Increased frequency and intensity of forest fires pose severe challenges — demanding more alertness and coordination on part of concerned authorities
Foresters have been lately facing flak from media and environmentalists for their failure to tackle forests fires. Though Forest fires are a common feature all over the country and limited forest floor burning is used as a management tool to promote forest conservation. On the other hand, the intentional forest fires by locals or accidental natural forest fires, if not managed properly, can undo the hard work of the forest department, causing immense harm to the people and ecosystem. As our agriculture and water resources are getting depleted, the forest fires further cause irreparable damage to forest hydrology which directly impacts the drinking water in the subsoils, streams and rivulets.
The annual occurrence of forest fires indicates the complete failure of the forest departments and state governments, as every year thousands of hectares of forests are engulfed by the raging fires. Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor data of the Forest Survey of India (FSI) detected 37,059 incidents of forest fires during 2018 in India, and so far this year the FSI has detected 3,23,414 incidents between February 1 to April 8. According to FSI around 54.40 per cent of forests in India are exposed to occasional fires, and 7.49 per cent to moderately frequent fires. Precious forest resources including carbon locked in the biomass are lost due to forest fires every year, adversely impacting the flow of goods and services from forests.
A large part of Indian forests in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, Northeastern states and Central India have been devastated by massive forest fires over the past month. Besides destroying the flora and fauna, forest fires are also engulfing villagers and forest staff. More than 80 per cent of the forest fires are manmade and the rest are caused by natural factors like intense heat waves, lightning and friction in vegetation. Most of the forest fires occur near the habitations due to human activities and poor maintenance of fire lines and fuel load by the forest department.
When the governments across the world are spending so much in debating through Jamboree international conventions on climate change, it is surprising to see a lackadaisical attitude around forest conservation in India. It appears that the government and the climate change negotiators are happy with the report of the Forest Survey of India which brings short-lived cheers every two years that the forest and tree cover is increasing. However, no one seems to take serious note of the information on the quality of the forests and the impact of forest fires reported by FSI in some form or other.
Many foresters blame shifting cultivation under the Forest Right Act 2006 in the Northeast, and slope, heat and shortage of staff and infrastructure in Uttarakhand. It is true to some extent but how the per ha loss by a forest fire is accounted to merely around Rs 2,000 by the Uttarakhand forest department which while calculating the ecological services from forest pegs for more than Rs 3.5 lakh per ha for demanding bonus for forest conservation from the Central government.
The Uttarakhand High Court recently took suo motu cognisance of the forest fires. It had summoned the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) and directed the Uttarakhand government to fill up the 60 per cent vacancies in the forest department within six months. The court asked to also provide the necessary funds. In a startling revelation, the PCCF informed a bench led by Chief Justice that 65 per cent post of the forest guards and 82 per cent of posts of the assistant conservators are lying vacant. It reflects the downslide on the professional ethos among the forest service officers who are either not able to influence the government on the resource crunch or have no plan to prevent such calamities.
The best strategy of forest fire control is the prior mobilization of men and material and the timely action. In this regard, the role of local village communities, Van Panchayats and Joint Forest Management assumes importance in forest fringe villages in India. This writer after the 2016 fires in Uttarakhand forests wrote to the then National Green Tribunal Chairman, suggesting a plan of action. After the intervention of NGT, fresh guidelines were issued but no tangible results could be seen.
As the FSI is coming up with real-time monitoring of forest fires through satellite-based messaging, this should make the job of field staff easy to control the forest fires. The forest department must have in place an 'early warning system' and a 'fire risk and management plan' for vulnerable areas — which are lacking in the present context. There is no fixing of accountability for loss of the nation's critical life-sustaining resource.
The Central and state governments should act together to bridge the gaps in forest management at the policymaking and ground level. Many forests are turning xeric due to heat waves with deleterious impact on the water cycle, soil and the people. The Central government had released Compensatory Afforestation Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds to the tune of more than Rs 50,000 crore to the states. This fund must be utilised for fire prevention and forest protection. People are beseeching their leaders for accountability and reforms. Foresters need to show determination and grit to fight their way to be successful — which seems missing.
The writer is the Chairman of the Centre for Resource Management and Environment. Views expressed are personal