Dry river beds dotted with murky pools, smoke rising from the hill slopes... The Himalayan foothills in Kumaon District presented a sad, depressing picture this summer.
The locals complain of water shortages after most of the natural, roadside springs ran dry. The number of tourists has dwindled - after all, why would anybody want to come to Kumaon if the hills are just as hot as the plains?
Puzzled by the large numbers of forest fires, all along the road to Ranikhet, I asked some villagers if they were caused by careless tourists tossing cigarette butts into the forests. "Its not so simple", they said, "the tourists are the least of our problems!". Then came a counter-question- "Did you see anybody doing anything to prevent the fires from spreading?". No, I didn't.
There are two sets of people who have an interest in keeping the fires burning. The first set are the nomadic herders. Hill slopes that are carpeted with pine-leaves (Pirol) prevent the grass from coming up. So the herders set fire to the resinous pine leaves, clearing the way for fresh grass, that are due to come up after the rains.
The second set, according to the villagers, are the officials from the Forest Department. These officials have annual afforestation targets and forest fires are a very handy for folks looking for an excuse. In an area marked for afforestation, they simply set fire to entire hill-sides and claim that all the saplings got charred. The money is shared by the contractors and the state government officials who now have a vested interest in keeping the fires burning.
The more you destroy, the more you can pilfer from the state coffers!