The recent Bandipur forest fire destroyed more than thousand hectares of the forest, also, claiming the life of a forest guard and injuring four others. It had spread through most of the north-western part of the reserve, also posing danger to the adjoining Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala.
Last year’s dreadful and destructive forest fire of Uttarakhand burnt down more than 4000 hectares of forest and claimed seven lives. The fire was finally doused using IAF helicopter fitted with Bambi buckets.
This brings us to one of the most alarming challenges of our times – forest fires.
According to a report by Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology, India, the country has seen a 55% rise in the number of forest fires as on December 2016.
The Himalayan regions and the dry deciduous forests of India, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha are ecologically sensitive areas and are most affected by these fires.
Forest fires are as old the forests themselves and are mostly good for the ecology as well as for regeneration. They often helping the forests to get rid of its natural wastes like dry grass, tree needles, and thick bushes.
But as the saying goes: fire is a good servant, but a bad master.
A problem erupts when the fire becomes untamed and destroys the entire, or most of the flora and fauna of the region, hence severely affecting the ecological balance. The effects of forest fires include – depletion of the ozone layer, soil erosion, and loss of forest cover, habitat and the livelihood of many tribal and rural people.
However, the results of a forest fire are more grievous than those mentioned above. For instance, fires clear forests to such extent that the rainwater simply flows through the area without recharging the ground water level.
Forest fires are caused both due to natural as well as man-made causes
- Rubbing of dry sticks
- Friction due to rolling stones
Man- Made Causes:
- Shifting Cultivation
- Covering up Illicit felling of trees
- Clearing path through the forest
- Tribal Traditions
FORESTS AND RELATED POLICIES
The Bandipur Forest fire, the 2016 Uttarakhand forest fire and many such cases are believed to be man-made disasters. This gives birth to an endless blame game between the government and the local population. Tribals depend mainly on the forest for their livelihood. As per reports, over 60% of the rural communities depend on the forest directly – for both timber and non-timber forest produce.
Some of the cultivation practices, in particular shifting cultivation practiced mostly in the North-eastern parts of India, are under immense scrutiny, since it is believed to be extremely detrimental to forest cover.
Before 1865, forest dwellers could utilise all of the forest resources without any restriction, however, the British Rulers in August 1865 introduced various guidelines restricting such unsupervised use of forest resources, based on the report by the then Superintendent of forests in Burma.
The National Forest Policy of Government of India, 1952 is the extension of the same 1865 act, which states that the claims of the communities residing near forests should not override national interest. This was done in order to protect the forests from incessant exploitation, thus cultivation and other related activities were allowed only in unclassified forest land.
Although this seems like a legit policy to protect forests, however, in reality, on one hand the Government has been earning huge revenues, but on the other, conditions of the native communities is deteriorating. This is a classic example of a great policy, but poor execution. For example, in West Bengal, the argument of the locals is that, they, being the natives of the forest have all rights to use the forest produce. The localities were finally asked to vacate the forest, the forest officials on the other hand blamed the localities for the destruction of wildlife and wilds vegetation.
All of this has given rise to another problem, wherein the locals, in the pretext of taking a revenge from the forest officials, intentionally torch the forests. Considering all these issues, in 2014, the government introduced the National Mission for Green India, which aims at protecting and enhancing the forest cover of the country by involving the local communities in planning and decision-making of the same.
Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) was introduced in 2014, to check the usage of unspent money raised by the central and the state governments. To check the money realized by the government in diverting the forest land, a bill called the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill (CAF) was passed in 2015. This bill itself was marred with various setbacks, which were a result of hasty planning. One of the most important examples of the failure of CAF was when Kudremukh Iron Ore Company limited (KIOCL) which had been exploiting the rainforests of the Kudremukh hills (Karnataka) from 1980-2005, tried to compensate for such massive loss of ecology by planting a huge number of trees. The problem with such large scale afforestation was that the trees planted were non-native, hence causing more harm than good.
The Central Government is also providing assistance to the State Governments under the centrally sponsored scheme – the National Afforestation Program (NAP) “for regeneration of degraded forests and adjoining areas through people’s participation.” The allocated budget for the same in 2015 was Rs.2,500 crore. However, reports suggest that the NAP has not been very successful, owing to the fact that despite huge budget allocation, 40% of the forests in the country are still degraded.
FOREST FIRE CONTROL IN INDIA
During the British rule, fires were controlled by removing forest litter like dry leaves and twigs along the forest lines during the summer season. This would prevent the fire from spreading to the other parts of the forest. This plan is way too simple to be applied to forests which range widely in terms of size.
Keeping that in mind a National Master Plan for Forest Fire Control has been established which aims to:
- Prevent fires by educating the people about the same and increasing people participation in Joint Forest Fire Management.
- Early detection and warning system through a well-co-ordinated system of observation points, efficient ground patrolling and communication network.
- Increased emphasis on training, research, and education.
A good plan, but most of it was executed only on paper. Forests fires have in fact increased over the years. Disaster management teams and the forest officials have also not been effective. Oftentimes, such cases have no solutions and lead to a lot of blame games. The need of the hour is to regularly keep track of the state of the forest through images taken from satellites, increased ground staff and establishing a relation between the officials and the tribal people for increased co-operation to avoid such incidents in the future.