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Forests and fires

Binsar is a wildlife and forest sanctuary in Uttarakhand. It was declared a sanctuary decades ago,and as a result it is unscarred by development today.

Written by Vikram S Mehta |
May 3, 2010 12:58:16 am

Binsar is a wildlife and forest sanctuary in Uttarakhand. It was declared a sanctuary decades ago,and as a result it is unscarred by development today. There are only five houses inside,each of which was built by the British more than a century ago. There is no electricity; water has to be carefully “harvested” and three of the five homes are inaccessible by road. I am writing this article sitting on the lawns of one of these homes. I hear the chirp of the Himalayan magpie; the occasional screech of the barking deer and the rustle of the leaves. But other than that I am surrounded by silence. My nearest neighbour is a 30-minute walk away.

I am not writing this article to extol the beauty of nature or the pleasures of solitude. Although the thought has crossed my mind that leaders faced with the din of our democracy might find it therapeutic to retreat to a place like Binsar: certainly,the immensity of its natural surroundings — the towering deodar and oak forests and the majesty of Nanda Devi in the foreground — will be humbling. Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s comment “Man is but an insignificant creature of creation” resonates; who knows,the combined impact of beauty and silence might compel an introspection of priorities. But I am writing rather to share a concern — a dilemma which I present as a clichéd question “what is the optimum balance between development and nature”? The past few days that I have been here have pushed me to reflect on this question.

I have already indicated that Binsar is an outpost of unremitting natural beauty. The contrast between its dense foliage and the haphazard detritus of materialism that marks places like Mussorie,Shimla and Nainital is a powerful affirmation of the virtues of legislating environmental protection. Binsar retains its pristine natural splendour because it is a declared sanctuary. Nothing can be built inside it except through special sanction. The problem is that the villagers who have lived in the sanctuary for generations are not happy. They feel that development has passed them by and that the government is unconcerned about their plight. They are angry and their anger is now manifesting itself in dangerous and counter productive behaviour.

I can see the valley below from the perch of my lawn. Every night I have watched forest fires light up the horizon. The flames are doused in one corner; fresh ones flare up elsewhere. I have wondered why this spate of fires. Is it the scorching heat and the absence of rain? (It has not rained since September and “global warming” is now part of every villager’s lexicon.) Is it accident — the casual flicker of a cigarette butt on a bed of combustible dry leaves? Or is it deliberate arson? I have asked people for an explanation and alarmingly most have conceded that the bulk of the fires are caused by the villagers themselves. They are “lighting” up their own habitat to express frustration at the fact of their relative poverty. They concentrate their ire on nature because it is there. But as someone said they might well focus on a different target — if,for instance,they were handed guns.

Why this deepening frustration?

I know there is no simple answer but if the views of the villagers are accepted the explanation has to do with the unintended consequences of living inside a sanctuary and the non-delivery of promises.

The villagers maintain that their area has not been “developed” because the local authorities do not have an incentive to do so. They say that officials are only interested in pushing projects from which they can secure quick “under the table”pay-offs. The projects for the sanctuary have a long gestation as they require approvals from bodies like the Supreme Court. Thus even though money is allocated,the file is not actively progressed. A compounding gripe is the mismatch between promise and delivery. The villagers know they are entitled to subsidised kerosene. But they never get any. This is because the product is sequestered by the relatively rich for fuel adulteration and personal use. Similarly they are promised compensation for livestock killed by wild animals. But payments are always delayed. The larger point being made is that the sanctuary is a millstone around their neck. Development is tangibly evident outside the sanctuary but its benefits are notably absent within it. The fires are being lit to force the government to remove this millstone.

Nature abhors a vacuum — no pun intended — and clearly a vacuum has been created in Binsar just as,perhaps,might be the case in other parts of India where the local population have found their interests smothered by the drumbeat of “development”; for example,the tribals of Chhattisgarh. The question is how and by whom will this vacuum be filled.

The necessary answer for Binsar is clear. The government must deliver on its promises. Subsidised kerosene should reach the intended beneficiaries; solar lighting should be introduced in lieu of grid power; roads must be built; and compensation must be paid without delay.

But is this a sufficiently robust answer? Will material progress alone mitigate the alienation that people feel towards authority? Will it restore the balance between the villagers and their surrounding? Will it bring them back into the fold of civic society? I do not know but my sense based on somewhat cursory conversations is that a lot more than economic progress will be required to restore the loss of self-confidence that the current sense of relative deprivation has engendered. The challenge ahead will be to not simply generate employment but to create jobs that revitalise self-respect and dignity. This will not be an easy challenge. But if the forest officials of Binsar want the villagers to help them douse fires caused by natural circumstances rather than create new ones,it is one that will have to be immediately addressed.

The writer is chairman of Shell Group in India. Views are personal

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