Co-authored by Ishani Pant & Aishwarya Birla
Himachal Pradesh is undoubtedly having a torturous summer; with the Shimla water crisis reaching a crescendo, the state’s forest fires seem to be yet another environmental misfortune. If one were to look closely, evidence shows that these forest fires are not a one-off phenomenon, but are part of a larger, scarier trend.
The issue continues to be augmented by a lack of any preventive implementation strategy by the successive governments and the insufficient attempts at raising awareness among locals. It’s time to drastically change our attitude towards forest fires; it is time to stop dismissing it as just a summer phenomenon.
What has been happening?
Between 2015 and 2017, there has been a 125% increase in the occurrences of forest fires, out of which 95% were man-made.
Increased demand for timber and non-timber forest produce due to an increase in population has naturally put intense pressure on forests. This increase in demand has also lead to a rise in timber mafia activities and illegal encroachments by communities living around these areas, in an attempt to avoid high prices of land. This has impeded several well-meaning efforts to protect forests. Legislations like the Forest Conservation Act have failed and forests are being mercilessly exploited; anthropogenic activities in forest lands have added to accidental fires due to leaf burning and shifting-axe cultivation, along with environmental factors like high temperatures. Despite the existence of technology like MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) which allows one to anticipate their potential location, forest fires have continued to consume great patches of land.
Although naturally occurring forest fires play a regulatory role in the environmental cycle, man-made fires disturb normal forest life in unwarranted ways. As a country focused on development, India appears to be blind to the obliteration of its resources; a government estimate says that the country loses about 550 crores every year due to these fires. Further, at present, fire management plans have only been applied to 700 to 800 Ha out of 50000 Ha of the susceptible area.
Forests also provide vital natural services which are not empirically calculated, such as restricting soil erosion, aiding in flood control, regulating the hydrological cycle and so on. The consequences of uncontrolled forest fires are alarming; an official was reported to have said: “If not prevented in time, our efforts to combat climate change will also have an adverse impact”. While the National Green Tribunal has consistently recommended that the National Policy on Forest Fire be put into place, the centre has remained a “mute spectator”.
Much like the Shimla water crisis, the state should have seen this coming, especially after the devastating 2016 fires in Uttarakhand. A Forest Fire Disaster Management report cites several shortcomings of the government when it came to preparedness. For instance, it highlights the emphasis given by the government on response-based actions, as opposed to mitigation.
“Very less or negligible importance is given to other issues i.e. mitigation, preparedness, human resource development, providing scientific input, awareness creation, etc.”, says the report.
Further, it finds that several forest officials across departments lack knowledge about forest fires and its behaviour. In fact, training institutes for the forest department are themselves not well equipped to provide training for forest fire management. There is a severe lack of scientific data and documentation at the state level, which additionally adds to a lack of preparedness.
Prevention is Better than Cure
Although the draft National Forest Policy has been declared ready by the NGT, it awaits a response from state governments. The policy suggests a profit-based approach to forest protection, one that combines, for instance, the growth of forest-based industries and scientifically-engineered plantations to ensure self-sufficiency and conservation. Such methods hope to create a sustainable and responsible coexistence between environment and development. Another major concern of the draft policy is the representation of India’s green objectives on the international stage to encourage global and national efforts towards conservation. It also strongly advocates a community-based approach towards forest protection and fire prevention.
A participatory approach in developmental plans at the village level will ultimately result in more responsibility towards the local environment. Widespread awareness campaigns must take place to inform and educate the local populace about methods to prevent and manage potentially widespread fires. For instance, communities living in forests often set fire to their waste (it is the easiest way to dispose waste) and set fire to create walking paths. There have been several cases where such actions have caused bigger fires. Working with these communities to create better solutions will be beneficial for all the stakeholders involved.
A growing nation like India must learn to balance goals of development and environment before it’s too late. Red flags like the Shimla water crises and the rising threat forest fires are a sign that we must act now, and not later. Governing authorities can no longer afford to be in the blue themselves. Forest departments must be given the requisite tools to cope with a paucity of equipment, infrastructure, knowledge, and training. The Forest Fire Management report cited above also calls for the creation of a separate budget for forest fire management at the state level.
Ultimately, if the situation finds no relief through timely action and preventive measures, the Indian nation will have gradually cornered itself, with economic and environmental havoc at our heels.