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Dry spell, forest fires: Himachal rural areas in distress amidst unprecedented tourist rush

By Bharat Dogra* 

Reports of water shortages and forest fires have been appearing all through the month of April in Himachal Pradesh. It is ironical that the tourist rush to popular hill-stations like Shimla, Manali and Kasauli increased heavily during this month, even though increasing sufferings of local villagers were reported.
According to rainfall data, the rainfall from March 1 to April 23 this year (2022) was just 7 per cent of the norm for this period, a fall of around 93 per cent. Due to this agriculture as well as horticulture have suffered a lot.
Whether it is apple or stone fruit orchards or the farms growing vegetables and grains, loss to a lesser or greater extent has been reported from everywhere. Drinking water shortage has been reported not just from remote villages but also from leading cities like Solan and Shimla. In Solan the situation was aggravated by mysterious appearance of some polluting agents as well as cases of water pipes bursting and spilling a lot of water.
Water pollution is an increasing problem even as water scarcity is becoming more acute. Many water sources are already in a precarious condition and despite so many water schemes being implemented water scarcity is today a major issue for many villages as a result of the prolonged dry spell. For some ponds tanker supply had to be arranged to save fish from dying.
Forest fires have become a serious menace already at an early stage of the summer. From April 1 to 24, as many as 449 forest fires have been reported, affecting 3,209 hectares of forest land. In addition there are other smaller fires which do not make it to official records.
Particularly worrying have been fires closer to very densely populated Shimla, such as fires of Taradevi, Rajhana, Panjri and Kachighati. Pine monocultures and their fallen needle-like leaves are the most susceptible to fire.
Although still there is hope of rains providing relief in the near future, preparations to face possible prolonging of dry conditions have started. A call has been given to nearly 1,800 youth to extend their cooperation in extinguishing of fires and protection of forests.
While some of these official efforts are welcome, the dry spell has exposed some of the glaring distortions and weaknesses of the development effort. While in terms of pipelines and taps installation the progress of drinking water schemes may be impressive, in terms of actual protection of water sources the condition in not good as reports of excessive sand mining and pollution continue to appear from time to time. The natural flow of Satluj and some other rivers is being harmed by excessive hydro project construction.
Much has been said about removing pine leaves in a big way for use in various products but their huge felling on ground continues to be a problem in the rapid spread of forest fires.
The task of evolving a system of forest protection based on close cooperation of government and village communities is really needed but has not progressed adequately.
On the other hand introducing exotic species and plant material in orchards has been encouraged which will make it more difficult for them to withstand the harsher and warmer conditions brought by climate change. The craze for introducing exotic species appears to be increasing ignoring the reality of having more hardy local species.
Particularly worrying have been fires closer to very densely populated Shimla, such as fires of Taradevi, Rajhana, Panjri and Kachighati
The higher emphasis on dams and hydro projects, on pipelines and highway projects and on exotic trees and crops can be counter-productive when basic natural resources are not protected, when rivers and springs and other water resources are getting depleted and polluted, when orchards and farms re becoming more vulnerable to spells of hotter and more dry weather.
These distortions were reflected in a rather amusing controversy which was reported recently in media in the context of a World Bank funded Rs 1,134 crore project on horticulture and orchards.
Controversy erupted in Himachal Pradesh when 34 officials reportedly decided to go abroad to learn from horticultural practices abroad. Some of the bigger and richer orchard owners said that they too wanted to go abroad as a part of this visit to orchards in distant lands.
In the tussle over finding a place in the foreign trip, at public cost of course, what was ignored was that instead of spending on the foreign travel and hospitality of so many persons, it would be much better to meet the pressing needs of several small orchard owners.
The recent dry spell with its alarmingly low (compared to the norm for this time of the year) rainfall as well as the spurt of forest fires point towards a climate change type of situation. In fact in some of the plain region parts of the Himalayan state, even heat wave type conditions were reported for a few days. 
To cope with the difficult times ahead, a much better and wider response of climate change adaptation as well as overall ecologically protective policies and practices is needed.
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*Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. Recent books include ‘Planet in Peril' and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food'

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