On a March night this year, Barna Baibhaba Panda, a Senior Programme Manager (East) at the Foundation for Ecological Security was busily preparing to travel to Odisha’s Nayagarh district for a meeting with the Jangal Suraksha Samiti. But, his anticipation to hold discussions with the Forest Protection Committee was dampened when he received a phone call from the Samiti cancelling the meeting. The Samiti, which is a village institution formed under the Joint Forest Management Program, had to answer their call of duty: a fire had broken out in the forest that night, and the members had begun dowsing it before the Forest Department stepped in.
“In most of Odisha, there is a rich history of communities participating to protect forests from fires, and wherever there are such protection committees, they usually become the first respondents,” Panda says. “These forest fires can spread to such scales that it can be very difficult for the Forest Department alone to manage them.”
Nayagarh’s forest fires were one of the many this year that engulfed the state since February. And that’s not all. Since the beginning of this year till last week, the NASA-operated SNPP-VIIRS — a high-resolution satellite that detects even smaller fires — has already recorded over 30,000 instances of forest fires across the country, including in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and the North-eastern states. More recently, the Forest Department and communities in Uttarakhand are dowsing fierce, orange flames which started spurting in October last year.
Just looking at the red dots(active fires) is giving me a proper headache. The Himalayan belt, Uttarakhand and Nepal, looks particularly dreadful. Apart from rains, nothing can stop these fires now I suppose.
Source: NASA FIRMS pic.twitter.com/XYPTVWEN1s
— Neelima Vallangi (@NVallangi) April 10, 2021
But, forest fires are hardly a surprise for the communities and the Forest Departments. During the dry months between winter and the monsoon, forest fires rage across the country. In fact, the biennial State of Forest Report, 2019 estimates 36% of India’s forest cover to be prone to frequent forest fires. So, if we know when these fires are likely to occur and which forests are prone to burning, then what makes managing forest fires a challenge?
Overwhelming Task, Underwhelming Manpower
Just like members of the Jangal Suraksha Samiti in Nayagarh, communities across the country are often the first responders to blazing forests. This works well for Forest Departments in all states, who are currently facing a critical crunch of forest guards on ground. “For around 40 square kilometres of forests, we have one forest guard who patrols the forests and helps to douse the fires,” says Koko Rosé, the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Tehri, Uttrakhand. “Can you imagine how overwhelming that is?” he asks.
Vaibhav Singh, Rosé’s counterpart at the Rudraprayag division, echoes the same sentiment. “We are functioning with only 30-35% of the sanctioned strength for the department, which is really negligible manpower for managing forest fires, especially in Uttarakhand’s mountainous topography.”
Even the Department in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district, where the forests of Simlipal Tiger Reserve burned for over a fortnight in March, is marred with scarce manpower. Since last year, as many as 195 forest guard positions against the sanctioned strength of 517 are vacant in the six divisions that fall in Mayurbhanj district. Reports from Arunachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Jharkhand also share similar stories.
This scarcity has not gone unnoticed by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC). In a 2018 National Action Plan for Forest Management, they recommended that “the state Forest Departments should fill all vacancies especially at the level of frontline forest officials in the fire prone areas on priority basis.” This was brought up more recently by the Uttarakhand High Court last week when it asked the state government to “ensure that 65% of vacancies in the cadre of Forest Guard are eliminated within a period of 6 months,” while hearing a petition on increasing forest fires in the state.
The High Court also ordered Uttarakhand to “ensure that sufficient funds are given to the Forest Department so that the vacancies can be filled up”, pointing towards another resource scarcity in forest fire management: money.
Since 2017, “Forest Fire Prevention and Management” a Centrally-sponsored scheme allocates forest fire funds to all states. The only such scheme for managing and preventing forest fires in India, it has a 90:10 Centre-state share of funding for northeast and western-Himalayan states, while other states operate on a 60:40 split”
Having said that, while ₹50 crores were initially allocated towards “Forest Fire Prevention and Management” in the FY 2020-21, the outlay was revised to ₹33 crores, presumably with the pandemic demanding other expenses. Making things worse this financial year, the MoEFCC estimated only ₹40 crores for the scheme in 2021-22, which is ₹10 crores short of last year’s allocation. With this, everything that funds can afford — such as vehicles for quickly reaching the fires, first-aid kits, and equipment like leaf blowers (to clear dried leaves and create space for fire lines to stop the spread of fire) — gets compromised.
“From the funds we receive, we hire more people under contractual employment during the fire season to aid the understaffed beat officers. But, for the supply of materials like first aid, food, and drinking water for our teams that camp inside forests, there aren’t enough funds,” says a Forest Officer who requested to remain anonymous. Posted at the Melghat Division in Maharashtra, he claims that about 500 hectares of forests have already burned this year.
Equipment and vehicles are not the only acquisitions affected by a strained budget. In the Union Budget for 2020-21, the flagship Project Tiger’s revised estimates reported a 35% drop from its initial allocation of ₹300 crores. For 2021-22, the budget estimates saw a fall once again, with ₹250 crores being allocated. In Simlipal, the repercussions of this fund crunch were made visible when hundreds of protection assistants were laid off, thereby impacting the forest protection and fire management programmes in the tiger reserve.
Having manpower on the ground can then pave the way for other interventions. “I read many articles on forest fires where people recommend better technologies and equipment for fire fighting. But, who will be using this technology if we do not even have enough manpower on the ground?” says DFO Vaibhav Singh.
With limited manpower, could coordinating with forest-dependent communities open up more efficient solutions for Forest Departments?
Putting Bringing Communities at the Centre
“While there are a few instances of human-made forest fires, it is often used as a dominant narrative by Forest Departments, which shifts the entire blame on forest-dependent communities and their dependence on the forest,” says Panda. DFOs reflected Panda’s concerns during interviews, saying that almost 90% of forest fires are human-made. Melghat’s Forest Officer, in fact, shared what he believed to be an “unpopular but necessary” opinion. “Villagers who are lighting fires should be booked for offences, and perhaps purchasing drones can help monitor who are the ones lighting the fires,” he says.
In many ways, such a narrative encourages the continuation of the exclusionary treatment of reserved and protected forests, which restricts access to communities dependent on them. This has implications on how forest fires are managed too. “Previously, in Uttarakhand, there were water sources that were maintained in forests by the communities which allowed for decentralised ways to quickly respond to a fire. But now, with restricted forest access and no possibility of managing these sources, a lot of them have dried up,” says Pranav Menon, a research scholar at JNU who has been working on the Forest Rights Act, 2006 for the last two years.
As for the forest officers interviewed, there was not much debate on whether local communities should be involved in dowsing forest fires. What is more interesting, is that they observed a difference in how fires were dealt with when the community had a sense of ownership over and dependence upon the forests. “We have seen that when there are fires in the chir pine forests of our division, village communities are not very encouraged to help us douse the flames,” shares Tehri’s DFO, Koko Rosé. Chir pine is not used by forest-dependent communities; not only do the slippery fallen pine needles hamper movement within forests, but they also prevent fodder from growing. “On the other hand, in oak forests — upon which Uttarakhand’s communities are dependent on for fodder — we see people responding quickly to fires and voluntarily helping our efforts,” Rosé continues.
Melghat’s Forest Officer also observes the same in his division. “In some places where Community Forest Rights [under the Forest Rights Act, 2006] have been given and NGOs have been working towards these efforts, we find that village communities actively douse fires.”
In an effort to involve communities in forest fire management, the DFO’s office in Rudraprayag, Uttarakhand transfers ₹10,000 to 22 Gram Sabhas and ₹4,000 to about 200 Van Panchayats. This money can then be paid by the village institutions to those who participate in dousing the fires when they occur. “We involve the youth and women groups for this while providing them with basic fire fighting gear. These groups are crucial for us in fire management,” says Vaibhav Singh.
Departments That Work Together, Douse Fires Together
Apart from coordinating with communities, Singh also believes that coordination between the Forest and Revenue Departments is required. While most of India’s forests are classified as reserved, and protected forests and are administered by Forest Departments, there are also over 1 lakh hectares of “unclassed forest lands” which are not necessarily managed by the state forest departments. In Uttarakhand, 8.92% of the total forests are classified as “civil” or “soyam” forests, which are administered by the Revenue Department.
“When there are fires in the civil forests, the Revenue Department often expects the Forest Department to respond to them,” says Singh.
We lose precious time in such efforts [in civil forests] because while forest guards know their reserved forests and the routes within those forests well, they begin from scratch while entering forests they do not administer. There has to be a long-drawn strategy involving the Revenue Department for a more efficient response in these areas.
Another strategy that could help fighting forest fires in India lies in the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA). The Authority is responsible for afforestation activities which compensate for forest land that has been diverted towards non-forest uses. CAMPA has often been criticised for planting non-native trees during its afforestation activities, including commercial but highly flammable Eucalyptus and Chir Pine.
Yet, whether it’s with communities or with other line departments, there is an important aspect of forest fire management that cannot be overlooked — the prevention of fires, instead of post-fire responses.
Prevent First, Respond Later
“Preventing forest fires is the best step that can be practised. In Odisha, many communities, especially women have been involved in this by creating fire lines before the fire season,” says Panda.
But, conversations with DFOs point towards their low degree of preparedness. One believed that preventive efforts like creating fire lines and controlled burning “are not as large scale as they used to be”. Another shared a comprehensive list of “pre-fire efforts”, which included clearing an invasive plant known as Lantana, and repairing wear-and-tear on equipment like grass cutters. He did confess that a few of these activities were not taken up.
A 2018 joint report by MoEFCC and the World Bank also reflected the minimal prevention activities undertaken by most state Forest Departments. “Only half of the forest officers surveyed in 11 states said that all the fire lines in their area were being cleared as required per the forest working plans, [while] 66% said controlled burning was not being regularly performed…less[er] emphasis has been given to silvicultural practices, such as selective thinning and planting fire-adapted species,” the report states.
“Wherever the relationship between us [the Forest Department] and communities is good, we see more proactive fire response,” says Melghat’s Forest Officer, perhaps unintentionally reflecting upon the strained relationship between Forest Departments and forest-dependent communities. It is a common feature in Protected Forests and is a relationship characterised by restricting communities’ access to forests, and in some cases, even violence.
The management of forest fires is not spared by these tense relationships. Preparedness, which can help control fires better, is essential during the summer months in India. But, for management to improve, interventions are needed at every step along the way — right from increasing community ownership of forests, to focusing on preventing forest fires, ensuring steady streams of funding, manpower, and inter-departmental coordination.
Featured image courtesy of an officer who wished to remain anonymous.