Ravaging Forest Fires –who is accounatble?

By: Dr VK Bahuguna

May 13, 2024, 15:37:06   

Ravaging Forest Fires –who is accounatble?

This year like previous years the forest fires are raging the forests of India specially the situation is very grim in Uttarakhand where thousands of hectares of forests are burning. The fires have been raging all over Uttarakhand and this year the situation has become very critical with some insane anti-social and anti-national elements have been indulging in making video reels and watching with vicarious pleasures, unfortunately enough, coupled with local people also putting up with their annual rituals of burning the civil soyam and reserve forests to fire to get fresh grasses for their cattle. A few such hoodlums were arrested in Uttarakhand. It is well known to all in the society as well as in the government that the forest fires in India occurs during November to June months and adequate preparedness should be ensured to prevent and quickly control it. The control of forest fires is proving the ‘Achilles heel’ for the forest department as well as the government. In any case the officials may want to evade responsibility by blaming the dry climate and shift the entire blame to anti social elements but the fact is it is a sure case of unpreparedness and unpardonable negligence by the entire governing system in Uttarakhand and all over India when it comes to managing the forest fires. 

The Forest Survey of India (FSI) in the State of Forest Report 2021 (SFR 2021) which was released in the year 2022 stated that 345,989 cases of forest fires have occurred in 2021 the highest in the country so far. Compared to 2019 almost one lakh more instances of forest fires were noticed in 2021. This report should have alerted the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change as well as the State governments all over the country. We must understand that our forest resources are the critical resources in terms of richness of its bio-diversity and its importance for sustaining life systems of humans as well as the poor wild life that vanish with no requiem in official statistics but with disastrous consequences on the ecology, water streams and the economy. Now let us discuss the practical solutions to handle this forest fire regime visiting our forests regularly year after year without interruptions and once the rain god’s smile the consequences of it are forgotten by all. I have been dealing with forest fires in the Ministry of Environment & Forests for 7 years during 1997 to 2002 and had devised the fire fighting strategy for the country as well as calculated the loss annually. I had also attended the International Seminar organized by the Indonesian Government at Bagor in the aftermath of devastating fires witnessed by the Indonesia in the coal bearing forests as an Indian expert in the year 1999. It was very clear in the meeting that fires are better prevented rather than waiting for the control because once it becomes an inferno it is impossible for any technology to control. In the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 2001 a new guideline was issued and the high flying idea of use of planes and helicopters was dropped because in India we do not have long stretches of forests like in Canada, USA and Australia where aerial foams are used but with solid ground equipments. 

The first and foremost decision taken was to assign funds to FSI to use satellite and convey the forest departments within minutes of detecting the forest fires. This is continuing today as FSI immediately conveying the fire incidents to the territorial staff. Each forest division must maintain, repair and clear the forest fire lines before November month and remove the fuel load from fire lines as well as adjoining forests. Before November each range and forest division must have a fire prevention plan in place indicating the vulnerable compartments and areas and prepare risk assessment and install early warning system and put them into practice like stationing the equipment, water bag packs etc. Areas near habitations must be mapped for risk management. Along with these special funds were earmarked for the Joint Forest Management/ Van Panchayats for engaging villagers and for extending help during fire seasons. The states were directed to invoke the section 79 of the Indian forest Act under which the villagers and government servants are duty bound to inform and help in suppression of forest fires and for each identified area teams must be kept ready. The Ministry must have been reinventing and reasserting these guidelines every year. Now it is for the states to find out where they go amiss that they feel helpless when fire occurs when a procedure is in place and why fire surveillance/ preparedness is not in place and who is responsible for this. The states administration and forest officers if follow a strictly planned and supervised regimen of fire prevention and disaster control with sufficient equipment, man power, funds and constant monitoring forest fires can mostly be prevented and curtailed. The management of fuel load and human interference is a key factor and supervision and mock drills before and during fire season with full involvement of panchayats and local people is necessary for zero tolerance for the fire incidents. A scrutiny of the standards operating procedure is essential and the Chief Minister of each state must act because as it seems now only political intervention can cajole the system to work. 

The Prime Minister and the Environment Minister must haul up the bureaucracy and take drastic steps to not only prevent forest fires but tackled the increasing instances of the landslides and other natural disasters in the country with special focus on hill states of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. Mercifully I must commend the Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dhami who took charge of the situation and forced the state officials to rise from the slumber and the results are showing at the ground level but after much damage already done. All the political parties should cooperate in educating the people about the perils of putting forest in fires. The negligence of foresters in the field is well known for last few years when the larger numbers of religious structures were made in thousands under the nose of forest guards and rangers in Uttarakhand and thousands of hectares of forest lands were encroached. It was only after this writer repeatedly raised the matter with PMO that the Chief Minister took initiative to demolish a few hundreds of such encroachments but no action has been taken against the field staff or officers in charge of ranges and divisions. Accountability and responsibility and good clean governance is the responsibility of all in the system and people of Uttarakhand want to see it in full measure.