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What In Blazes Is Going On?

The last word? India’s economy has been built on a stable ecological foundation. Shake this and like a house of cards, the economy will come tumbling down

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Forest fires have become the unwelcome ‘flavour of the month’ for India’s monocultured media. You can’t look anywhere without being exposed to orange-coloured images on channels, and newspapers. Unfortunately, most reports emerge as shallow and misleading. Commentators have fallen for the line sold that villagers are to blame for the fires.

Undoubtedly, the fires were lit by humans. But justified or not, they have been doing this for decades to collect tendu leaves, or mahua, or to spur the growth of ash-fertilised grasses soon after the first rains. April and May has always been ‘fire season’ in India. So why were the fires more widespread? And why did they rage more strongly than ever before? And why are they burning longer than usual in Uttarakhand and Himachal?

Ironically, for the same reason that floods and droughts are now more vicious, more frequent…because climate wobbles have led to subtle but catastrophic changes in temperature and humidity. In the case of the forest fires, soil moisture evaporated, while ground temperatures rose. In combination with winds tinder-box circumstances were created. As a result, ‘normal’ fires that might once have merely singed barks, metamorphosed into infernos to consume the entire heartwood of ancient trees that survived scores of earlier fires.

A deadly domino effect has been set into motion. More fires will burn at higher temperatures, trigger greater soil-moisture evaporation, in a vicious cycle that will end only when the heavens open and rain saves us. At which point we will have to deal with killer flash floods.

Ignorance led India’s leaders to ignore warnings of the likelihood of such fire damage. Closeted away from the advice and opinion of all, Indian decision-makers ordered that platitudes and indignation replace rationality as the dominant climate discourse. No Indian prime minister has thought fit to address India’s farmers, fisherfolk, ordinary rural folk or urban citizens on how climate change is altering and threatening their way of life.

The Indian Forest Fire Response and Assessment System for the monitoring and management of forest fires warned long ago that 55 per cent of India’s forest area was prone to annual fires. The advice lies buried in files. Avarice is at play. The oil, coal and gas lobbies, tutored by partners overseas, leveraged delayed climate action that allowed business as usual for a few years more. Meanwhile, our carbon-sequestering, water-supplying and climate-moderating natural ecosystems including forests, withered.

Arrogance played a lead role too, serendipitously, supported by a pocketful of myopic, but equally arrogant environmental groups and ‘experts’ with preferential access to India’s decision-making elite. Thus the carbon lobby egged India’s leaders on to fiddle while India burned. They rightly blamed the industrial North for causing climate change, but ignored the disaster that was breaking against our front door. All advise to protect forests from industry, agriculture, pillage and fire was ignored.

Nothing worked. Forest protection budgets were cut. Water tables fell. Floods and droughts turned more frequent, more intense as 1.3 billion people went about their business as usual. Clearly, apathy, the fourth Horseman of our Ecological Apocalypse catalyses the adverse impact of the first three — Ignorance, Arrogance and Avarice. Meanwhile, the Juggernaut of climate change trundles on in a world already 2 degrees warmer than it should be.

The last word? India’s economy has been built on a stable ecological foundation. Shake this and like a house of cards, the economy will come tumbling down.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Last Word forest floods magazine 30 may 2016

Bittu Sahgal

The author is Editor, Sanctuary Asia

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