Saturday, June 5, 2021

Forest fires: Good servant but bad master

Come December and the foresters of Indian states gear up to manage annual forest fires, which cause enormous damages to both flora and fauna and are among the major challenges for the survival and growth of forests and wildlife. Considered a good servant and a bad master, these fires are known to be beneficial for the environment when managed under proper supervision and controlled conditions. However, of late, ever-increasing anthropogenic factors, along with global warming consequences, have been influencing these underlying conditions, affecting the frequency and extent of forest fires enormously. So much so, that they have become serious threats not only to forests and wildlife but also to the already alarming state of climate change at a global level. 

The excessive droughts, resulting in changes in depleted soil moisture, are not only influencing the growth of existing forests but also enhancing the aridity of fuel (leaves, twigs and litter) and soil, thereby making them highly prone to fires. In the past, there have been repeated fire incidences in Uttarakhand, which are mainly attributed to the presence of highly inflammable pine needles, coupled with steep slopes. A few unusual incidences in Theni of Tamil Nadu and the Tiger reserve of Bandipur during February-March and this year's incidence of Simplipal Forests have drawn considerable attention of all. 

According to one study, the anthropogenic climate changes during 1984-2015 in the US contributed to an additional 4.2 million hectares (ha) of forest fire area, which is almost double the forest fire area expected in their absence. In another study, the scientists observed that, between 1979 and 2013, the parts of the globe having more combustible vegetation have witnessed a nearly 108.1 per cent increase of global burnable area from wildfire. Published in Nature, this study also found that the fire season has also increased by nearly 20 per cent in all the continents except Australia during that period. The unabating hotter and drier weather, coupled with anthropogenic factors including our failure to manage natural resources on sustainable lines, has made climate change almost synonymous with a forest fire. And this is the reason for the nearly 13 per cent more fire alerts witnessed during 2020 in India, when compared to 2019. And, this trend is likely to get worse in the coming times, if we fail to address this problem in all seriousness. As observed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the chain of fires occurring especially in Australia and Amazon has worsened and subverted the conservation gains achieved through dedicated and long-lasting efforts undertaken. And the failure of the global communities to take action to control fire would be devastating for our entire planet and the people who live on it. Apart from impoverishing precious global resources, including biodiversity, the forests fires also endanger the health aspect of the people, due to pollution spreading across national borders. This has precipitated the urgency of addressing the challenges and negative impacts of forest fires by countries involving , governmental and non-governmental organisations, including Food & Agriculture Organisation (FAO), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), IUCN, etc, which are adopting their multi-pronged strategies and programmes with the involvement of various stallholders in this direction. 

Contrary to western countries, the forest fires in India, by and large, can be attributed to human-induced factors, among which encroachment and grazing are the most important. Whereas nearly 1.3 million ha of forests are under encroachment, another 78 per cent of forests are subjected to heavy grazing (World Bank, 2005). Having inter-linked the social, economic and political reasons, control of these two problems to protect the forests from these has become a difficult task for the foresters. 
The latest report of the Forest Survey of India estimates that nearly 21.4 per cent of forest cover in India is prone to forest fires, with north-eastern and central Indian parts being the most vulnerable. Gone are the days when a fire in the remote forest used to devastate precious flora and fauna for days together 

There have been considerable policy and regulatory interventions under Indian Forest Act, as well as in National Forest policy, seeking both punitive as well as participatory approaches to manage and control the fire in forests, besides adopting modern fire management approaches, which were reflected in subsequent schemes of the government. However, putting these approaches into practice could not somehow be achieved, mainly due to association and engagement of various factors with them and the lukewarm attitude towards the environment sector – both in policy formulation and prioritisation in budgetary allocation. Forest Survey of India (FSI), being the centre of excellence on forest fire management, as envisaged under National Action Plan on Forest Fire, has been continuously upgrading and introducing new techniques supported by state-of-the-art technological advancement in the area of forest fire prevention and management. While upgrading its existing system based on the use of MODIS data from 2017 onwards, the introduction of the recent version of Fire Alerts 3.0 and the use of SNPP-VIIRS satellite system have further improved its ability to provide fire alerts to the state forest departments, thereby helping them to control the fire more efficiently and timely, apart from avoiding the fire occurrences by issuing advanced pre-fire alerts. Gone are the days when a fire in the remote forest used to devastate precious flora and fauna for days together. With the advent of new technological interventions like fire alerts, advanced equipment, etc, the foresters are now in a better position to control these fires within a shortest possible time. The introduction of the Early Warning Alert System for Forest Fire started in 2016 and its recent adoption throughout the country has further improved the technological intervention for fire prevention. Based on parameters like forest density, humidity, temperature, rainfall, previous fire alerts, etc, this method of providing early fire warning alerts on weekly basis is proving highly effective in fire prevention as per the initial observations of FSI. 

Unlike developed countries, the survival of existing forests, including their protection from fire, is inter-linked to broader socio-economic and political issues in developing countries, including India. The dependence of nearly 100 million people for livelihood and other needs of fuelwood, non-timber forest products and subsistence of nearly 35 million tribal people on forests add enormous pressure on the forests, due to unsustainable extraction of these resources and further degrade them. During 2019, the forest area affected by the fire was reported to be 256,000 ha. The estimated economic costs of forest fires in India according to the World Bank (2018) is about Rs1,101 crore per year (2016 prices). This estimation is based on the assessment of loss of standing trees and does not take the ecological services, including carbon sequestration into account which can increase this loss by thousands of crore easily. Being in the concurrent list, both Central and state governments are required to take effective measures to address the challenges of fire damages to our forests. The fund allocation for fire management from the Central government is about Rs50 crore per year. States like Odisha, Chhattisgarh. MP, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Telangana, Uttarakhand, UP, Rajasthan, etc, having sizeable funds under Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) are in a position to earmark fund towards fire management, but the states with lower allocation have the issue of fund availability to deal with, compounding the problem. The estimated economic costs of forest fires in India according to the World Bank (2018) is about Rs1,101 crore per year (2016 prices). This estimation is based on the assessment of loss of standing trees and does not take the ecological services, including carbon sequestration into account which can increase this loss by thousands of crore easily. Knowing well that 90-95 per cent of fires are man-made, the solution to this problem also lies with the people. 

The major strategies of fire management and control include prevention of fire and fire control, apart from the indirect approach of awareness and capacity building of various stakeholders for their participation in these strategies. Fire prevention and control strategies though being the best solutions to the problem suffer from the constraint of availability of man and money. Inadequacy of forest guards due to non-recruitment in many states and vast jurisdiction of forest beat (lowest administrative unit), ranging from 1,000 ha to 2,500 ha, hinder the availability of manpower at the crucial time of fire season. The engagement of forest officials, including forest guards, in other forestry and developmental activities also add insult to injury. Further, considering even 3.89 per cent forest cover (25,617 sq km) as extremely fire-prone, 6.01 per cent (39,500 sq km) as highly fire-prone and another 11.50 per cent (75,952 sq km) as fire-prone, as observed by Forest Survey of India (FSI), crucial and effective fire prevention measures like fire lines, controlled burning, placing fire watchers over such vast track, involve huge monetary implications. The inadequate fund allocation for these two strategies poses a major challenge and makes the strategies of fire management ineffective. 

The preventive approach of controlling forest fires, though crucial, is again linked to major anthropogenic factors like livelihood activities, encroachment, grazing, etc, to name a few, and warrant initiation of certain revolutionary yet harsh steps from the policymakers. However, due to the involvement of social and economic resentment, coupled with the political consequences of these initiatives, such measures have never been considered a practical solution to this problem. Further, for a welfare state having deep-rooted economic and social inequalities in rural areas and fringe forest communities having linkages with environmental degradation, any such regulatory and radical changes cannot be considered wise and thoughtful. Similar is the case of seeking the co-operation of the people in the prevention and control of forest fire, which is gradually diminishing mainly, due to lack of an effective model of community participation. To have a win-win situation for all stakeholders, the lacklustre attitude of people towards environmental protection, including forest and forest fires, have to change. 

For effective control over the recurring challenges of forest fires, there is a need to address this problem in an integrated manner, by involving a wide range of stakeholders/communities, adopting multi-pronged strategies and controlling the degradation of forests and climate change with policy interventions and adequate resources. We should also remember that, unless we do away with innovative and enterprising ways of subverting environmental obligations due to priority of development over the environment, this camouflage will further abate the degradation of the environment and will be manifested in the forms of climate change, flood and forest fires. In the absence of this, any efforts of fire control with no serious and committed backing of policy interventions will just be like beating around the bushes.

Originally appeared in 

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