Cost of negligence?
Incorporation of locals in fire control mechanism and proper real-time monitoring is of critical importance for mitigating impacts; write Avikal Somvanshi & Biswajit Mohanty
The Similipal forest fire has caused irreversible damage to the forest and its inhabitants. Countless ground fauna — including monitor lizards, mongoose, snakes and frogs — are reduced to ashes in the blink of an eye.
Entire generations of birds that nest on the ground are lost forever. Only a few can escape the raging inferno. We lost millions of seedlings and seeds, along with medicinal plants, shrubs, creepers and trees that take decades to grow.
There are two main causes for these types of fires — poachers and non-timber forest product (NTFP) collectors. Scared animals eager to escape the leaping flames flee straight into the arms of lurking poachers. NTFP collectors of mahua flowers burn the forest floor to clear the dry leaf litter, which makes it easy to collect flowers. Since these fires are unsupervised, they often spread to the adjacent forest areas. To collect fresh Kendu leaves used for bidis, the bushes are slashed and set on fire for the new flush.
Similipal has a unique microclimate: It sees occasional afternoon showers during the summer months that act as natural fire controllers. However, during certain years dry spells last for more than two-three weeks which spells disaster for the Similipal National Park.
Fire control in Odisha was traditionally limited to clearing fire lines to isolate fire-hit areas. The department, however, started allocating larger budgets for fire control for the last seven-eight years.
It is believed that the annual fire control budget for Odisha is Rs 50 crore. This includes temporary fire squads equipped with air blowers, vehicles and safety wire. A state-level toll-free number can also be used to inform the administration of fire occurrences.
Unfortunately, despite several requests by the writer, the number is publicised only through print or electronic media. Thereby, a majority of forest-dwelling communities remain unaware of the service.
Several measures should be taken to control forest fires which involve community participation. Women NTFP collectors can be trained to sweep fallen leaves under mahua trees and burn them in a controlled manner, which will prevent the fire from entering forest areas.
Local van suraksha samitis (forest protection committees) can be promised a reward if they manage to successfully prevent forest fire in their locality.
The destruction of the huge area of wildlife by poachers, despite the deployment of thousands of anti-poaching personnel, is particularly galling.
The current situation reveals a lack of supervision by senior park management. Similipal authorities even refused to part with the tour diaries of the director and deputy director sought under the Right to Information Act. With such dismal levels of transparency, it is not surprising that there is little public oversight over their governance.
The fire that ravaged some areas of the forest — and continues to do so — is a symptom of the deeper malaise that affects this priceless biosphere reserve. The rot extends deeper since there is little political commitment to save Similipal.
The state forest minister reacted on the 12th day, only after a social media outburst by a few Central ministers. The Odisha government is comparatively notorious for fixing accountability. Chhattisgarh had transferred nine IFS officers in June 2020 for failing to check the deaths of six elephants in 11 days.
Crores in rupees are spent every year by the Odisha Forest Department on fire squads and vehicle hires, but little is shared with the local community who can be vital in controlling the fire within the first few hours. At the same time, public oversight is effective in ensuring the accountability of the forest department.
Besides, there are gaping holes in monitoring the public health impact of these fires. One of them is real-time air quality monitoring and public communication of bad air under the National Air Quality Index initiative intended to enhance public awareness to improve air quality.
Wildfires and air quality
Wildfires have become a summer staple, thanks to climate change. Apart from being an environmental catastrophe, they are a public health emergency as well. Smoke from these fires can travel beyond the fire lines and choke millions of people residing in cities.
Wildfires emit a humungous amount of volatile and semi-volatile organic materials as well as nitrogen oxides, which later form ozone and organic particulate matter, according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Direct emissions of toxic pollutants can affect first responders and local residents. The formation of other pollutants can lead to harmful exposure to populations in regions far away.
This long-distance yet near-immediate impact made international headlines in September 2019, when the forest fires in Indonesia smoked out Singapore over 200 kilometres away across the Malacca Strait. In August 2020, the wildfires in California blew smoky air over nearly the entire bay area, turning San Francisco and the Silicon Valley into a gas-chamber.
Closer home, the farm stubble fires in Punjab and Haryana are now widely recognised as one of the primary causes of deadly smog that leaves Delhi-NCR breathless every October-November.
The impact of these remote fires on air quality and subsequent public health can be better gauged as the real-time air quality monitoring infrastructure has expanded. These monitors are filling gaps in evolving scientific understanding of transportation and precipitation of short-lived pollutants.
They also serve as public health warning systems, building public awareness on air pollution and simplifying the connections between distanced tragedies.
The monitoring of dark zone
Unfortunately, there are no real-time air quality monitors in any major city or district headquarters in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, northern Telangana and Medinipur division of West Bengal.
In fact, there are only two real-time air quality monitors between Kolkata and Hyderabad (1,200 km aerial distance).
This dark zone is marked by Singrauli, Varanasi and Gaya in the north; Jorapokhar, Asansol, Kolkata and Haldia in the east; Jabalpur, Nagpur and Chandrapur in the west; Hyderabad and Visakhapatnam in the south. Two monitoring stations present in this region are in Talcher and Brajrajnagar in North Odisha.
Home to much of India's major mineral deposits and a hotbed of mining and industrial activities, the region is densely populated. There are at least five cities with a million-plus population in this region.
Raipur, Ranchi, Bhubaneshwar, Rourkela, Warangal and Karimnagar are designated smart cities. Therefore, it is bewildering that a region 9-10 times the size of the National Capital Region (NCR) has just two real-time monitors, while NCR has 81.
Why official monitoring matters?
Most of these cities do have manual monitoring systems of air quality but data become available only a year later. Many smart cities in the region have deployed sensor-based low-cost monitors which have a role to play but lack scientific robustness and reliability.
Dedicated funds to combat air pollution in cities are linked with monitored air quality and this monitoring lapse is a handicap these cities don't need. More importantly, people need to know the air quality in their areas to safeguard their health.
Views expressed are personal