A colonial mindset fans the flames in our forests

A colonial mindset fans the flames in our forests

The lack of preventive measures and absence of a participatory approach are leading to increasing conflagrations across forests in the country

Forest workers engaged in extinguishing the fire in the forests of Tehri district. Credit: PTI photo

Two years after the Forest Survey of India (FSI) came up with a comprehensive report on the forest fire management, not much has changed on the ground. Huge conflagrations are consuming large swathes of forest in several states, even as forest officials continue to battle the blaze. What is glaringly obvious is the lack of concerted preventive efforts, despite the knowledge that over 95% of the forest fires are man-made. 

Over the last four months, major forest fire incidents have been reported in Nagaland, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh for which the state governments had to seek help from Indian Air Force (IAF) and the Indian Army.

In Odisha, hundreds of acres of rich biodiversity of Simplipal have been reduced to ashes while the IAF had to rush in to douse the forest fires in Uttarakhand.

After the 2018 disaster in the Bandipur forests, Karnataka has scraped through the harsh summer of 2021, except for the major incident in Kappatagudda in Gadag district and hundreds of minor fires. However, considering that over 4,000 sq km of the forest area is highly fire prone and another 5,000 sq km is moderately fire prone, much needs to be done to safeguard the forests of the state.

Read | What stops us from controlling forest fires?

The issue of forest fire triggers opposing reactions from forest officers, experts and activists. Of late, however, most of them agree on two matters: the one-fits-all-size fire management policy needs to change and a mechanism to implement the Forest Rights Act in its true spirit is needed to make forest dwellers invest in the conservation of forests.

Senior officials in the Forest Department and experts said the “zero fire” policy set by the Ministry of Forest Environment and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has to make way for a decentralised approach.

A senior official said a controlled fire, a traditional tool used by tribals for thousands of years, has a huge role to play in Indian forests. Nearly 70% of the forests have tropical dry environments, while even the 17.65% moist deciduous forests are not immune from seasonal fires. 

Raman Sukumar, honorary professor at IISc’s Centre for Ecological Sciences, said the British introduced the rule of zero fire without understanding the nature of our forest. “Suppressing fire as a rule leads to rich undergrowth of biomass, which will burn uncontrollably once triggered. All you need is a dry spell after a year of good monsoon. Nobody understood this better than our indigenous people who, for thousands of years, adopted a controlled burning mechanism to prevent major disasters,” he said.

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After a 15-year study, the FSI in 2019 had classified 21.4% of India’s forests as highly fire-prone and another 15% as moderately fire-prone. Since then, a satellite-based fire alert system has been created to provide an area-specific alert, which helps the local officer to rush the resources to control and manage the fire.

A senior official in the Karnataka Forest Department said a major shift in policy was required to change the fire management system. “The MoEFCC is yet to come out of the colonial hangover of ‘zero-fire’ policy,” he said, referring to the policy of complete suppression of fire. 

Sukumar said a fundamental change was required in the forest fire management. “First, the zero-fire policy should make way for a ‘forest-specific’ approach, where controlled fire is adopted based on the type of the forest and its typical conditions. This has to be done after conducting experiments where latest science and indigenous knowledge should be tried with an open mind,” he said.

Echoing the idea, Sharachchandra Lele, distinguished fellow at Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE) who studies environmental policy and governance, said decentralisation of decision making was a crucial matter that the government has to consider. 

"Forest departments still rigidly stick to the notion that all forest fires are bad, and follow centrally approved working plans, although officials in Delhi simply cannot know the specifics of Chamarajanagar. What is required is both flexible thinking about fire and changing the relationship between the departments and local communities. The Forest Rights Act 2006 offers a way for achieving both: if community forest rights are recognised, communities will have both the incentive to control fires in 'their' forests, and the space to use their traditional knowledge on fire management, to experiment,” he said.

The senior official, however, said NGOs with a hardline conservationist approach will target the department if works like ‘controlled fire’ were included in the plans. “It’s good in theory. But conducting such experiments is difficult considering the hardline approach of most of our activists and organisations,” he said.

‘Man-made disaster’

Though the National Institute of Disaster Management came up with a comprehensive policy for forest fire management, officials at the central and state level say the forest fires are man-made disasters, a belief that gets louder as one speaks to officials in the lower-rungs of the department. 

“We believe less than 1% of the fire incidents are natural. This is where controlled fire plays a big role. It may not prevent a fire but the lack of undergrowth will automatically curb the spread of blaze, limiting it to a relatively small area,” the senior official.

Read | Kerala sees drop in forest fires

The Deputy Conservator of Forest, Gadag, recently issued a press release about the registration of 13 FIRs with regard to forest fires which have burned about 5,000 acres of forest in Kappatagudda over the last four months.

A Range Forest Officer, who worked at the conservation reserve, said they knew each of the individuals who had ignited the fire. “Any action against poaching and encroachment of forest land are directly linked to forest fires. They trace the activity of forest guards, watchers and RFOs meticulously before starting a fire in revenge,” he said.

A retired officer said the Bandipur Fire in 2018, when 12,000 acres of forests were burnt, was a black mark on the department. “The main reason for the fire was the failure of the director. From failing to set up the 10-metre wide fire lines to the irregularities in calling tender, there were errors on several counts. But no serious action was taken. It shows what kind of message we are sending to the new officers,” he said.

Prof Muzaffar Assadi, chairman of the Department of Political Science, University of Mysore, said poor implementation of the Forests Rights Act was a major set back in the conservation of forest.

Assadi, who headed a committee set up by the high court to look into the claim that 23,000 tribals were displaced from Nagarahole, said implementing FRA in its true spirit would have given the department a shot in the arm in conservation activities.

"The claims by the Forest Department that all encroachers are taking advantage of FRA may be valid. The answer is not in regularising encroachment but rather in verification of the claims. Tribals have a symbiotic relationship with forests and intuitive knowledge about its conservation, which bureaucracy lacks," he said.