Interview with Manu Dafaali, Environmentalist and founder of Harela Society

Harela Society
Src: facebook page of Harela Society

There are a few societies in Uttarakhand that are really doing something while the others are busy in skimming the milk in the name of welfare and charity. One of my favourite among them is Harela Society, an organization formed by humble and radical thinkers who are dedicated to save Mother Nature with their fruitful efforts. While man had already made plans of growing vegetation at Mars, he has forgotten that by cutting trees on Earth no other planet will prosper, as the blow of the axe will spare none. With the increase in the interference of human activities, we haven’t realized how much harm we are causing to the natural resources. Harela Society believes in doing ground work and spreading awareness among the people, for conserving the free gifts of nature. I have been following them for quite a long time and was stunned by their work at fighting forest fire of 2016, which urged me to conduct an online interview with Manu Dafaali, the founder of Harela Society.

Q1. When did the seed of Harela Society germinate and what was the reason behind it?

Harela society was formed by a group of likeminded people, who were passionate about conservation. I was working on whale shark conservation project as a marine biologist in Gujarat. It was a project to save the world’s largest fish. Whenever I use to visit the Himalayas, especially my hometown, Pithoragarh, I got upset, when I saw how people are getting ignorant about our natural resources. Every year, I was observing a drastic change in the streams, housing pattern, the frequency of disasters and unfortunate ignorance of people towards it. In 2012, I met some of the researchers, who were from the same region, working on environment and wildlife issues in Wildlife Institute of India. We shared our worries, ideas and in that thought process, we decided to form a group. In April 2013 we registered our group, under society registration act 1860.

Q2. What is Harela Society about and what are the key issues that Harela Society tackles?

Harela Society believes in forming local models (archetypes) of reconciliation ecology, (supporting sustainable development). Inspired by Harela Festival, which itself is a great example of reconciliation. Historically, people in Kumaun, use to clear forests for their agricultural lands, but to balance it, they use to plant new saplings along with farmland borders on Harela Festival. It not only helped in restoring the natural balance but also hindered soil erosion. These trees performed multi-tasks like, fodder collection (locally called, lutte), a place to sit in shade during agricultural practices, place for birds and insects, which further helped in natural pest control, seed dispersal and pollination) Currently, Harela society is working more on community awareness and has also formed a dedicated team of more than 150 volunteers in Pithoragarh. It is not easy to get into minds of youth for conservation issues, so we reached them through activities like photo walks, wall painting, music, and theatre. And while conducting these activities, we introduce them to conservation issues and involved them with our on field conservation activities like regular cleanups, disaster management practices (life forest fire, rescue, and relief work during disasters, animal rescues, water stream revival campaign, awareness programs with kids and youth like Hug a tree, Adopt a plant and using natural/safe/organic Holi colors etc.

Q3. Apart from Pithoragarh in which other regions of Uttarakhand Harela society has spread its roots?

Apart from Pithoragarh, we are running our activities in Delhi and Hyderabad. Very soon, we will start our activities, in Dehradun, Haldwani, Munsiyari, Patna, Gujarat and Bangalore. Our objective is to form active volunteer groups, which could take some on ground action, needed for sustainable development.

Harela in Telangana
Volunteers of Harela Society from IIT Hyderabad in “Adopt a Plant” campaign supported by MPDO & APO Medak Dist at Mamdipalli Village, Telangana. Pic Src: facebook page of Harela Society

Q4. How many members are there in your group? Do they belong to Uttarakhand?

At present in Pithoragarh, we have more than 150 volunteers, out of which 50-60 are regular and available during most of our activities. They are mostly students from local schools and college. In Delhi, we have around 50 volunteers; most of them are working professionals from various fields. In Hyderabad, we have around 30 volunteers, both working professionals, and students.

Q5. What kind of hurdles did you face initially, while working with the locals of Pithoragarh?

As such with locals, we have faced no such issues because we never talked about conservation directly. In a very strategic way, we tried to involve them in other activities and then introduced them to the environmental issues. It was a new experiment which was executed successfully. We are still evolving and in coming years, we will have a more refined version of our activities.

Q6. Your work in fighting Uttarakhand forest fire was commendable, what according to you was the reason behind the outrageous forest fire?

Lack of knowledge, awareness among locals and authorities, timber mafia, ignorance and lack of preparedness in authorities, ill managed forests were the main reasons behind forest fire. Locals still think forest fires are a boon, for a better fodder production. But the truth is, due to forest fire, all seeds burn out, also there is a loss of roots which help in vegetative propagation of grass. Secondly, many think, fire, recycles many elements back to the soil, like Potash, sodium oxide etc. which is true. But due to rain in our hilly slopes, all gets washed off, making our soil more infertile. Due to loss of trees, small bushes, shrubs and grass cover, during the forest fire, we lose a huge amount of surface soil with rain. Forest fires also are a big reason of global climate change, glacier melt and cloud bursts. Biodiversity loss in terms of flora and fauna is another problem after such forest fires. Also, authorities instead of managing forests especially Pine forest, just blame the locals and pine needles for such fires. If properly managed, this forest can help a lot in the Himalayan economy. In Pithoragarh only, there is technology available which can convert pine needle energy into electricity; pine needle oil and turpentine oil are also in great demand which fetches good money. Pine is the only plant that one can harvest easily for timber use. Rest Deodar, Sal, and Tun are a rare and costly affair. The only need is to see, opportunities with Pine forests, use and manage them properly. Still, we don’t have any broken line, forest fire lines in our Himalayas, which is a very simple and effective technique of managing forest fire worldwide.

Q7. Without any supplies, training, and help how did you fought the forest fire initially? What was your first reaction after witnessing the forest fire?

Some of us were having information and some had an initial level of training, but yes we were not equipped. We went to Forest Department and offered them manpower because they were seriously lacking it. With their help, equipment we fought the forest fire. It was very sad when we saw forests burning into ashes, the animals running as they had nowhere to escape because there was fire everywhere. It was frustrating when we saw the poor preparation, information sharing and ill techniques used for fighting a forest fire. As they were improperly equipped and there were huge chances of mishaps. So we did crowd funding, where we trained the people and purchased equipment for fighting the forest fire. Now our objective is to form a properly equipped professional team which will also train other teams.

Src - Facebook Page of Harela Society
Src – Facebook Page of Harela Society

Q8. From your Facebook Page, I came to know that Harela Society is carrying out the Animal Rescue operations can you please tell us something in this regard?

Harela society is a nodal agency for doing animal rescues during disasters in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. We had a MoU with Wildlife Trust of India and International fund for Animal Welfare, (WTI and IFAW are NGOs working for wildlife and animal issues in India and worldwide) where in our capacities, we will help in doing animal rescues. Some of our team members are also trained and we are about to form a professional team that will conduct disaster operations.

Q9. What is Harela Society’s take on the cloudburst that has caused terror in the state?

I had recently posted a note on our facebook page, I am pasting it here:

Q10. It’s heart wrenching that people who love Uttarakhand for its natural beauty do not care much to preserve its green belt, what would you like to say in this regard?

Yes, most of us don’t care. So is the reason, our state which is a birthplace of major rivers of our country lacks drinking water. In cities like Pithoragarh, which in a way are remotely situated suffers the same and we don’t have the availability of clean drinking water. Unfortunately, issues related to conservation, resource utilization is least priority thing in our social and political system. Still, the most important things such as air and water are taken for granted. Most of us leave our place, in search of employment and education. Unfortunately, there are no dedicated efforts of sustainable use of Himalayan resources which can provide ample opportunities for employing the youth. It is very simple to understand when you will not live in Uttarakhand, why you will care for it because Himalayan resources are not contributing to your employment, your bread and butter. So if at all, something happens to its resources, why will we do anything except putting some grief, anger, likes or dislikes on social media. We will have to create opportunities in the Himalayas so that natives don’t leave it. If they will live here, if our job opportunities will make them dependent on natural resources of Himalayas, then why they will not understand, and do something for its conservation.

Q11. What we as individuals can do to preserve the environment and create a better place to live in?

As said above, first step and the most important thing is, realizing that air, water, and other natural resources are not for granted. We can live without everything, but not without air and water. We will realize that with each day our basic things are getting depleted and it’s everyone’s responsibility to do his/her bit for conserving the natural resources because we all are using them equally. This responsibility is not for just a few environmentalist or groups. Once we will have this real awareness and sense of responsibility, we will find our ways to preserve our living environment. We will have to realize that, whatever efforts are we doing, is not for the environment as such. These all efforts will be for our own survival because no one can save or conserve the environment. The environment was always there, it is and it will be there in future, if anything will be missing, then it will be you, me and rest of us.

Q12. Do you think tourism in Uttarakhand is posing a threat to the environment and greenery? If Yes! Then please suggest us the measures to tackle it.

Yes, in many parts of Uttarakhand, irresponsible tourism is creating a lot of threat. In the name of development and tourism, new roads, ropeways are proposed, without having justified environment impact assessment. Our land and water both are getting polluted due to irresponsible tourism. Again education and awareness along with proper guidelines and its implementation is a must. We will have to explore things like home stays, instead of making new hotels and restaurants. We will have to share and invest the profits from this tourism back to conservation work. And it was done successfully, in some parts of our state. As said above, natives are not here, they have migrated in search of livelihood. And tourism in Uttarakhand is mostly run by those people who are non-natives, or purely business minded. There is no, equal sharing of profits with locals, in a way, current tourism is only and only benefiting few people. We will have to create opportunities for locals and one such thing is tourism. But again I will say, proper planning, sustainable resource utilization, awareness, counter checks are a must; else it will destroy our natural wealth.

Q13. On World Environment Day, Harlea Society held a wall painting competition called ‘Bolti Deeware’ what message you wanted to convey to the locals through that event?

Bolti Deeware was simple, yet effective way of telling citizens of city Pithoragarh, what our school kids are thinking about various environment issues of Pithoragarh. Students painted walls on Issues like the forest fire, unsustainable harvesting of Kida jadi in alpine meadows, cloud bursts, pollution in our streams etc. Through wall painting, we had given a permanent space to their ideas and thoughts at the heart of the city. Further, it helped students to think creatively, not as an individual but in a team. Beautification of the city and a permanent message on conservation are other benefits.

Wall painting by Donbosco School - Depicting Thalkedar forest fire. Showing what all issues Soar valley is facing during Bolti Deeware event.
Wall painting by Donbosco School  – Depicting Thalkedar forest fire. Showcasing the issues faced by the Soar valley during ‘Bolti Deeware event’ hosted by Harela Society.

Q14. How can a person volunteer/join Harela Society?

It is very simply – Participate in our activities and you are on the team. We update about our activities through our Facebook Page and WhatsApp group. Anyone can join us, and contribute in this fight.

Get in touch with Harela Society:

Harela Society Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/harelasociety

Harela Society Official Website: http://harela.org/

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