India — Rains have doused the fires that raged in the forests of Uttarakhand for 90 days. The crisis is over, and now the focus must shift to improving forest management. Forests account for 21.34% of Indias geographical area. Open and degraded forests account for nearly 43% of the cover. Instead of improving forest quality, successive Indian government have focused on increasing forest cover to 33%. This goal has encouraged prioritising fast-growing and commercially valuable species, changing forest composition.
The Uttarakhand forests are a good example of this: the broadleaf humid evergreen varieties like oak, which covered the hillsides and valleys, have given way to chir pine, that traditionally grew on crests of ridges and steep slopes, adversely impacting the areas hydrology.
A situation made worse with two years of low rainfall, record temperature highs and drying up of perennial water springs. The inflammable dried pine leaves carpeting the forest floors made matters worse. Forest fires are beneficial but in natural forests, not plantations. In natural forests where they do not affect human development, managed fires have been found to be regenerative for the ecosystem, help revitalise the watershed, and renew the soil.
The Centre, together with state and local governments and communities, needs to devise plans for regeneration of natural forests. As the first line of defence, local communities need to be an integral part of forest management.
Science must inform afforestation. This calls for creating crisis groups at state and local levels, besides quality data, improved mapping of forests, hydrology and forest fires.
The government should seize the opportunity provided by the proposed compensatory afforestation law to overhaul forest management.