When we had originally started searching for land in the Himalayas, we had been shaken by how much deforestation had already taken place in the lower foothills and regions around Rishikesh and Mussoorie. Indeed, when we first visited Mussoorie back in September of 1986, staying at Anil’s maternal grandfather’s hotel—the Savoy—we were told an astonishing account of an earlier visit to the area by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. The Nehru family, including Mrs Gandhi’s father, Jawaharlal Nehru, had visited Mussoorie often over the decades, actually staying in the Savoy itself many times. At that time, the hills and Dehradun Valley were lush with forests, as was the case when Anil had attended school in the Doon Valley even earlier. But things had changed, with deforestation plaguing both the valley and the Mussoorie area.
As our car made its ascent up the roads leading to Mussoorie, I noticed that the big rocks on either side of the road had old green paint on them. Upon asking why the rocks had been painted green, we were told that officials in the area had done so prior to a planned visit to Mussoorie by then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, just a couple of years earlier. Mrs Gandhi loved Nature and wildlife. India owes the existence of the environmental laws it has had, as well as its earliest programmes to help save the tiger, in particular, to Mrs Gandhi.
Motivated by her love of wildlife, she framed the first true environment laws in the country—laws that were strict and absolutely essential to stop the wholesale destruction of India’s forests and slaughter of its wildlife. Because the fundamental truth is that, without a healthy environment, without forests and the wildlife that sustains them, without the ecosystem services like water production and conservation that forests provide, no development of any true or lasting worth is possible.
The plundering of India’s natural wealth had begun under the British but increased exponentially after independence had been won. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of India’s iconic species, like the Bengal tiger, were in a perilous state, with their population so dangerously low that even with strict laws to protect them, it was doubtful they would survive. With the input from some of the country’s leading wildlife experts and conservationists (like Anne Wright, founder of WWF and mother of tiger expert Belinda Wright), Mrs Gandhi fought for and achieved the passage of conservation laws necessary to give India’s forests and wildlife at least a fighting chance to survive, thereby giving India and the Indian people a chance to survive as well.
Thinking they might be able to fool her into believing all was well, they painted large rocks green in the hope that she might mistake the green rocks for green trees from the helicopter that would be flying her in! Of course, she was not fooled at all and the officials involved reaped the karmic repercussions of their stupidity and attempted deception, the old green paint a testimony to the lengths some will go to, to try to cover up their mindless and continued looting of India’s and the world’s natural wealth at the expense of the present and future generations.
Chir That Is No Cheer!
We witnessed the same sad tale of continuing deforestation throughout our journey in the Himalayas until we finally reached the Uttarkashi Valley. Here there were still forests and that too, forests filled with native tree species. Species like tun or red cedar, banj oak, angu, Himalayan elm, kail and burans (a type of rhododendron) as well as coniferous species like deodar cedar and picea spruce still covered the slopes of much of the areas beyond Uttarkashi town.
These wonderful native trees were however edged out in places and mixed with another pine called ‘chir’ (pronounced ‘cheer’). Chir is a pine tree normally found in the lower elevations of the Himalayas. It was promoted by the British during their rule since it grew straight and tall relatively quickly, thereby being useful as a tree for ‘lumber’ . . . or so they thought.
In fact, while chir does indeed grow straight, it is a poor species to use for building, unlike the native trees of the region. Over the years, chir warps even when it is fully dried before use. In addition, it is prone to parasites like termites who have an easy time eating into its softer wood compared to the natural conifers and hardwoods of these mountains. Hence its true value as lumber is severely limited. But that did not stop the British from promoting its cultivation, planting it everywhere.
For the local people living there, the long needles of the chir tree are perilous to walk on, especially during the rainy season. Both Anil and I have experienced how horribly slippery the needles get when wet — something very dangerous to have to deal with when you are walking on sheer cliffs and mountain paths.
In addition, these same needles speed up rain runoff, the water sliding off the long needles with ease and picking up speed as it races down the mountain. This, in turn, lends itself to flash flooding, unlike the indigenous conifers whose short needles minimize rain runoff, helping to capture moisture on the hilly slopes. The deciduous trees are even more effective in this with their fallen leaves acting as sponges to soak up the rain, while also bringing valuable and vital nutrients to the forest soils that enhance future fertility and growth. The chir needles take many, many years to biodegrade, thereby merely robbing nutrients from the soil and not giving it back to the forest at all, unlike the endemic tree species.
Mira Behn (or Mirabehn)—the British daughter-disciple of Mahatma Gandhi—was one of the first people to ring the alarm bells regarding the steady upward spread of chir trees from lower altitudes to higher elevations and the devastating effects the chir had on flooding downstream. From childhood, she had been an enthusiastic lover of Nature, spending all the time she could in forests, enjoying the wildlife wherever she was. Hence, her ability to sense any imbalance in Nature was honed at an early age.
After Gandhiji was assassinated, she moved north, spending time in the Tehri region of the Garhwal Hills—an area you pass through on the way to Uttarkashi. While the Tehri Valley is lower in elevation than Uttarkashi, it still is home for most of the same tree species. She recorded the advance of the chir up the slopes, and the unwise practice back then of the forest department’s policy of cutting down banj oak and planting chir pine instead. In an essay entitled ‘Something Wrong in the Himalaya’, that she wrote in 1952, Mira Behn noted the detrimental effect these trees had on the environment and on the local people, urging the forest department to change their policies.
The banj oak forests were the centre of the economy and environment of the area, she wrote, adding that cutting them down was equivalent to cutting out the very heart of the entire ecosystem which would inevitably bring about its deadly collapse. She surmised that their presence in Tehri was a warning signal that the Himalayas were warming up.
This was quite a remarkable observation to have made at that time during the late 1950s and was based on her knowledge of the local native fauna. Chir grows best in the warmer temperatures one finds at lower elevations. The fact that it was now spreading on its own, being seen at higher elevations could only mean that overall temperatures at higher altitudes were climbing as well.
The British were also responsible for deforesting the Himalayan slopes well up the major rivers. To get the felled trees down to the valley below, they floated them on the river itself, thereby bypassing the need to use the treacherous mountain roads. Teaching this technique to some of the local people further enhanced the speed with which the Himalayan forests were being destroyed.
This excerpt from ‘From the Heart of Nature’ by Pamela Gale Malhotra has been published with permission from Penguin India.