of employment to all appears bleak. Here, I’m reminded of an ancient Ladakhi proverb, “Mee boubs na saa hRthan”; roughly meaning – “draw sustenance from land, when other means is beyond endurance.” It is therefore incumbent on all stake holders to reflect and strive to harness sustainable livelihood from natural resources of “Water, land & sun”.

The upside of rise in temperature has increased the prospects of diversification in cultivation by way of organic cash crops like variety of vegetables & fruits. Coupled with mechanised farming & introduction of Atmospheric Controlled Storage, farming as a profession can be economically viable and is likely to attract educated youth. It is high time that UT administration, LAHDC’s Leh & Kargil, planners and civil society come together to make tangible efforts to address the long term effect of climate change on irrigation prospects and think of out of box solutions to not only protect the existing irrigated land, but also create additional potential of irrigable land. The additional resources made available to UT are best utilized to harness natural resources of Ladakh for sustainable development.

Er. Nazir Ahmad is Member (Hon) J&K Environment Impact Assessment Authority,
(Formerly State Information Commissioner/ Chief Engineer (Rtd) PWD J&K)

Plastic crisis in the mountains: Will extended producer responsibility bring in change

Plastic crisis in the mountains: Will extended producer responsibility bring in change

EPR initiatives so far have been few and far, and in no way keeping up with the levels of plastic pollution they cause  

By: Priyadarshinee Shrestha (WWF-India in Sikkim) & Roshan Rai (DLR -Prerna, Darjeeling)

Plastic crisis in the mountains 01

Neatly stacked in trucks comprising layers of plastic — that’s how waste travels to the mountains. These are piles of of plastic bottles of fizzy drinks, multi-layered boxes of fruit drinks, shiny packets of chips, biscuits and instant noodle — puffed up in excess sugar and salt laden with fat and preservatives.

Biscuits sit pretty in trays and there are tiny sachets of personal and household care items — all of which ultimately end up littering our mountain landscapes endlessly.

More than 40 per cent of all plastics are made into single-use products in India. Companies are only creating trash with them, and that’s what we, as consumers, are ultimately paying for. This is the reason our landfills are exploding; our dumpsites are burning more than ever and our waterways are more choked with plastic pollution.

It is clear that the recycling and dustbin narrative to manage plastic waste is not sufficient. We live in the times of plastic crisis.

The flawed linear production system that has resulted in plastic pollution should ring alarm bells, but to the contrary, single-use products and use of unnecessary plastic packaging have only escalated over the years without question, and is projected to still rise.

For mountains already grappling with issues of climate change, it spells disaster and the scars of plastic pollution are already visible.

The Himalayan Cleanup (THC), an annual event organised by Integrated Mountain Initiative and Zero Waste Himalaya that takes place across the 12 Himalayan states on a single day, has revealed that plastics in the mountains has become all pervasive.

THC 2018 revealed that 97 per cent of the trash collected was plastic; the results in 2019 were also similar. This exponential rise in plastic use can lead to irreversible damage to mountain ecosystems.

If life in the mountains, the biodiversity and ecological values are to be conserved, the one-way flow of plastics into the mountains has got to be re-evaluated and reversed.

The much-awaited change in narrative on waste came through with the extended producer responsibility (EPR) under the Plastic Waste Management Rules of 2016, which sought to pin the responsibility of plastic waste on the producers. It even had a clause of phasing out MLP by 2018, which unfortunately got lobbied out in the amendment of 2018.

Plastic crisis in the mountains02

MLP collected during a cleanup drive in Darjeeling. Photo: Roshan Rai

It is a tool to make producer companies become conscious of the environmental consequences of their production systems and products, and push them to start cleaning up their act. Local authorities and communities on whom the sole responsibility for waste has rested so far also get additional support.

But so far, EPR initiatives of corporations have been few and far, and in no way are matching the levels of plastic pollution they cause.

EPR needs to respond to the plastic crisis by closing the tap on plastic pollution at source. It is now irrefutable that production systems have to be made responsible and sustainable through designing out of single use products and a rethink on material choices has to be expedited, which should be the vision of extended producer responsibility.

In its current form, the draft uniform framework put up for comments by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) seems more like an industry-led effort that is simply advancing the pay and pollute principle for companies.

A much-concerted effort is required to set true goals for EPR centered around sustainable production choices, and to get companies to align towards the fulfillment of this goal.

Low value, non-recyclable plastics that ultimately end up in the landfills should be disincentivised and companies should invest in looking at sustainable products and delivery systems.

Mountains carry their own burdens of managing waste. There are extra costs at every step of the process — from collection to recovery to transportation. Low volumes of recyclables that have to be aggregated from scattered locations do not make economic sense in the mountains, with the result that much of it is not recovered.

A large part of plastics flooding the mountains are also mostly of packaged food items that are non-recyclable in nature. While the widespread pollution caused by these plastics is visible to the eye, what is not seen or studied is the impact on food habits of mountain communities that have occurred over time.

The increasing challenges of empty calories and nutritional insecurity that these products are bringing into communities cannot be ignored.

The Uniform EPR framework, which is currently envisioned as geography neutral, disregards all socio-ecological specificities that mountain regions have. Without special attention given to mountain states vis-a-vis the extra costs of managing their waste, the EPR framework leaves them in a seriously disadvantageous position.

The plastic credits system proposed has only specifications for recycling targets for companies; geographical parameters are not set. With the existing challenges of plastic recovery due to access and volumes, mountains may not be a priority for companies, unless specifically mandated as a high focus area under the EPR Framework.

Moreover, allowing companies to draw credits for burning or ‘energy recovery’ of their plastic waste through waste-to-energy, plastic roads, etc, is a highly counterproductive process and simply not feasible for the mountains.

Plastic pollution in the mountains will not end anytime soon unless provisions in the EPR framework compel producers to look at mountains with a special lens. One that considers the socio-ecological fragility and ecosystem services that the mountains provide.

The waste that travels up the mountains by the truckloads also needs to find its way down the same path, or even better, still not produced at all.

Remembering the Mountain Stalwart: Dr. R.S.Tolia

Remembering the Mountain Stalwart: Dr. R.S.Tolia

It is with great sadness that we learned of the passing of Dr R.S. Tolia, our beloved and esteemed elder, leader and founder President of the Integrated Mountain Initiative (IMI). On behalf of all mountain communities of India and the IMI, we send our deepest condolences to Dr Tolia’s family at this difficult time. The mountain community mourns with you and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable “mountain of a man” who devoted his life to furthering the cause of mountain people and “making the people of India proud of its mountains.”

rstoliaPassion and energy, amongst many others, were the traits he showed in all he did. His energy and life-long dedication to improve the lives and livelihoods of mountain people will continue to inspire generations of young mountain people in India and around the world.

There are few people who have had such a profound impact on the future direction of mountain development than, Dr Tolia. His leadership, vision and commitment for the formation of a pan-Indian mountain movement not only unified diverse mountain states of India but also inspired many others. His deep understanding of the link between human resources and the quality of the natural mountain environment undoubtedly influenced a generation of researchers, organizations and policymakers. It is a tribute to his passionate determination that so many us feel such a deep sense of loss at his passing.

Perhaps because he was always advocating for something better, he may not have stopped often enough to reflect on how he had successfully pushed the mountain agenda in India. But as he passes from this life, those of us who are left behind can see all that he achieved.

Together with many others, the mountain community of India has lost a powerful force for the mountains. He will remain a source of inspiration for all those who, on the Indian Himalayas and beyond, fight for the same values and the same causes. We have indeed lost a true hero.

Rest in peace Dr Tolia. A great man, an inspiration for many, a magnificent visionary and embodiment of courage.

Tourism, Tea, Tussar-silk and Tournament

Tourism, Tea, Tussar-silk and Tournament

Munsyari. In a normal year the month of May, in these parts of the state, is not much different from the preceding post summer months except the high-mountain dwellers readying themselves to migrate upwards, to their ancestral villagers. For the past couple of years the activities have somewhat been altered in the sense that the extraction of Keera-jari ( Cordyseps sinensis ) has added an altogether new source of rural livelihoods, never thought of earlier. This new economic activity has certainly changed the way our remotest villages, just nudging the snow-line, have begun to be perceived – high-land Eldorados ! The jury, as they say, is still out on whether this kind of human-pressure, which brings in not only a far larger number of up-land inhabitants to an hitherto pristine landscape, but even hired labourers engaged by the traders in these kinds of high-value ‘environmental- products ’. While very one strongly feels the need for a package of ‘good collection practices’ for such new high-mountain products, till date our Forest officials have progressed to a stage which has been termed ‘consultations on draft regulations’ ! One wonders at the sheer tenacity of our civil services who continue to practice, what may be termed, the strategy not to act till its back touches the proverbial Wall of crisis! Incidentally, the operating GO, as the existing Working Plan of the Pithoragarh Forest Division would show, was issued during the incumbency of this writer, way back in 2005 !

Lessons of Tourism Types

Tourism Tea Tussar silk and Tournament01

The state is yet to recover fully from the after-effects of the disastrous experience of Kedarnath tragedy of June 2013, in which officially more than 6,000 tourists sacrificed their lives and the un-accounted ones shall always be left to the imagination of the eye-witnesses or the experts. While the state government ought to be given full marks for the seriousness with which the affected site, region and the families, both insiders and incomers, were handled and consoled, several lessons are yet to be even properly analysed and transferred into the realm of policy-decisions e.g. regional development, road and regulation of tourism, of all kinds. One thing is certain, for some years to come, religious and summer-month tourism in the mountain regions, shall now always have a caution point, namely, the Kedarnath Experience, whatever it may mean to the recipients!

Treks of the Year or May Mayhems

Tourism Tea Tussar silk and Tournament02One patently wrong lesson that seems to have been received by the official proponents of tourism in the state, the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board and its affiliates, the Kumaon and Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigams, KMVN and GMVN, in brief, is to somehow increase the flow of tourists to prove that the Kedarnath Effect is no more visible and Uttarakhand is ready to receive all incomers. This writer has already done one piece in the Garhwal Post, entitled Khalia Top: How Not to Develop Tourism. This is a major Wrong Lesson learned, post Kedarnath 2013, and there has to be a Case Study undertaken on two such Treks of the Year, organized by the Youth Hostel Association of India in active collaboration with our Tourism Development Board. The details of these two so called Treks of the Year, first at Dayara Bugyal in Garhwal and now, the Khalia Top, in Munsyari block, are under close scrutiny via the RTI route and shall soon be made public and taken up with the Organizers, their Governing Bodies as well as the authorities who should have responded quickly, as they were responsible and were expected to have responded, when officially intimated of the great damage these have caused to the highly fragile ecological landscape. The main lesson, in brief is- Uttarakhand does need to welcome all incoming visitors but NOT AT THE COST OF ITS FRAGILE ECOLOGY! More on it, when the Case Studies are completed.

Thank You K.S. Valdiya & Co

Tourism Tea Tussar silk and Tournament03Then there are other kinds of tourism one has heard of. First, is what Robert Chambers called ‘Rural Tourism’, a variant of which we all were a witness to during our UP Hills days, when much planning went into taking the ‘Baba-logs’ on a trip to the Hills, to beat the sweltering heat in the plains on the one hand and justify touring in the ‘remote rural and hill regions’, on the other. Many careers were made and un-made depending on how the ‘accompanying family members’ of the officers touring the Hill districts rated the arrangements (‘bandobast’ of the old colonial days). Verily, of late, when Uttarakhand has started sharing its development trajectory with the other Hill States and the NE States, memories of these wistful ‘summer tours in Hills ‘ has been re-named as a kind of ‘internal colonialism’ by some observers ( Jack Ives and Bruno Misserli ), exercised by the mainland on the peripheral ‘mountain regions’. Many believe that not much has changed, even after 15 years of separation, when one finds district officials, even in the eight mountain districts hardly budging from their headquarters – leave aside our senior officers seated at Dehra Dun Secretariat. This writer tends to agree with this perception, when he finds district officials seen in newspapers, just before and after a VIP o VVTP visit only, hardly ever finding other occasion to meet the local people, or visiting remote mountain villages, on their own volition.

However, this period has encouraged a most welcome kind of tourism, which most of us who have voluntarily decided to stay-back in our ancestral moorings. Its healthiest version has been pioneered by one of our most distinguished scientist, Professor K.S. Valdiya. Prof Validya, for the last seven years or so has led execution of Science Extension project, which ensures he personally encouraging few of the most eminent scientists drawn from the country ( not necessarily those who hail from the state itself ) visiting some of the remotest educational institutions in the state, most located in the border districts of Pithoragarh, Chamoli and Uttar Kashi, and interact with the secondary school level children, through their easy-to-understand lectures and presentations, followed by counselling. On the 16th May the students and teachers of Government Inter College Munsyari had a four sessions-long such an scientific workshop, consisting of highly interesting presentations on Himalayan Geology, Bio-Technology, Space Application and Chemistry, by Professors Valdiya, from  JLN Centre for Science Bangluru, BD Lakhchura, from Kumaon University, Kaman Singh Kathait from Lucknow and SS Valdiya from Ahmedabad. The students and teachers alike gained tremendously from this life-changing interface, for many of them. Later, there was a joint request from the participants to get so systematised that there are at least two rounds of these, every year. One wonders why such sessions with our younger generation, including the generation of teachers, cannot be organized, more frequently and in a more systematic manner! Hosted by UGVS, Gangolihat, the anchors or co-anchors could easily be our GICs and GGICs.

Tea and Tussar-silk

Tourism Tea Tussar silk and Tournament04Going by the impression that this writer received from his friends circle that exists in most of the other mountain states of India, the month of May saw Uttarakhand hogging the nation’s attention, for all the wrong reasons! Many, old colleagues from his parent cadre of UP even reminded this writer that they had always believed that this was bound to happen –  only our politicians’ cadre outsmarted even the most cynical critic of the separation of the state from UP. Be that as it may, everyone expected ‘development’ to take a back-seat and going by the coverage that was hogged by all the phases of the unsavoury stages of the Uttarakhand Political Saga, superficially it seemed, that these critics of separation, indeed have had the proverbial last laugh. As this writer is also a strong votary of a independent and autonomous Uttarakhand state had occasion to celebrate introduction of cultivation of tea in these remote regions. As he himself had been in the forefront of its re-introduction in his Hill Secretary days, he was happy to be told by Desmond Brickbat of commencement of a 100 Nali tea-nursery in nearby Ranthi village, with an ultimate objective of covering 200 hectares or 10,000 nalis or organic tea, in the sloping Munsyari watershed. A big welcome to Organic Tea finally in Munsyari, success of which is almost as certain as the sun-rise behind Pancha-chuli peaks, tomorrow morning. This development alone is adequate enough to compensate the despondency that has been spread around by our die-hard politician friends. Today, Uttarakhand boasts of some 900 hectares alone of the best Darjeeling brand of Organic tea cultivation, not a small achievement, by any standard. To improve the sense of cheer brought about the commencement of tea-cultivation age in Munsyari, only the other day this writer came across a successful second year of Tussar – cultivation, by some 15 silk-rears, right in the middle of the Tiksen market, the hub-centre of the small city, which Munsyari is not ! Like Uttarakhand, the climate and biodiversity of the block is amenable for both kinds of sericulture, mulberry-based as well as non-mulberry, or Oak-kind. The discussion with these die-hard development enthusiasts has assured this writer that Uttarakhand still has a tremendous reservoir of die-hard believers, who will take Uttarakhand to its destiny, notwithstanding the deeds or mis-deeds of our political masters.

Kicking up Worldy Worries

This writer has just returned from a half-day long meeting of the Johar Club, a Sporting Club that only last year held the Diamond Jubilee Football Tournament, which was concluded by the local MLA, who also happens to be the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand, Harish Rawat.  During the three-hour long discussions held in the Johar Club almost everything under the sun, sports-wise, was discussed, including a ten-year plan to take the sports activities forward in the region, except of course the ‘dirty-p   olitics’, as someone quipped. Where will this increasing cynicism about the political maturity and sagacity of our politicians, which everyone expected in a supposedly more civilized and educated state, take the state were the most dominant thoughts that occupied the thoughts of this writer, as he walked back towards his residence, returning from the Johar Club Tournament meeting ? May be, remaining most distant from the political hub-centre of the state, is not always disadvantageous or so it appears. All the day to day worldly worries seem to go up in the air, kicked up like a football during the ensuing Tournament. So, to the proceedings of the forthcoming 61st edition of the Football Tournament, the residents of this remote region look forward to – and not towards the opaque proceedings of our going-muddier-by-the-day political wrestling bouts in which our proficient players seem to be fully engaged in.

  • R. S. Tolia reflects on some developments that took place in May 2016 as seen from Munsyari and how our remote mountain regions look at the proceedings of comparatively more ‘developed’ regions of the state. His other writings can be accessed at rstolia.in.
Khalia Top : Remembering Justice Ravi Dhawan

Khalia Top : Remembering Justice Ravi Dhawan

Munsyari.  The piece that appeared on Khalia Top, the Water Tower that feeds all the villages on either side of this pivotal Reserve Forest Block, of Munsyari Block  in Garhwal Post ( Khalia Top: How Not to  Develop Tourism , 29th Apl, 2016 ) besides eliciting several messages of deep concern about indiscriminate promotion of “ mass-tourism’ in ecologically sensitive regions, particularly Uttarakhand’s pristine meadows ( Bugyals, in local parlance ) it has also raised issues which have now become far more relevant, post- recent Forest-Fires that engulfed and destroyed hundreds of hectares of forests, destroyed and created threatening situation for the rare fauna ( April-May, 2016 ), issues that had been forgotten and buried in short human-memory.

Landmark Judgement on Chopta Bugyal Case (  Oct, 1996 )

This also revived this writer’s first meeting with Justice Ravi S Dhawan, as the Presiding Judge, of a two-member Bench of Allahabad High Court, which passed a land-mark judgement, ordering pulling down of a pre-fabricated hut which had been constructed on the famous Chopta Bugyal, in Chamoli (Om Prakash Bhatt & Others vrs State of UP and Others, passed on 28 October, 1996 ). Arguably, this is the first ever case that expressed serious concerns of several issues, besides preservation of our precious meadows ( Bugyals ), like the growing problem of non-degradable solid waste being deposited by our trekkers, the problem compounding the long term sustainability of our mountain destinations, resultant problems that are faced by the host-regions, where such trekking get organized. Before Justice Ravi Dhawans services to this State are recalled let me share the most stunning revelation, that two SLPs that were filed by the then UP Government, were summarily rejected by the Supreme Court of India ( scanned copy attached ) ! Does it means that the Final Orders on how to regulate Tourism in Bugyals like Chopta, Khalia Top are not only still operative, but the earlier Trek of The Year organized by the Youth Hostel Association of India in collaboration with GMVN, was a possibly a clear case of violation of High Court’s Orders of 28 October, 1996, and the Khalia Top a continuing contempt of those Orders ! This remains to be examined primarily by the GMVN and KMVN and the Govt of Uttarakhand.

The Chopta Bugyal Case : Issues at stake

As the People of Uttarakhand,  most unfortunately so, have not had an occasion to pay their grateful tributes to a distinguished Judge, who has had has his early schooling in these parts only and thus became like a naturalized son of the soil, and who has to his credit innumerable instances of returning his genuine love and affection for the people of Uttarakhand through his several landmark Judicial pronouncements, this writer would like to avail this opportunity of remembering him, recalling thorough his two contributions. First, of course, is his Judicial Orders, heading a two-member Bench, in the land mark case Om Prakash Bhatt & Others vrs State of UP & Others, pronounced on 28th October, 1996 (  Citation AIR 1997 AA 259 ). The second, his Nain Singh Memorial Lecture, entitled Ecology of the Himalayas : A Lost Heritage and Disappearing Culture, delivered on 26th June, 1997, at the UP Academy of Administration, Naini Tal. Both these documents establish beyond any iota of doubt, that indeed he was the first and original Green Judge, as he was popularly known in the legal circles – which this writer personally witnessed when he got an opportunity to appear in his Court Room, as the then Kumaon Commissioner, and later soon after, in his Chambers, at his personal request.

In brief, the Allahabad High Court Bench, headed by Justice Ravi S Dhawan, while passing final  orders and ordering Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam ( GMVN ) to ensure its compliance by removing the disputed “pre-fabricated lodging houses as a hotel for tourists on the slopes of a Bugyal.. below the peak of Tungnath temple, at Chopta.” In passing, Justice Dhawan, covered a whole range of issues, that all of us see now as a routine, which are not only eye-sores but now a major health-hazard, destroyer and Enemy Number One of not only Uttarakhand Himalayas, but almost everywhere. These included:

( i )  construction of commercial building in Bugyals and reserve forest areas,

( ii ) indiscriminate import of plastic and non-bio-degradable material, playing havoc with the ecology and environment of the hills,

( iii ) the above, causing disappearance of little streams and water sources on which hill people rely upon.. and which kills green life on the slopes of mountains,

( iv ) tourist and trekking pilgrimage routes … trekkers devoid of civic sense .. throw non bio-degradable materials on the slopes … mountain routes are being littered,

( v ) commercial activities, like kiosks and tea-shops at places where they ought not to be.. have been encouraged by the State administration,

( vi ) the ‘warming up’ phenomenon

Justice Dhawan took strongly objected to the defence mounted by Chairman GMVN and Director Tourism for not shifting the pre-fab huts in question, on the ground that the disputed complex was constructed with the Government of India funds and after obtaining due clearance from the Governments of UP and India. He painfully observed:

“Merely because money has been spent is no ground,” he added, “ to degrade ecology and environment.” Quoting Supreme Court rulings, which had held that “such violations were illegalities which were not curable…The violations of environment cannot continue and upsetting an ecological balance will be judged with even more strict standards” Justice Dhawan categorically ruled that “money has been spent by Nigam ( GMVN )  on putting pre-fabricated structures and tents on the Bugyals was a misplaced expenditure..clearly, putting a tourist lodging house on a Bugyal was a mistake..the Bugyal belongs to the people .. Nature has tailored it. It is not for man to erode the sanctity of this area.”.

The 19 paragraph long judgement deserves to be included as a reading material in all educational institutions, training institutions, and its copies particularly deserves to be distributed among all those who are anxious to promote tourism in treks like the Khalia Top, Bhujani, Phalyati, Thala Gwar, Hiramani etc, after having accounted for Dyara Bugyal, not heeding what Justice Dhawan’s bench ordered, so emphatically, way back in October, 1996 ! As this writer wondered, whether this Order has subsequently not been up-turned, by a subsequent Court pronouncement, he has been informed, that twice the then UP Govt went up with Special Leave Petitions before the Supreme Court of India, and these have been dismissed ! Now, as RTI application has already been filed by this writer, as the Garhwal Post article, seems to have been taken not very seriously by all those, who should have been better counselled, the matter rests, with the Government of Uttarakhand, and all those, who may have become, wittingly or unwittingly, clear contemners of this land –mark Judgement of 1997, which certainly will be taken to the fence.

This writer, as Kumaon Commissioner accompanied with Subhash Kumar, the  Garhwal Commissioner, who had very deftly pushed ‘ his senior and esteemed colleague ( this writer ) to share what all was being attempted in Kumaon, in tune with what the esteemed Court had been stressing, during the earlier hearings’. As Kumaon Commissioner this writer spent considerable time explaining how a Master Plan for the Naini Tal Lake Authority Area had been prepared ( a printed copy was submitted during the hearing ) and pains that have been taken to achieve this major task ( incidently, the existing Naini Tal Master Plan, a continuation of the same Master Plan, that shifted the burden of the CDO Offices to the Bhim Tal Lake area- which caused no small irritation among the trading classes of the lake city. The CDO offices were housed in the Old Secretariat, which afterwards housed the Naini Tal High Court ! )

Vast Learning, Acknowledging Help

On his request, the two of us, Shubhash Kumar and this writer, went to his Chambers, for a cup of tea, as he had offered. We found him sitting, with a table in his front, and as a quick glance showed, it consisted of all old issues of PAHAR, and majority of my personal publications on Kumaon-Garhwal, and Nain Singh ! “ I have read”, he pointed out to the stack of neatly arranged books, “ each of these, cover to cover ! ”. Later, at the office of the Chief Standing Counsel, who handled this matter, there was quite a crowd, who wished to meet the two Commissioners, who had appeared in this case. We learnt that the word had got round the High Court that it was a record hearing, as for the first time Justice Dhawan had patiently heard two officials, without interrupting them even once ! Justice Dhawan, we learned later, was a terror and when the issues related to any environment related issue – better counsel was, be patient and do the bidding! The milling crowd, shaking our hands, consisted of curious lawyers.

Needless to say, we became good friends, he would always address this writer, just as “Raghu”, both while speaking on phone or while writing a personal letter. His wife Belinda, a Fulbright Scholar, became our family-friend, often consulting my collection of books and material on Nain Singh, on which she wished to write herself, taking down notes, in our UP Academy Residence, at Ardwell Camp, while Manju offered her coffee and snacks. Justice Dhawan, would often tweak my administrative history back-ground, when writing judgements on issues like Nazul lands. He would most obligingly quote the assistance this writer was able to afford him and he would most graciously acknowledge the assistance in his Judgements, quite like he did, acknowledging the assistance that was offered by the then two Commissioner, as also the counsel  appearing on behalf of the petitioner, then advocate Sudhanshu Dhulia.

This writer recalls, how when once the then Law Secretary of UP rang up this writer asking for one book which had been quoted as edited by him ( this writer ), in the Judgement on Nazul Land decided by him. After checking it this writer informed the Law Secretary, that it was a rare book that this writer had reprinted, under an Academy Re-print Series, which Justice Dhawan had first read in the Academy, where he had stayed as a personal guest, and later quoted in his Judgement. This writer informed the Law Secretary, it was a book that had been published by his predecessor in office only, of course, well 100 years ago ! The kind of due-diligence that Justice Ravi Dhawan excelled in is so rare these days, and no wonder, the counsels appearing before him, had better be well prepared – which we experienced that day in the Allahabad High Court.

Lost Heritage and Disappearing Culture

Recalling his memory this writer went though once more through his Nain Singh Memorial Lecture, that he delivered, in absence of this writer, however, at specific request conveyed through Prof Ajay S. Rawat, another member of his close circle of ‘Pahari – friends’, as he called it. It was quite common to find Justice Ravi Dhawan and Belinda Dhawan attending various functions organized either by PAHAR or say, UP Academy of Administration, at Naini Tal. Justice Dhawan had started his career as a lawyer in 1965 at Allahabad, as the introduction to the printed speech he delivered reads, ( 26 June , 1997 ), “ after three decades as a practicing lawyer he was invited to occupy one of the highest judicial positions in Uttar Pradesh, as Justice of the Allahabad High Court.”  As a Judge he achieved a double distinction of being a Green Activist for combating problems relating to environment and urban planning. Those who may be familiar with the demolition order of Horticulture Complex in the only Green Alfred Park of Allahabad would recall that he was equally against encroachment in ‘public spaces’, which he held ‘belonged to the people’. Indeed, he was a ‘Peoples’ Judge, as much as a Green Judge’. His Judgements on protecting the environment of UP Hills as well as championing the cause of marginalized Hill-people, via compensations awarded to the victims of the atrocities committed against the Uttarakhand Activists at Muzzaffarnagar are both considered, landmark cases.  His Judgement awarding compensations to the activists detained in remote jails of Ballia and other eastern UP Jails, introduced the concept of Torts, in UP judicial history. This writer, and Subhash Kumar, as the then Divisional Commissioners, were privy to how zealously he guarded the privacy of certain victims, in these cases. Later, when he was heading the Patna High Court, as its Chief Justice, he shared with this writer not only the proceedings of these cases ( Rampur Tiraha, Muzzafarnagar ), as these appeared in major news papers but also certain personal copies of very sensitive documents. Perhaps he considered this writer, safer than other official vaults, as no such stores are sensitive to human sensibilities.

Nuggets of Judicial Wisdom & Sensibilities

The Nain Singh Memorial Lecture delivered by him, as one reads it once more, reveals how deeply felt for these pristine meadows, Bugyals and how deeply he felt about the people, when they have to take recourse to migration from their homes, due to circumstance beyond their control. There could be no better tribute to one of the most distinguished well-wisher of mountains and mountain-people, than just to quote, what he said delivering that memorable Address nearly two decades ago. While his Nain Singh Memorial Lectures deserves to be read, again and again, by young and old alike, some of his nuggets of wisdom, deserve to be marvelled at, considering that the address was delivered almost two decades ago !

On Border Villages

What happened to these hamlets or villages, for example to name a few, Milum. Burfu, Tola and Martoli ? After the winter War with China, in 1962, the border into Tibet was closed and sealed. The beginning of the end of these villages had been laid.

On Environment Protection

Now, more and more the tendency has been to leave environment protection to the courts. But, does this work ? I can say with certainty not very well in the State of Uttar Pradesh ( UP Hills then was in UP ). Wrongful occupation of lands protected for conforming uses ( parks, sanctuaries, reserved forests, banks of lakes and streams, pasture lands and meadows ) finds the State, its departments and its agencies litigating to defend irregular grants and licences – a building within a Park ( alluding to the Alfred Pak case), a hotel which may slide into a lake ( a Naini Tal case ) and a motel on the slopes of an alpine meadow, ordained by nature as pasture for sheep ( referring to the Chopta Bugyal  case )

On ‘Selling Tourist Destinations’ ( a la Khalia Top today )

The public sector organisations of the State of UP, taking care of tourism, I am given to understand is beginning to sell the Johar valley, as a destination, is inviting private investors to open hotels/motels to attract tourist. O far Kumaon has been lucky that the Kumaon Mandal Vikas Nigam has not been as active as Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam –so far Kumaon has seen less of the kind of ‘development’ –if I may use the expression –that would turn every town to a Naini Tal or Mussoorie. May be there is still a chance for the people of Kumaon to exert some control over the pollution forced upon them … In environment and ecological matters, disregard of court orders is the rule- not the exception ( how prophetic, see Dayara Bugyal Trekking, see Khalia Top !)

On Creating a Critical Mass

The only hope for saving the Himalayan ecology would be a critical mass of all four factors; Bureaucrats sensitized to the issue, Response Courts, Strong Laws and Public awareness of the need to protect

On Change in bureaucratic and the legal public justice set up

At the grass root level the public justice system prevalent in the hills cannot be the one that functions in the plains.. what is needed is…a system of administration or a public justice system not tailored for the convenience of the officials, lawyers or the judges, but oriented to respond and intertwined with the life and the problems of the people of the hills.

On a litigation-free society

In these areas of the hills, the people are not litigation minded. Even in Naini Tal, the statistics show that cases from the hills are only 30% the rest are the disputes are from the Turai of the district. In Munsyari, the pending civil cases are none, zero – when I inspected the Court there and only 10 petty criminal cases had been registered by the police in the year. The same trend was there of a litigation free society when my father visited the area as an administrative judge in the sixties. What does this tell you of the nature of the people of this area ?

On Why Spare the Bugyals  ?

Life in these parts is enmeshed with the tiller and reaper of the short harvest off the terraced field, the herdsmen grazing sheep primarily and the horsemen who are professional breeders. These are professional herdsmen who look after, and for hire or reward, arrange grazing for others, Sheep on high altitude are the rapid haulage system of goods and merchandize. Each sheep or mountain goat carries a 5 kg load. A flock of 500 transports 2500 kg irrespective of the altitude, at the rate of 3kms per hour. The sheep grazers will share the off-spring while they tend to the flocks of others. They move up and down with the snow-line, finding pastures which nature has readily provided.

Here comes the understanding as to whom these Bugyals really belong, just listen to Justice Dhawan: “  I was told by these grazers at the high altitude many years ago, before the Turai region had been occupied with settlers, during the winter the flocks of the mountain goats and the sheep were taken down to the Turai regions. This is not possible today…today in the Turai there is theft of their animals ( a fact unheard of  at the high altitudes and deep in the mountain valleys). Every petty official in the area, if the Turai is visited for grazing, demands a huk or dastoori of a goat or a sheep frequently. Thus on this pinching, they are constrained to avoid Turai and remain on the mountains low or high depending on the shifting snow-line between summer and winter. This increases pressure on the mountain meadows. This ” concludes Justice Dhawan, “ is living example of  manmade factors which are affecting the ecological balance. And, to crown it all the administration, basically trained for the plains and unmindful and insensitive to the ecology of the hills is with belligerence attempting to establish five star hotels and motels on the Bugyals of Kumaon and Garhwal, the only grazing grounds left for the sheep and the mountain goats – the shepherd is part and parcel of this ecosystem. Terrorizing the shepherd to get off from the Bugyal, tailored  by nature for his flock and him with the backing of an armed constabulary to make way for a hotel, is the negation of the natural and human mountain ecology.”  

Real Tribute to Justice Dhawan

Many of his close friends and admirers, including this writer, shall never be able to live down the fact that after creation of Uttarakhand we have miserably failed to pay our deepest gratitude for what he has done to protect its ecology and environment, empathetic treatment and financial relief to the hundreds of Uttarkhand State activists who were detained in inaccessible eastern UP jails in open denial of basic human rights, Muzzafarnagar atrocities victims, particularly innocent women agitators, and so on. Saving the high altitude Himalayan Bugyals, and habitats, from mindless “ mass-trekking “ organized again, by State Tourism agencies like KMVN and GMVN, now supported by bigger agencies like the Uttarakhand Tourism Development Board, in open collusion with the Tourism Development Associations, like The Youth Hostel Association of India, that have absolutely no regard either of what incalculable harm they are doing to the sensitive Himalayan ecology but also the livelihoods of the most vulnerable sections of the poorest sections of the hill society, would be the real tribute to this great Environmentalist Judge – Justice Ravi Dhawan.  

  • R.S. Tolia has already filed an RTI application seeking details of the Khalia Top: trekking of the Year 2016 in preparation of taking this flagrant devastation of Himalayan Bugyals. Join Save the Bugyals Movement, as a real tribute to the late beloved Justice Ravi S Dhawan, in your own way.
Forest – Fires of Uttarakhand

Forest – Fires of Uttarakhand

Munsyari.  As the official ‘ Fire Season ’ crosses the half-way mark, with increasing number of both sites and affected area under forest-fires mounting unabated ultimately forcing Forest Minister Prakash Javadekar to come out in defence of on-going officials efforts, suggesting that the losses suffered in resultant reduced ‘carbon sink’ is unlikely to adversely affect the Indian commitment re-iterated recently on the Earth Day, and earlier at the Paris COP meet. Be that as it may, it is quite on the cards that this Fire-Season is going to be the most disastrous from the point of view of losses due to Forest-Fires, even since the state came on its very own ( 2000 – 2015 ), and this certainly calls for an in-depth examination and analysis of how Uttarakhand’s has improved its Forest-Fire management regime during this period ? The very first question that deserves to be examined is – are Forest –Fires something which is not only inevitable but bound to be further aggravated as our engagement with the phenomenon called ‘Climate Change’ enter a more critical phase ? Further, how far is the Forestry bureaucracy responsible for perpetuating some of ‘myths’ that one has been hearing, like ( i ) almost all fires in forests are man-made, only motives are varied ( Sanjay Gubbi ), ( ii ) Forests Rights Act, 2006 are a death-knell to Indian Forests ( Shyam Sunder & Parmeshwarappa ), ( iii ) Forest –fires are handiwork of Timber-mafia, and so on ?

Forest Fires of Uttarakhand 01

Additional Issues Deserving Examination

This time over this deeper analysis must be undertaken in conjunction with several other added queries, some of these are clearly, ( i ) to what extent continuation of a few un-scientific, or at least scientifically untenable unilateral and ad-hoc policy decisions like ‘banning of all green -felling above 1,000 m asl‘ despite their proven untenability’ have contributed to the gravity of the disaster, ( ii ) how seriously forest-fires have been taken both at the State-level and at the district-level, as an integral and important ‘disaster risk reduction’ in our revised State Disaster Management Plan and, like all other disasters, are forest-fires taken as a joint –responsibility of the state disaster risk reduction architecture, than just a responsibility of the Forest Department alone, and ( iii ) to what extent peoples’ participation is ensured through a forest-fire preparedness exercise in close collaboration with now more than 12,000 Van Panchayats, long advocated as the principal players of any such protective measure ? Besides these, what follow-up action has really been taken up on the recommendations made by Uttarakhand –specific recommendations like the Khosla Committee that was constituted in the aftermath of the immediate past worst known Forest Fires in 1995 ?

A Major Failure of Forestry Discipline

“Acceptance of forest fires as a natural and unavoidable phenomenon”, claim Shyam Sunder and Parmeswarappa, two senior Indian Foresters in their recently published book, “ is one of the major failures of the forestry sector in India in the post colonial period ( Forest Conservation Concerns in India, Bishen Singh MP Singh, 2014, p. 205 ). Strongly countering the oft-repeated alibi, during the worst-times like the present one, they on the other hand aver that ‘one of the main reasons for the reservation of forests, commenced in 1860s, was to save the forests from fire !’ Brandis, the Father of Forestry in India, was indeed proud to assert, in his monumental description of Indian Forestry in the early years that “of the 47.5 million acres of reserved forests in British Indian Empire, including forest leased from native states, so less than 17 million acres of 36% were successfully protected from fire in 1895” ( Brandis 1897, p. 126 ). The author –duo informs, sadly enough, ‘today, our assessment is that barely 25% of the reserved forests escape the annual fires. Except for certain evergreen forests, no other forest type in India, is today free from threat of the annual forest fires.’ What has gone wrong and what are the measures that have been taken, particularly in context of the forest types that exist in out forest-predominant mountain States ? As this acceptance of blatant failures comes from two of the most senior foresters, produced by the Indian Forestry regime and administration, it is all the more serious an acknowledgement than what could have been flung at the entire forestry-sector from a non-forester or so called silvicultural scientist, or for that matter an ecologist. For various ICFRE institutions and the Forest Research Institute, as well as the Ministry of Environment & Forest & Climate Change ( MoEF&CC), this major failure calls for a comprehension review and reflection and major perceptional-shift.

Forest Fires of Uttarakhand 02

Ranger’s Promotion was denied

Shyam Sunder recalling his own training days, 1950s, mentions how in those days ‘ a ranger’s promotion was denied if his range had serious forest fires, even though the majority of these were accidental. Thermometers were maintained in range offices to keep a watch on fire risk.  Once the critical temperature above which the risk of fire increases were reached, the staff was put on alert. But those were also the days when the staff at range and lower levels had the time to take care of natural forests, unlike at present. Pointing to the increased load of work, Shyam Sunder also notes, that during those the extent of annual plantation in a range was never more than 40 hectares, presently it could be more than ten times to this extent, in ten different sites. They were also free from having to attend meetings and from political interference.

While Shyam Sunder’s examples of Karnataka, or even of the damage from forest fires in higher altitudes of Western Ghats, above 1,000 meters, may not be very applicable to the Himalayan forest types, his comparisons with the Indonesian island of Kalimantan ( former Borneo ) in context of higher variability of climate temperature as well as precipitation, caused by global warming, may not be entirely out of place. We are also a witness to accidental fires, being caused this year due to extreme dry periods ( April 2016, to be more precise ), like peat fires of Kalimantan that may burn for months on end, threatening the health and livelihoods of local population and causing large scale regional haze. This burning also is releasing carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, contributing further to global warming. This year this regional haze, has been a significant feature, as now it’s almost more than a month that, right from Munsyari down-wards, right up to where one can see its just haze and haze, obstructing direct sun rays, and playing games with micro-temperatures. All one sees is a strange red-colour sun, with a naked eye, throughout the day ! Only the other day this writer, expecting a dry-sultry hot night, at a place like Thal ( usually unbearable during this time of the year ) rather quite bearable, if not entirely pleasant !

Forest Fires of Uttarakhand 03

Lessons of Khosla Forest Fires Commission ( 1995 ) 

Last comparable forest fires that caused huge damage to property and lives occurred during the summer months of 1995. The summer of 1995 was very severe with fire engulfing vast forest areas of both Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Author Parmeswarappa was also a member of the Khosla Commission appointed by the Government of India – it toured Tehri, Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh extensively. The Commission in its report noted that ‘ ( i ) fires usually originate in the Civil and Soyam forests under the charg   e of the revenue department and forests administered by elected village bodies respectively, where no pre-emptive measures are adopted. These forests than spread to the large blocks of reserved forests, wherever contiguous; ( ii ) In the case of reserved forests, the negligence of resin tappers seemed to be responsible for initiating fires. Similarly ( iii ) negligence of pilgrims visiting shrines, ( iv ) farmers burning agriculture residues, and ( v ) in a  few cases incendiary fire also resulted in major fires.’

Chir Pine Forests and Ban on Green Felling

Sunder and Parmeshwarappa single out, case of Chir Pine forests, occurring in the zone between 2000 ft  and 4,000 ft altitudes, where “ ( vi ) unscientific Government policies banning felling in forests above 3,000 ft and ( vii ) prohibition of green felling all over, have resulted in crops of all ages, instead of distinct age groups earlier maintained though silvicultural management. Further, ( viii ) dearth of funds has also been mentioned that has prevented the earlier practice of running ground fires in winter months, ( ix ) ( which results now ) in accumulation of pine needles and in years when the summer is severe and relative humidity is low fanning strong winds, a ground fire ascends to crown and engulfs the entire forest, as Chir burns green. The Commission added an interesting phenomenon, then peculiar to Uttarakhand in 1995, when they also observed that ‘ in summer months, forest rest houses and vehicles are commandeered by the Deputy Commissioners of the districts to cater to the visiting dignitaries and their families, escaping from the heat of the plains’ !  Parmeswarappa also recounts comments made by two villagers, the first one was to the effect that ( x )  ‘ with no works being taken up in the forests, visits of forests officials to the forests has come down, and the second, ( xi ) during his childhood, the villagers used to feel that prevention and control of forest fires were their responsibilities while presently it is viewed as the sole problem of the forest department.’

A Totally Changes Scenario

Arguably, except the conditions caused by Climate Change i.e. higher variability of climate temperature and precipitation, twenty years down the line, particularly after the formation of Uttarakhand state in November, 2000, none of the conditions, as many as eleven in all, could be said to be either applicable or transferred to any other department, than Forest department itself, squarely. Let us quickly cover each of them cited above, for the benefit of a far more comprehensive examination of an inter-disciplinary Committee or Commission, after the current ‘Fire-Season’  is finally and truly over:

( i ) The scenario with respect to the so called Civil and Soyam Forest is far from applicable, as soon after the state was formed,  a two-pronged drive was mounted by the newly constituted Forest & RD Commissioner Branch, and most of the C&S forest area was converted into the Van Panchayats, their number between 2000 and 2010 more than doubled, from less than 5,000 to more than 12,000 Van Panchayats, covering almost every revenue village of mountainous districts; their Rules being changed more than twice, in 2001 and again 2006, bringing almost all kinds of stakeholders, reservations for SC/ST and Women and even landless, all section hitherto denied rights and privileges. No village institution could have been more inclusive and representative. Further, all Van Panchayats were brought under a full-fledged Principal Chief Conservator of Forests ( PCCF ), and various Rules enacted making forest-crimes more strict, amending Criminal Procedure Code ( Cr PC ), perhaps the only state giving the powers of confiscation of property used in committing any forest offence, allowing so called ’secret funds’ for securing inside-information ! Forest-Guards were made the Secretary to the related Van Panchayats, even eliciting severe criticism of those who wished these Van Panchayats to be strictly self-governing bodies ! Surely, if these Van Panchayats are ineffective, or not being involved in saving forests from forest –fires or any other illicit activity-the responsibility of their behaving in such a manner has to be explained by those who have been provide almost all controls, including their funding, utilization and motivation to undertake forest –conservation, including protection from forest fires,

( ii ) Besides, coverage of almost all non-reserved forests via the Van Panchayat, change of their administrative architecture, including bring Forest department itself, ending their hitherto ‘splendid isolation’ by bring them in far closer contact with various rural development sectors ( FRDC Branch ), addresses their most of the so-called problem of isolation-at least in Uttarakhand, since 2000,

( iii ) As regards the resources, today, if anything the Forest and Environment , suffers from the ‘problem of plenty’ rather than the deficit of funds, as mentioned by Parmeswarappa ( quoting two villagers), which should have resulted in far more visits, and hence closer contact with the villagers- a simple look at the several National Missions, as many as eight at the last count ( see the framework of SDGs at the NITI Aayog website ), makes it a mind-boggling number, add to this the resources frozen under what is known cumulatively as the CAMPA funds-the administration of the latter is also resting exclusively with the Forest officials,

( iv ) While all other reasons listed by Parmeshwarappa are quite internal to the Forest bureaucracy, it was again up to the Forest sector bureaucracy to get the problem of ‘Forest-fires’ effectively under the Disaster Management, now Forest Risk Reduction regime ( now the new Sendai Framework of DRR, 2006 ). It is entirely the exclusive responsibility of the Forest department officials to ensure that the sectoral Action Plan of the State Disaster Action Plan, covers all aspects related to forest-fires, including its relief and rehabilitation components, as it is the responsibility of each of the various sectoral departments like say irrigation, hydro-power, agriculture, water resources etc,

( v ) As regards the issues that are mounting up every day, namely, the Climate Change, ironically here also, it is the Ministry of Environment & Forests and Climate Change ( MoEF&CC ), which is the Nodal Ministry, and also the parent Ministry at the Centre, for the Forest department. How effectively is the State Action Plan on Climate Change being planned, approved and getting funded is again a sole and central responsibility of the Forest department, where this activity is squarely anchored, in almost every state.

Forest Fires of Uttarakhand 04

Re-inventing the Forest Sector & Fixing Accountability

In a state like Uttarakhand, a mountainous and forest-endowed state, if any sector needs to be re-invented and made far more accountable, it is out and out Forest department and its various responsibilities. It severely suffers from a leadership failure, accountability –deficit, distancing from its major stake-holders – and this writer having seen both the 1995 Forest –fires, while he was the Director of UP Academy of Administration, where a score of diagnostic workshops and seminar were held, as far back as in 1995 and onwards, even though when Forest department did suffer from most of the difficulties cited by the Khosla Commission ( 1995 ). It does not need re-iteration that it was this early realization only, which led to not only re-structuring of the erstwhile APC organisation into FRDC Branch, the only one in the entire country, establishment of DMMC, campaigns that converted large Civil & Soyam areas into Van Panchayats, covering almost cent percentage all revenue villages, flow of substantial funds, via scores of projects ! What begs the question is – what is the new issue that has cropped up, which is not officially under the control and responsibility of this Department ? It is plain and simple –lack of accountability that comes from administrative and leadership failure –pure and simple. Shyam Sunder mentioned, withholding of Ranger’s promotion, as a solution. It has to be far more drastic – under the present circumstances, as Forest department has, what is called ‘ Its Back to the Wall’ – the Wall of Public Accountability ! No alibis are either acceptable or should be believed now.

  • S. Tolia, the writer, as he watches hundreds of hectares of rich Uttarakhand endowment sacrificed to official apathy and indolence believes that it’s simply a case of many sided criminal negligence for which a clear accountability is long over-due.
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