3 MAY 2016
Tinderbox in the Himalayas
The full extent and impact of the forest fires in Uttarakhand can be assessed only after they have abated with better weather conditions, but the furious blaze that has swept the hill State drives home the truth that governments are yet to find scientific ways to tackle the phenomenon. This Western Himalayan region, with its mix of colourful forests, including moist deciduous, tropical dry deciduous, temperate and sub-Alpine types, turns into a tinderbox during severe dry seasons. It is striking that whatever little research has gone into the fires in this area points to accidental or intentional involvement of people in starting the blaze, most frequently in the chir pine forests. Setting the vegetation afire in some forests helps produce richer grazing lands by bringing about better botanical diversity on the ground, and a large number of incidents are caused by those in search of fodder. The fires have been most numerous in the Garhwal and Kumaon regions, with conflicting reports on the death toll. Disaster response was, by all evidence, slow in coming. The Centre, which bears responsibility for administration as the State is under President’s Rule, got into the act only after the inferno had spread alarmingly. The decision to deploy a few Air Force helicopters could not have achieved much, since a couple of thousand hectares had to be covered. Fortunately, incidents of fresh fires now seem to be on the decline.
It is ironical that the spectacular Himalayan forest region, known worldwide thanks to the campaign waged by activists such as Sunderlal Bahuguna to save trees, should face such an annual scourge. It is possible that the changing patterns of climate may be exacerbating the problem; more research is required to conclude whether the El Niño that set in last year, marked by a lack of pre-monsoon showers, also played a part in intensifying the fires. The Uttarakhand government should learn from the severity of the experience, and involve its large rural communities in preparing for the future. Some of the studies reported by organisations affiliated to the Union Environment Ministry point to the effective intervention of community-led ‘van panchayats’ (forest councils) in preventing fires. Progress can be made also by providing environmental education to local residents and officials. Significantly, the use of biomass alternatives, including cooking gas, has had a beneficial impact on fire risk, and this must be expanded. Equally, the clearing of ecologically important natural oak forests can be reduced by tapping the plantation sector, which could give preference to growing useful fodder and timber trees. Saving what remains of old forests that were mostly cleared during British rule to produce railway sleepers and to feed cantonments, and stopping further spread of pine trees planted over several decades for narrow economic reasons, are crucial for the health of the Western Himalayas. The imperative is to stop the havoc wrought by man-made fires, and compensate those affected.
There runs a common European thread through the long political stalemate in Spain and the persisting turmoil in Greece — happily, it has just wound its course in Ireland. It is that, despite the plummeting popular trust in mainstream parties as a fallout of the financial crisis, there seems to be discernible pragmatism within the established order. Driving home this message most recently was Dublin, where the two main parties have bridged their century-old political divide to end the long deadlock that followed an inconclusive election in February. Under the deal sealed on Friday, the centre-right Fine Gael will form a minority government with the support of arch-rival Fianna Fáil. The political impasse in Spain, which in June will go to the polls for the second time in six months, is not very dissimilar. To be sure, the verdict last December threw up the first-ever hung legislature since the country returned to democracy in the 1970s. Still, the continuing political impasse may not mask the fact that the country’s biggest players, the conservative People’s Party and the Socialists, together took well over 50 per cent of the vote and a sizeable number of seats to command a majority. The quest for stability could well influence voters in the June elections to turn away from smaller parties which they perceive as having limited electoral prospects.
In Greece, the electorate handed the radical left Syriza party a renewed mandate last September. That decisive verdict was, embarrassingly enough for everybody in Greece, an endorsement of the European Union’s economic bailout, one that Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras embraced just days after it had been roundly rejected in a popular referendum. Should the sequence of events be read as confirmation that both the populace and their leaders feel they have a stake in the stability of the system? The current scenario in Spain and Ireland is made up of three distinct elements. The first is the erosion of the absolute dominance of the leading parties. The second is the inevitability of cohabitation in a common government between them. The third is the near numerical inadequacy, or ideological incompatibility sometimes, of cobbling together a coalition with smaller parties. Germany’s incumbent grand coalition of traditional rivals, the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party, fits into the second scenario. Berlin has had the arrangement twice over the last decade, besides an earlier experiment in the 1960s. The recent Europe-wide rise of parties on the political extreme, if anything, lends greater relevance for the German political model as a suitable strategy, even beyond Berlin, to counter a common threat. Conversely, a constructive response to a fragmented polity presumes that the core of the centre is not allowed to erode in the face of populism. That seems a difficult prospect in electoral democracies, as borne out by the hollowing out of the middle ground in recent years in country after country the world over.