Injured trekkers brought to a hospital in Theni district | PTI
Injured trekkers brought to a hospital in Theni district | PTI
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The govt’s colonial-era emphasis on preventing all sorts of fires may actually be increasing the frequency of the devastating fires, say experts.

New Delhi: Eleven trekkers have lost their lives to a massive forest fire in Theni in southern Tamil Nadu – thus, predictably, bringing India’s forest fire crisis to the fore once again. The incident has come just a month after the death of a forest guard in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka.

The number of forest fires in India is rapidly increasing –in south India, they’ve doubled in the past two years. Desperate attempts are being made to explain the causes and find solutions to prevent these fires – with what environmental experts worry is a half-baked understanding of forest fires.

“All fires are being painted with the same brush, with scant regard for the ecological role of forest fires in certain types of ecosystems,” argues Ankila Hiremath, fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment.

Government policies on forest fires

While the Forest Survey of India (FSI), in its report last year, acknowledged that forest fires play an important role in scientific forest management, the government’s thrust in relation to fires has been mainly on prevention.

In the operational guidelines for the centrally-sponsored scheme of Forest Fire Prevention and Management (FPM), for example, forest fire is regarded as the “most important agent of degradation of forest ecosystems”. The annual financial loss from forest fires in the country, in addition to loss of bio-diversity, ozone layer depletion, loss of habitat for wildlife, and soil erosion, is estimated to be Rs 550 crore.

In both the short-term and long-term objectives of the guidelines, the emphasis is on prevention of forest fires. However, most resources are spent on controlling fires, rather than preventing them, says S.S. Negi, former director general (forests) and in the ministry of environment, forests and climate change. “It’s very difficult to control the fire once it has already broken out,” he says.

India has a satellite-based monitoring system under the FSI, which is used to send out SMS alerts to forest staff in specific regions when a fire breaks out. “It’s a very important mechanism to deal with fires, since a lot of times, forest staff doesn’t even get to know if a fire has broken out,” Negi says.

According to the FSI report, as of July 2017, around 11,500 users have registered under the Forest Fire Alert System.

However, the report itself acknowledged that forest fires were difficult to predict in advance. This is particularly true in India, where over 95 per cent of forest fire incidents are man-made.

However, given that it is ultimately the state governments that need to implement the precautionary measures, the central government has a limited role to play, he says.

Using controlled burning effectively

Negi points out that the government uses controlled burning and maintenance of fire lines as a means to prevent fire.

Using this method more effectively is the key to preventing devastating forest fires, according to an essay titled ‘Notes from the Other Side of a Forest Fire’ in the Economic and Political Weekly, which was co-authored by Hiremath.

“Although widely used as a tool in forest management across the world, causing fires is illegal in Indian forests under Sections 26 and 33 of the Indian Forest Act, 1927, and Section 30 of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972,” the essay says, with only forest departments across the country being authorised to use controlled burning.

The government’s emphasis on preventing all sorts of fires – which dates back to the colonial era – may actually be increasing the frequency of the devastating fires, it argues.

“There are essentially two major drivers influencing forest fires: the amount of biomass available to burn (fuel load), and the readiness of the fuel to actually burn (flammability). If an area is protected from fires for many years, the build-up of fuel loads creates the conditions for a potentially intense and destructive fire,” it states.

However, “from the perspective of controlling intense and damaging wildfires, preventing the large build-up of dead biomass through controlled burning is the only feasible management option”, it concludes

Hiremath adds: “In other parts of the world, people have systematically studied the effects of fires of varying frequencies, intensities, and seasonalities in order to manage fires; but in India, the negativity that fires are associated with impede that kind of investigation.”

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