Forest fires: Why an eminently preventable disaster keeps recurring in Uttarakhand

The recent forest fires in Uttarakhand have brought back memories of the fires that ravaged the state’s jungles in 2016 and 2018, among the worst in the state’s history in the past two decades. Over 4500 hectares of forests were gutted in the fires each time in both the years. The fires this time have already torched 2300 hectares till now.  Though a brief respite has been offered by the intermittent rains, a long summer still stretches  ahead of us and the threat is far from over. It’s therefore time to reflect on what can be done better in order to avoid what the National Green Tribunal termed an ‘eminently preventable disaster.’ First and foremost, a lackadaisical approach to the problem needs to be shed. The 2016 forest fires left in their wake several lessons, one of which was to have better planning to tackle what is essentially an annual occurrence. Forest fires in Uttarakhand usually occur in a set time period between February and May.

This time, though, alarm bells had started ringing as early as October last year when winter wildfires were reported for the first time in the state. Given that the forests had already started burning a few months earlier than usual and there was no winter rain, better planning could have been done to clear fire lines and detect and douse fires locally. However, the forest department’s response in the Uttarkhand high court  a few days ago where it said that although  it had formulated a crisis management plan after the 2016 fires, it could not implement it in toto due to shortage of staff and funds, is extremely disappointing.

Uttarakhand forest minister Harak Singh Rawat trying to douse a forest fire in Pauri

Uttarakhand is known mainly for its natural beauty, much of which it is derived from its forests. The state has around 70% green cover and safeguarding it is the responsibility of every resident and moreso of the government which should ensure minimal damage to the state’s USP.  If it is not able to do so, it has no business to go asking for a green bonus.

In August 2017, in the aftermath of the 2016 fires, NGT had issued a set of comprehensive directions which if enforced properly could have perhaps helped us avoid the forest fire situation we faced this year. The tribunal had specifically asked the state chief secretary to ensure that adequate resources and manpower are “placed at the disposal of the forest department both at the state and district/division level, at the beginning of each financial year.” Clearly, this wasn’t done as the head of forest force in his response to the high court recently pointed out that a staggering 65% posts of forest guards were lying vacant.  Another direction of the green tribunal — to ensure effective participation of people living in villages close to the forests and active partnership of the village level panchayati raj institutions and van panchayats — also seems to have come to a naught. Nearly 50% of van panchayats in the state – almost 5,500 out of 11,522 — are lying defunct and of the ones functioning, most have claimed to have got no funds for forest fire management.

As far as fire-fighting equipment is concerned, a video of forest minister Harak Singh Rawat that went viral last week in which the minister is seen trying to douse fires himself with twigs, ironically reflects how ill-equipped workers on the ground are to battle blazes.  There is a need to effectively deploy technology in this area to minimise casualties and ensure faster results. The high court last week suggested exploring the possibility of creating artificial rain by cloudseeding and deploying more aerial equipment. A number of countries that are prone to bushfires –like Australia – have been using smart technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and artificial intelligence. These can be explored to add muscle to fire-fighting efforts on the ground.

Our forest wealth is much too precious to be allowed to go up in smoke every year. It needs to be safeguarded, whatever it takes.

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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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