Sunday, May 1, 2016

Uttarakhand diary

Forest fires between Ramgarh Malla and Bhimtal
Smoke rises from fires near

The mountains are on fire. Literally. I was in Nainital district for a week, and smoke haze lay thick in the air. Driving up from baking hot Kathgodam last Saturday afternoon, the driver Dinesh tells me the Gaula river running past the town has been dry for some weeks now, and each year there is less and less water in it. Our destination is a village called Khansyu in Okhalkanda block in Nainital district. The normal route is past Bhimtal, but Dinesh seeks an alternative, longer route as the Bhimtal road is blocked, and there are many fires along the Bhimtal road.

I try to ease my nausea induced by the numerous hair-pin bends by lying down in the rear seat of the taxi, but it not helped by the acrid smell of wood smoke. In some places the smoke smells of pine. We drive past tree trunks charred and still burning.

The dry river bed of Gaula river near Khansyu
Khansyu is in a valley in Okhalkanda block. The Gaula river flows at the base of the valley, and is completely dry. This is the river that supplies water to Kathgodam. Nain Singh, the local co-ordinator of the project I am visiting, tells me that in the six years that he has been here, this is the first time it has run dry.

The place is beautiful, layers and layers of mountains all around. That evening, though, I see a fire creeping up the hill opposite. I cannot see other fires, but I know they are there. The next morning, the valley is full of a smoke haze.

A fire creeps up the hill near Khansyu
Smoke haze in the valley at dawn.
The reason for the fires are discussed locally - was it the locals who tried to burn the grass? Was it the dry winter with no rain at all? Is it the pine forests that help to spread this fire far and wide? Some blame the pine (an import by the British) for it all, saying it depletes ground water, does not allow other trees to grow, and that it is highly flammable.

There is a terrible water shortage in Khansyu and the villages around, and indeed all over Nainital district. Water is guarded jealously, and having your water tank emptied in the night is not unusual. During the week I was there, water was supplied twice.

Driving back to Kathgodam on Friday, we cross large tracks of mountainside that have already burnt out - blackened tree trunks (some still smoking), an eerie silence with no bird calls, no crickets chirping, and an overall bleakness. Would the earth look like this after a nuclear holocaust, I wonder - such total desolation?

Closer to Bhimtaal we see and hear fires again, and just a few kilometers before Kathgodam I spot large areas of mountainside that have been sheared clear of trees and dirt. Landslides during the monsoons last year, Dinesh tells me. They stand out as ugly white streaks many metres wide, against the brown and green of the mountainside, ending in a pile of boulders at the bottom of the valley.

The mountains are achingly beautiful, but how long can we preserve them that way?

5 pm: Just received the sad news that Nain Singh's landlord died on Saturday, trying to save people of his village when the fire threatened to engulf their homes. He sustained 80% burns and was taken to the hospital in Haldwani, but could not be saved.