Fire on the Mountain

For the last few days visuals on the television news and in the newspapers have been painful to say the least. Image upon image of the mountains of Uttrakhand going up in smoke, tall once beautiful pines in the middle of a smoky blaze as the incessant fire rages on around have been belted out and experts on the environment pointing out the dangers of the fragile eco-system and its tenacious relationship with humankind.

I have always believed I have been a mountain girl having spent of my childhood in the midst of a valley at the foothills of the Uttarakhand Himalayas. The mountains were always a constant in my mind. Steady, solid, verdant green and silent. They stood tall no matter which part of town you looked at them from, changing colour with the changing seasons , snow capped white peaks glowing in the winter sun, a deep green in the rains and a lighter shade in the summer. For us growing up mountains indicated many things, a rainy day promised if the peaks were under a cloud , a hot summer if the snow didn’t last too long. As children we used to sit out in the evenings looking at the blinking lights up on the mountains where little villages stood out. From where I lived it was easy to see the twinkling lights of Mussoorie as the town almost blended in with the night sky and the stars in the sky.

Some summer  nights would be spent  on the terrace to try and beat the heat in the room during a power outage.At times, we would spot a small forest fire up in the hills and my mother would bemoan the destruction of some trees. Forest fires in the mountains were a regularity in the summer though the expanse would be small. We always wondered who was responsible. Sitting out under the stars in the gentle night breeze watching the raging glow on the mountain ahead of us we often blamed the man-enviornment conflict. The fires would disappear with the onset of the monsoon only to emerge on another mountain the next summer.

Visuals in the media look much more disturbing now. Probably the extent of the fires can be gathered in the press handouts from the government machinery. Over 6000 personnel pressed into action to put out the fire which extend across several districts in the Kumaon Himalayas. MI helicopters pressed into service to spray water over the raging fires, a reminder of the large strides we have made in development.

But as one watches the flames wrap themselves across the pines and leap from bush to bush as government personnel try to douse them out by slapping leafy branches on them, one cannot but help mourn the loss of an extremely fragile eco-system. The reasons for the fire are many,and the experts will have much to say on what caused the fires. There were lesser rains this winter, there is a mafia at work, El Nino, the list could go on. But in the debates that will rage on in television studios much after the trees have burnt themselves out, I wonder who will mourn the mountains. The steady, silent rock solid mountains are being burnt down. Hundreds of species that lived in these mountains, now threatened for their very existence. An existence that no MI helicopter can restore.

For years humankind and forest have lived in a happy co-existence in the forests of Uttrakhand. Even as civilization progressed this co-dependence was institutionalised through a system of van panchayats where families lived in sync with the mountains, collecting the produce of the forest for their livelihood and protecting them from damage. Uttrakahand is the state where the people realised the importance of the trees generations ago when the women hugged the trees to prevent them from being cut down in what came to be known as the Chipko Movement. It is indeed  tragic that the state that gave the country one of the finest examples of environmental conservation today finds itself at this point.

Whether man-made or natural this disaster in Uttrakhand will leave us teary eyed much after the fires have died out and the smoke dissipated. Let us hope it isn’t too late.




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