Forest fires across the world and within India have increased intensely. Occurring with more frequency, forest fires have assumed a very essential space in disaster management. Regions earlier unimpacted with such fires are also increasingly bearing this brunt. Forests fires pose a significant threat to varied dimensions, ranging from ecology to livelihoods to sustenance.
With major forest fires reported from Odisha and different parts of the country and the looming threat of climate change, Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI) , India Water Portal and National Institute of Disaster Management, MHA organized a #WebPolicyTalk on Forest Fires: Exploring the Solutions.
While welcoming the panelists for the discussion, the moderator Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director at IMPRI remarked that as per the Forest Survey of India 2019, more than 21% of India’s forests are prone to fires.
In 2015, over 25000 forest fires were recorded, which grew to 37000 cases in a matter of two years. She remarked that there was a need to highlight: the causes behind forest fires-natural or anthropogenic, linkages between forests, climate change and land-use patterns and the mitigation measures adopted over short, medium and long-term. Further, it was important to understand the local population and the government’s response to these fires and the mannerisms in which the two could work together.
Further laying the ground for discussion, Prof Anil Gupta, Head at ECDRM, NIDM, highlighted five feeder points for discussion:
As the first panelist speaker, Prof Amita Singh spoke on the need to integrate forest fires within a climate change framework. She remarked that as per recent Global Forest Fire Emission reports, the level of carbon emission from forest fires in the last three years has overtaken industrially-released emissions.
Second, she stressed the need to factor Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the assessment of forest fires. Present assessment loss standards do not account for biodiversity losses such as flora, fauna and ecosystem services. Instead, they focused primarily on the monetary value of losses.
Further, assessments of post-forest fires were necessary to ensure that the damage is not permanent; and that forests are capable of carbon sequestration. Her third discussion point revolved around issues of governance. She stated that convergence between different stakeholders like the community, forest department and fire services was essential to prevent and control forest fires. She suggested that the government had to focus on disaster preparedness; while claiming that the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) continued to function as per the pre-Hyogo disaster framework, focusing on rescue and rehabilitation and not preparedness.
She stated that the fire services department, as a specialized agency had a significant role to play in dousing forest fires compared with other agencies like NDRF. Further, she urged the government departments to adopt international standards of fire safety and implement them.
As the next speaker, Shri Mohan Pargaien provided some on-field experience about forests, deforestation and tackling forest fires. Attributing forest fires to anthropogenic reasons in the context of India, Shri Mohan highlighted some facts of the field. He focused on the issue of illegal encroachments and how this issue had a social as well as a political angle to it.
Second, 78% of the forests are subject to heavy grazing in the country. Heavy grazing is a contributory factor in degrading forest productivity, altering the water cycle and reducing the natural capacity of forests to resist fire.
Third, he accepted that damage to forests was difficult to quantify; and with climate change and rising heat, the degraded forests were subject to uncontrollable fires. Citing the example of Telangana, Shri Mohan stated that things from a technological viewpoint were improving. Upon receiving a forest fire alert, forest guards in Telangana have asked to record 4-5 geo-coordinates of the impacted locality. The reason is that it would help in a better, real-time assessment of forest loss.
Fourth, explaining the reasons behind fires in Uttarakhand, he attributed the phenomenon to extreme slopes and colonization of chir and pine forests.
Taking forward Shri Mohan’s discussion on plantation trees, Mr Tikender Singh provided a historical background dating back to the colonial times behind the plantation of pine trees in the Himalayas; and how these trees are extremely effervescent and when subject to forest fires render the soil acidic. He stated that successive governments had exacerbated the problem by planting more such trees to expand the green cover. There was a need to relook at and redraw India’s plantation policies.
Focusing on the need to involve communities in forest management, Mr Tikender lamented the alienation of people from their forests. Earlier in Himachal Pradesh there existed a registry called ‘Wazib-ul-Arj’ that registered the local community’s forest rights. The present-day dispensation had, however, discontinued such recognition. To highlight the plight of forest dwellers, he differentiated between people as the “owners” of forests, while the government was a mere “custodian”. From his argument on the alienation of communities, he further articulated the need to reform forest management governance.
The next segment involved the panelists answering questions raised during the talk. Questioned on the role that van panchayats had to play in disaster management and mitigation, Prof Anil Gupta categorically stated that forest fires had to be integrated into district developmental plans. More so, forest management had to rest on three pillars of civil administration, the local community, and the forest department.
On a question of developing early warning systems, Prof Amita remarked that the political representatives had to ensure that necessary technical and financial resources were fast available with the officers in charge. With a question on the action-based definition of encroachment, Shri Mohan clarified that any illegal settlement into the forest would be a part of forest encroachment. He clarified that the forest department was not the concerned agency responsible for evaluating the social needs of the people. Yet it was simultaneously necessary to ensure that forest dwellers were part of the management of forests.
The last segment of the discussion revolved around the necessary steps forward towards forest fire management. One of the key discussion points to emerge was the need to strengthen communities to take charge of forests. Referring to the now-abandoned practice of Himachal Pradesh, Mr Tikender stressed the need to ensure community patrolling of forests. Agreeing with Mr Tikender, Prof Amita urged for an interconvergence mechanism to deal better with forest fires. Governments at the national and state level had to speed up and utilize funds reserved under Compensatory Afforestation Act (CAMPA). In addition, the focus had to be maintained towards providing due to research and development.
Adding to the points, Shri Mohan concluded the discussion by emphasizing the need to:
Acknowledgement: Ria Mohal is pursuing Masters in Development Studies from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.