Understanding Uttarakhand’s ‘pain’ of ‘development’, the bane of religious and wild life tourism

Fire at Kedarnath wildlife sanctuary. Photo: Varsha Singh / DownToEarth

Uttarakhand’s’ forest fire has resulted in loss of not only human lives but also huge forest areas. This year has been devastating for Uttarakhand as the number of forest fires in the state rose to an extraordinary level. The latest casualty has been the enchanting forests of Kasar and Windsor near Almora known for its tranquillity and stunning forestry. A report published in The Hindu says, ‘forest fires in Uttarakhand have now engulfed an area of 1438 hectares, with 1065 incidents between November 1 last year and May 13, 2024. Five people have died. However, State wildlife department officials have claimed the situation is under control’[i].

During the second week of May, I travelled in the foot hills as well as the High Mountain regions of Kumaon in Uttarakhand state. There was a massive fire in the foothills near Nainital. Travelling to the famous Jim Corbett Park, we found numerous patches of forest fire all through our route. It was a sad spectacle. The forest fire reached Nainital in the third week of April and endangered the High Court colony area forcing the authorities to seek army help. An MI 17 helicopter was pressed into service taking water from Nainital Lake and sprinkling it over the forest.

‘The hilly state has reported as many as 31 pine forest fires in various areas since Friday. Bhumiadhar, Jyolikot, Narayan Nagar, Bhawali, Ramgarh and Mukteshwar areas of the district have been affected, officials were quoted saying by news agency PTI.’[ii]

The sad part was that the foot hills of Tarai region were as warm as the plains of Uttar Pradesh. A journey from Kathgodam to Bhimtal in Nainital during May reflected like the crisis of Delhi during post Diwali period. The air was polluted and visibility lower than elsewhere. The government claimed that the crisis was over and shortly there were rains in Bageshwar and Pithauragarh regions too. Due to poor visibility in the Munsiyari-Pithauragarh region the air services had to be postponed for several days.

It rained for a couple of days resulting in dousing of the fire. At a village near Baitalghat, I asked a local person as what was the reason for the fire and the answer he gave was shocking. It was not natural he mentioned. People cause these fires so that the green leaves grow and their cattle have enough fodder for food. During the summer, the dry leaves of Chir and Pines cover the entire forest area which the cattle don’t eat. It also makes the entire region slippery. Many a time, villagers burn these dry leaves so that the forest grow greener fast(er) and the cattle can have enough fodder. What used to be a quick method has turn out to be disastrous for the Himalayan state. However, this cannot be the sole region. Fire causes are natural as well as deliberate mischief too. Attempt were made to create a ‘communal divide’ on social media blaming it on Muslims but that was nothing but purely mischievous. There were two individuals from Bihar who claimed to have deliberately caused this, and prompt action by the Uttarakhand police ensured their arrests and foiled their propaganda.

So far, a staggering  over 1213 Forest fire incidents have been reported in the state since November 1, 2023 until June 14, 2024. ‘Of 1653 hectares of forest land damaged in forest fires this year, 687 hectares have been damaged in Garhwal region, 833 hectares in Kumaon region and 132 hectares in wildlife administrative regions.’[iii]

Forest fire incidents are not new and we have seen these from childhood but both the forest department and people would work hard to douse them. What needs to be grappled with, and understood, is, that there are more people who enter as tourists into Uttarakhand’s hills than the entire population. In 2011, the population of the state was one crore i.e. 10 million and 2.3 crore (20.3 millions) tourists travelled the state.[iv] After the disaster of 2013, the number of tourists have grown and it is the government too, that has made all efforts to increase the numbers. For any state to grow, tourism is a good industry but the risk for Uttarakhand is that it is religious tourism that has increased multifold and to promote it the government is exceeding limits. The question is there has to be a limit to the exploiting of natural resources. How much can the Himalayas can bear or tolerate?

It is in this context that the various natural calamities taking place in the Himalayas need to be understood. With more pressure on natural resources, more visits by outsiders, growing tension between locals and outsiders might increase. Young boys and girls in the plain areas are looking for secluded areas to enjoy their privacy. In these zones, anybody can play mischief or pranks which can ultimately bring about a disaster. There can be various reasons apart from only possible mischief. Sometimes, villages self-impose protective measures to protect themselves from wild animals or protect their crop from them. So, it is not that people are only lighting fires to preserve the fodder for their cattle. At a road side tea shop about 50 kilometres ahead of Munsiyari, a local villager informed me that at many places people have lit fires to protect themselves from wild animals particularly tigers, leopard, boars and elephants. The human nature conflict in Uttarakhand has been on the rise resulting in the killing of innocent people. With more national parks, wild life sanctuaries, Tiger zones, Elephant corridors, wider highways, railway network, resorts and so many other things in the name of ‘development’, it is the innocent citizens in the hills who face this attack from the wild animals. Wild animals, who are subject to this brute nature of wild life tourism are also victims. ‘According to the Uttarakhand forest department, 71, 82 and 66 deaths due to wild animal attacks were recorded in 2021, 2022 and 2023, respectively. Of these, two deaths in 2021, 16 in 2022 and 17 in 2023 were due to tiger attacks.’ [v]

The focus on protecting ‘wildlife’ and forest is important but why are local communities and their livelihood not included in future planning? Numbers of wild life is increasing but human lives are endangered and leaving. ‘Tiger population in Uttarakhand increased by 314% between 2006 and 2022. The state has two big tiger reserves — Corbett and Rajaji. From 269 in 2018, the number of tigers in these reserves has increased to 314 in 2022. There were 173 tigers in locations outside the tiger reserves in the state in 2018. This has increased to 246 in 2022.’[vi]

Similarly, the Rajaji Corridor for elephants too is witnessing the huge animal human conflict. In the villages of Bhabar in the Shivalik foothills, the increasing number of elephants are now entering into market and homes of the people. They can be seen frequently entering into market areas, railway tracks and on the river banks resulting in accidents. There is little effort to protect human lives resulting in people becoming suspicious of the forest department. For them, all this is being encouraged and promoted for tourism in the state without caring for the local people.

‘Tiger population in Uttarakhand increased by 314% between 2006 and 2022. The state has two big tiger reserves — Corbett and Rajaji. From 269 in 2018, the number of tigers in these reserves has increased to 314 in 2022. There were 173 tigers in locations outside the tiger reserves in the state in 2018. This has increased to 246 in 2022.’[vii]

Uttarakhand’s hill regions have significant forest cover and the Forest department has more authority than the revenue department.  The high handedness of the Forest department has resulted in migration of people from their homes. For every activity people have the fear of forest department. They cannot act if the wild bores destroy their crops. They remain helpless to the attack by Guldar, Tiger or leopard. Most of the families from the hills have migrated to the plain regions such as Dehradun, Kotdwar, Haldwani, Rudrapur for better facilities. Those older people who live alone in their homes have to suffer the threat emerging from the wild animals. Using fire to protect themselves from the wild animals has been an old practice among the native people world over. Unfortunately, the Forest department has not been able to involve communities and win over them. Forest settlements in the Himalayas started during the British period actually resulted in denying native people right to access the forest produce while allowing private timber companies from outside the regions to exploit the huge natural resources. Uttarakhand’s crisis actually is not involvement of the local communities in managing the vast natural resources of the state while handing over this heritage of the Himalayas to cronies from outside the state in the name of development.

The massive influx of religious tourists during the Chardham yatra is posing a great risk to the fragile Himalayas. The number of the visitors is growing extraordinarily and in the first 15 days alone there were over fifteen lakh tourists travelled to various shrines in the state.  Out of 15,67,095 tourists who visited the state as on May 10, over 6,27,613 visited Kedarnath shrine while 3,79,041 visited Badrinath Dham as per a report by ETV.[viii]

While the government and business groups are happy and hope the Yatra ‘breaks all records’, the crisis is severe. The Himalayas do not have required infrastructure to handle this much of crowd. Most of the crowd is unmindful of the sentiments of the locals as well as the sensitivity of Himalayas. They come for a religious purpose and are unmindful of the huge health risk. Coming from the low line regions to an altitude of nearly 4500 meters above the sea level and attempting to do things which is against your body’s’ strength has resulted in serious health hazards. Equally important to understand is that our body takes time to acclimatise when we go from areas where temperature is high, between 45 to 50 degrees to area where it is a reduced 1 degree or zero degrees. Most of the time, the pilgrims are not educated about these possible risks due to temperature difference, yet they insist on going forward to complete the yatra.

‘’Of the total 116 pilgrims who lost their lives during the one-month-long yatra, 80 per cent died of heart attack, officials said on Thursday. State Health Secretary Dr. R Rajesh Kumar stated, “Our biggest dilemma arises when a pilgrim insists on embarking on the journey to the Dhams despite adverse health check-up results. Although counselling is provided to make them understand, in cases of non-compliance, they are required to sign an undertaking. In specific circumstances, elderly and medically vulnerable pilgrims are also advised to return.”[ix]

The yatra has become the best PR exercise for the government and state police which is working overtime to look after the interest of the yatris from different parts of the country. With state police and SDRF focusing more on the ‘teerth-yatris’ like ‘freedom fighters’, it is clearly visible that government lacked human resource to handle the forest fire issues. A small state like Uttarakhand need to put its priorities accordingly as per the basic needs of the local people and not to ‘impress’ the outsiders least bothered about the sensibilities of Himalayas and its communities.

When I travelled to Munsiyari located at the height of about 2,500 meters above the sea level, it rained during the night bringing down the temperature to below 10 degrees Celsius. The uninterrupted rains in both Almora, Bageshwar and Pithauragarh district resulted in dousing the forest fire. At the Nanda Devi Temple in Munisyari, I saw big trees burnt. It was sad to see our forest zones and important trees burnt to ashes.

The issue of forest fire in Uttarakhand has to be seen in the broader context of our natural heritage which is being treated as ‘resource’ purely for-profit motives.  The authorities consider it purely from the ‘management’ of ‘Pirul’, which means dry pine leaves which covers the entire forest region during the summer and are highly ‘inflammable. Experts suggest that Pirul can be used for not only production of biogas but also for paper products but the most important part in the entire exercise is the involvement of local communities and addressing to the issues related to their insecurities and uncertainties of life. Equally important, it is to understand the ‘disaster management’ methodology of the department which was using the primitive methods to douse the flame. Government should not only think of pressing enough helicopter services to sprinkle water on the disaster zones but will need to work on putting enough water resources, pipes and build the State Disaster Management Teams to handle Forest Fire issues too efficiently and it need to equip them with proper tools.

Uttarakhand has 71% of its total land mass under forest which is among the highest in the country. This has resulted in enormous crisis for the people. The locals feel that the government want everything for ‘tourism’ and ‘publicity’ without engaging and involving the local communities, a practice that has evolved since the auctions of forest areas started resulting in mass protest movement known world over as Chipko. Uttarakhand’s main crisis is governments over dependence on insensitive bureaucracy that want to lord over the local communities making them unwanted and vulnerable to exploitation in their own land.

Lack of access to basic amenities, job market crisis, frequent attack of wild animals and undue dominance of Forest Department on revenue issues compel people to migrate to cities like Dehradun and Kotdwara. There are not even a single family in many of these villages now known as ‘Bhutaha gaaon’ or simply ‘ghost villages’. ‘There are officially 1,564 ghost villages that are uninhibited, and 650 others with less than 50 per cent population.’[x] The crisis of negative growth rate in the population in the hill regions and fear of dominance of ‘outsiders’ and ‘low line’ people continue to haunt the local communities in the Himalayas. Uttarakhand has its border with China and Nepal. It is the only border state which send a huge number of youths for Indian armed forces but at the same point of time has got impacted with the New Agniveer Scheme which has created a crisis of uncertain future for them.

Local people have been opposing the new land laws and want to protect their ancestral land. The feeling has embedded deep in the heart of the people that government is only encouraging ‘investors’ basically ‘outsiders’ and the local people will ultimately become depended on the big fat moneyed business wheeler-dealers from the plain areas.

The new delimitation exercise which is meant to redefine and redesign the number of parliamentary and assembly constituencies, a state can have, is bound to create huge unrest in the hills of Uttarakhand as the hilly regions are bound to lose their seats while there will be an increase in the number of seats from the plain region or low line areas. There is an enormous income gap between the hills and the plains. In terms of resources too, the hilly people do not have land and most of them will be counted as landless if compare to the plain regions which have large land holdings. If not handled sensitively, the mass unrest in the Himalayas can be potentially dangerous. Government needs to speak with the people and assure them full protection.

The crisis is not the ‘promise’ of ‘development’ but what kind of ‘development’ and the involvement of local people. Uttarakhand people are not ready for a development that affects their own ‘pahadi identity’. The mountains and the rivers are the soul of the state and no pahadi can grow if they are damaged. Our identity as hill people is that of the rivers and mountains and the government must understand that it can’t handle these issues with mere rhetoric but it must be seen as serious in addressing these sensitivities of Himalayas and its people.

It is sad that that the government has projected the state as ‘devbhumi’ or ‘Land of gods’ but except promoting religious tourism heavily, there is nothing which can be said, are being done, to protect the sanctity of Himalayas and its native population.  It is not that people don’t want ‘development’ but they have also seen how the state resources have been misused and handed over to outsiders. For people of Uttarakhand, each of its river is Ganga and they have a relationship with rivers and mountains. It is a relationship based on nurturing them and considering them their ‘deities’.

The four lane Char Dham Highway project has been imposed on the state ignoring the issue of fragile nature of terrain which has resulted in heavy landslides. It is not that landslide and cloudbursts were unheard of in the past but the four-lane project has not stopped them. Landslides, accidents continue to happen. Nobody denies the importance of road network but equally emphatic importance should have been given to the issues raised by environmentalists related to sensitive nature of Himalayan zone.

The Himalayan state faced some of the most traumatic moments since 2013 when the devastating Himalayan Tsunami killed more than 5000 pilgrims. It seems little lessons have been learned from the same. The big devastation at Dhauli Ganga Rishiganga confluence in Raini village in February 2021 was in fact not a natural disaster but man-made disaster. Raini village, the epicentre of Chipko movement was being relocated because the land mass was fragile and slipping. In fact, the High Court of Uttarakhand imposed penalty on social activist Atul Sati and other villagers who had filed cases in the court. Later, the crisis of sinking of historical town of Joshimath near Badrinath was watched by the entire country. Except for the government agencies, all other people felt that what has happened in Joshimath was purely the crisis created by various power projects and uninterrupted tunnels and excavation of the fragile mountains. The crisis is not over and the blame will be laid on someone else. The Silkyara Tunnel crisis of Uttarakhand was internationally reported and though the lives of so many miners was ultimately saved yet it has not stopped anything further. Uttarakhand is the source of not only source of Ganges, Yamuna, Kali and other smaller rivers but they are its lifeline and identity. Today, all of them face serious crisis. Surely you cannot do away with the severity of the crisis by merely suggesting that rivers ‘must be worshipped’ or stating that ‘they look beautiful.’ They are indeed a source of great joy and spiritual solace but the real question is as what have we done to maintain their sanctity and dignity?

Hence the issue of forest fires in Uttarakhand cannot and should not be seen in isolation but an issue of our natural heritage, its protection, management and the role of local communities. You cannot manage the Himalayas through planning experts in ‘Delhi’ and ’infrastructure’ being brought by big corporate and their experts from outside. There is a dire need to control huge influx of people in the region in the name of tourism.

Yes, religious sentiments are there but local people too have right to life and protect their natural heritage. Unlike greedy corporate and cronies who are looking the entire region purely from their ‘profit’ motives, for the native, it is not the natural resources for their profit but natural heritage and identity they live with. It would be much healthier for the government and other agencies to initiate a dialogue on its development model with the local people and seek their opinion on the issues otherwise the tiny Himalayan state would find it  difficult to bear the ‘burden’ of ‘development’ which will only inflict wound and bring pains for the people Uttarakhand.

[i] Praying for rain in Uttarakhand by S Saurabh, The Hindu, May 20, 2024

[ii] Nainital forest fires: 31 fires destroy over 33.34 hectares of forest land in Uttarakhand , Mint, April 27,2024.  https://www.livemint.com/news/india/nainital-pine-forest-fires-uttarakhand-bambi-bucket-operation-iaf-mi-17-helicopter-pushkar-singh-dhami-11714207619303.html

[iii] Fire in Uttarakhand’s Binsar Wild life Sanctuary kills 4 forest dept staffers, 4 injured, by Neeraj Santoshi, Hindustan Times, June 13, 2004


[iv] Recipe for disaster in Uttarakhand: 1 crore population, 2.5  crore tourists, Subodh Verma, Times of India, June 23, 2013

[v] Tiger burning bright in the forests of Uttarakhand, but women cannot wait or shirk duty
By Varsha Singh, 101 reporters, April 3rd, 2024

vi]  –do-

[vii] Elephant-enters-court-premises-in-haridwar-why-such-incidents-have-been-rising off late in Uttarakhand by Namita Singh, News Nine. December 29th, 2023

viii]  More Than 15 Lakhs Visited Chardham in Uttarakhand till June 2, ETV Bharat English Team, June 2, 2024

[ix] Rising-death-toll-among-char-dham-pilgrims-sparks-government-concern, by Narendra Sethi, The New Indian Express, 13 June 2024


[x] In Uttarakhand’s Ghost Village, An 82-Year-Old Lonely ‘Dadi’ by Ashwani Sharma, Outlook, February 18,2022





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