Forest Fires in Uttarakhand

By: Kapil Kumar Joshi
Forest fires in Uttarakhand are a result of warped policies since British times that wrested control of the forests from local communities, who in turn, set forests on fire to extract their revenge. Corrective measures to turn these communities from foes into friends can definitely help protect the unique Himalayan ecosystem.
Disaster Events Forests

The Himalayan mountain system is one of the most fragile ecosystems in the world due to its inherent tectonic and geological characteristics (Valdiya, 1983). It is a rich storehouse of biodiversity ranging from tropical/subtropical evergreen, subtropical chir pine and broad leaf temperate forests, along with conifer to subalpine and alpine meadows.

Frequent forest fires have emerged as one of the severe threats to Himalayan biodiversity, as also natural regeneration and productive capacity of its forests. Every fire translates to loss of soil, wildlife and forest produce, while adversely affecting the rural economy and ecosystem of the area (Kimothi & Jadav, 1998).

According to the Forest Survey of India (FSI), during the Sixth Five Year Plan period, over 5,72,417 hectares (ha) of India’s forests were affected by fires amounting to a loss of over half million USD (FSI, 1989). A recent report on the status of forests reveals that on an average, 53.91 per cent of the total recorded forest area in India is fire prone. The average is based on the National Forest Inventory Data collected during 2004-2012 from the 179 districts representing different forest areas of the country (Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change, 2015).


Historical perspective

During pre-colonial period until the late 18th century, India’s rich forest diversity had been a major source of sustenance for the people living in and around Uttarakhand. Forest produce was variously used for fodder, fuel wood, timber, leaf litter, construction, industrial raw material and several other purposes. Removal of forest floor biomass, edible fruits, fiber, gum, resin, spices, medicines or even wild animal products were carried out in a disciplined, orderly manner. The pride of owning these natural resources was a strong motivational factor for local communities for conserving and protecting their rich natural heritage, even while they exploited and enriched themselves with the produce (Wilson, 1992).

Since 1878, this symbiotic relationship between the forest and forest users got shattered, with the advent of strict colonial rule and its non-community based natural resource management regulations of the Himalayan ecosystem. In 1878, forest laws got implemented in India. This saw large chunks of biodiverse forests being declared as ‘reserved’ forests. The first reserves in the western Himalayan region of Kumaon were a series of small tracts that were demarcated in 1890s, primarily as fuel wood reserves for the expanding colonial railway towns and military cantonments in the hills. During 1911 to 1916, under wartime pressure, many more woodlands were converted into new reserves. Declaring a reserve meant depriving villagers of their ‘rights’ over the forest and permitting just a few ‘privileges’. These ‘privileges’, of course could be restricted according to the authorities’ assessments of needs (Berreman, 1972).

Expansion of urban markets, railways, wartime needs for fuel wood and timber, and many more long-range commercial objectives of the British generated a demand for hundreds of thousands of trees annually (Tucker, 1914). These led to the indiscriminate logging in the western Himalayas. The logging operations were carried out under the supervision of the forest department and contractors, all of whom were outsiders from the plains.

Declaration of new ‘reserve forests’, curtailment of forest rights, deployment of non-local contractors and labourers, monoculture plantations of commercial value such as that of chir pine, the tradition of unpaid coolies and ‘begar’ labour, caused conflicts between the forest department and the hill people. There was an outburst of local anger in 1916, when many new reserves were declared in the hills. The dry months of 1916, saw the first fires set by locals to protest the new restrictions. Thousands of acres of forest were burnt beyond the usual annual grass fires (Champion, 1916). The manmade fires of 1916 were the ominous precedent for the devastating forest fires of 1921 that followed in the Kumaon region of the western Himalayas.

In the early months of 1921, the hills suddenly went up in flames. Within a few weeks in March and April, thousands of acres of forest in Kumaon were burnt. The Sal forests in the lower hills was destroyed almost overnight and the dry pine forests of the higher hills vanished in smoke. The villagers continue to set fire repeatedly in some places. At many places, the fires continued for many days and new fires were lit over and over again.

The forest area destroyed by fire were much higher in 1921 than in 1916. Of the 819 detected offences, 395 were incendiary. People’s grievances were particularly acute because of the elaborate new rules that imposed strict restrictions on lopping and grazing rights, restricted use of non-timber forest products, prohibited cultivation, levied penalties for violation with a several fold increase in the number of forest guards (FD, 1921).

The provincial government, the forest department and the leaders of the freedom movement were all shocked at the damage caused. The then government of the United Provinces established a Commission of inquiry to recommend measures that would defuse the danger in the hills before the next dry season. The Commission recommended immediate rolling back of the order on new reserves.


Present scenario

Even after a period of over 90 years since the first such event, forest fires continue to be common in the western Himalayan region. The major causes for forest fires are:

  • To encourage good and early growth of grass and fodder;
  • To encroach upon forest land;
  • To conceal illicit felling;
  • To settle scores with the forest department (mainly issues related to developmental projects);
  • To settle personal rivalry amongst contractors (timber, minor forest produce, resin etc.);
  • To drive away wild animals (man-animal conflict); and
  • To collect non timber forest produce (herbs, honey, wax, animal remains and the like).

Other causes may be accidents (burning residue, camp fires, road construction, spark form vehicles, cigarettes, bidi or electrical circuitry); natural occurrences (lighting, friction of rolling stone, rubbing against of dry bamboo clumps), and lack of environmental awareness.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) Report ‘Fire Management-Global assessment 2006’ more than 95 per cent of the forest fires are anthropogenic in nature caused either deliberately or accidentally. Naturally occurring forest fires are very rare. The Report also reveals that regional estimates of human-induced forest fires for the Mediterranean and South Asian regions are between 90 to 95 per cent (NIDM, 2013). A close examination of forest fires and their causes clearly reflects the communities’ unaddressed grievances in one form or another.

In the Uttarakhand context, these unaddressed grievances vis-a-vis the cause of forest fires may be summarised as follows:

  • Undeveloped grasslands on community land, least accessibility to high milk yielding animal variety and unavailability of locally grown good palatable grass forages;
  • No provision to award land to landless or homeless people as about 71 per cent of the total geographical area of the State comes directly under the Forest Conservation Act, 1980;
  • Lack of proper infrastructure and training to the regulatory staff for combating illicit activities;
  • Delayed or denied developmental activities under the 1980 Act;
  • Overlooking the needs of indigenous communities, corruption benefiting individuals and contractors under existing work procedures;
  • Cattle lifting and human attacks by wild animals;
  • Forest areas not being viewed as a potential resource for providing direct economic gain to communities; and
  • Casual attitude towards community participation in the management of natural resources.

1 Forest Fires in Uttarakhand

Figure 1 shows the official data of forest fires in Uttarakhand during the last eight years. Actual data may prove the numbers to be much higher since many fires remain unattended due to inaccessibility and remoteness of the area. ‘Majority’ or ‘almost all’ the above mentioned forest fires were man-made (Rawat, 2012; Bhattacharya, 2012).


Now and Then

It is an established fact that since 1887 community involvement in natural resource management of the western Himalayan region has gradually declined. Historical and present accounts clearly show that peasant struggles and grievances accelerated with the regulations imposed over community ownership of natural resources like timber, water, mineral and other natural deposits.

1 Forest Fires in Uttarakhand 1

The regulatory processes over the last 100 years in the western Himalayan region of Uttarakhand have been presented in Table 1.

This clearly shows that even after decades of independence from colonial rule, regulations made regarding natural resource management continue to deprive indigenous communities and prevent their involvement in ecological conservation.



In the absence of equitable sharing of forest resources with indigenous communities, particularly in the rich biodiverse of the western Himalayan region, the ire of locals will continue to be vent on forests by setting them aflame. This has been so, from way back in the 1920s, when British colonialists decided to ignore the rights of local communities to forest produce and made strict regulations to ‘reserve’ forests for exploitation by the British Empire. It is in the interests of the Indian social welfare state to uphold the rights of indigenous communities and conserve the fragile Himalayan ecosystem through their wholehearted participation.



Bhattacharya, A. (2012, June 18). A fiery summer in Uttarakhand. Times of India. Retrieved from

Berreman, G.D. (1972). Hindu of the Himalayas: ethnography and change. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Champion, H.G. (1916). Working plan for the forest of Central Almora UPFDR , pp139-42.

Forest Departments. (1921). United Province Forest Department Report. 1921-1922, pp7-9.

Kimothi, M.M., & Jadhav. (1998). Forest fire in the Central Himalaya: An extent, direction and spread using IRS LISS-I data. International Journal of Remote Sensing, 19(12), pp2261-2274.

Ministry Of Environment, Forests And Climate Change. (2015). Fire prone forest area. Retrieved from file:///E:/C%20Backup/Downloads/QResult15.pdf.

NIDM. (2013). Forest fire Disaster Management Report 2012. Delhi: National Institute of Disaster Management, pp54-58.

Rawat, R.B.S., & Gaur, S.S. (2012).  Forest fire in Uttarakhand on the rise. International Reporter, June 1, 2012.

Tucker, R.P. (1914). Global deforestation: the British colonial system and the forest of western Himalaya. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, pp146-166.

Valdiya, K.S. (1983).  Accelerated erosion and landslide proneness in the Central Himalayan region. In J. S. Singh (Ed.), Environmental Regeneration in Himalaya. Nainital: Central Himalayan Environment Association & Gyanodya Prakashan, pp12-38.

Wilson, E.O. (1992). The diversity of life. New York: Norton.

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