Forest on Fire

Forests on Fire

27 December 2007

published by

During the ‘golden age’ of my school days, I still remember even today the illustrations portraying pre-historic human-beings (Qadeem Insaan) in the starting lesson of History textbooks. It was taught, and taught rote without rousing thought, that the fire was one of the earliest discoveries of these ancient human beings. Now, as a student of natural sciences, I have come to understand theoretically as well as practically that the fire, more precisely the natural one, is an important abiotic (or non-living) actor that enacts well in the ecological theatre of ecosystems. In other words, like water, light, soil, etc, natural fires (and not the human-ignited fires) provide critical ‘fuel’ in the smooth operation of our natural ecosystems which underpins our own survival.
I started here with history and science so as to provide tempo to my topic “Forests on fire” that is in the line of fire these days. Over the last few months, government machinery, particularly the forest department is under fire for its utter failure in containing the forest fires in the valley forests. If we deceitfully behave as too naive by relying singly on science and bask in the artificial glory of history, then there is no need to worry about the forest fires. No fire-fighting is needed. Because, science says that fire is a natural ecological process. That means, if it is natural, then Nature will take its own course. Of course, who denies. Nature has undoubtedly umpteen ways and mechanisms to correct the ‘wrongs’. It can resist the shocks and often has the resilience power to bounce back but not always in a way we human beings would like it to be.
Not a fiction but a hard fact to which all of us bear witness to, as the unfortunate events are unfolding before our eyes, that the present incidents of forest fires are the human-ignited ones. The moot question that arises is should there be no fire-fighting when fire is engulfing almost the whole Kashmir valley forests. Can we be so oblivious to such a deforestation-driven desertification of picturesque Valley, when we are fully aware that these fires are, directly or indirectly, human-triggered! More worse, and unfortunately, for satisfaction of never-satisfying human greed rather than satiating human needs.
Day in and out, incidents of forests fires are pouring in from every part of the Kashmir valley. Large tracts of lush green forests have been consigned into flames in the hinterland. At every occasion, the concerned forest officials when contacted tactfully answer in bureaucratic language by saying that ‘we are on the job’. On the job of what, extinguishing or extending the extent of fire! Some so-called experts now ‘reincarnated as exporters’ in our forest department may defame drought as the real culprit behind the destruction of our green gold. Who denies! Obviously, drought the valley is presently experiencing adds fuel to such forest fires. However, they can not escape by making the drought a ‘scapegoat’. How can they deny their complicity in setting the stage fit for forest ‘pyre’ to be ignited by drought? In the recent past, their total failure in stopping the deterioration of these ecosystems and the ill-conceived action plans have made the Valley’s forests highly vulnerable to slight environmental changes. Right from the political structure to administrative functioning of the department, from top to bottom and from the policy making to its implementation, it is a classical case of institutional failure.
At the political level, the Forest portfolio has always remained the most lucrative and thus most sought-after one. This in turn has spawned interest groups of political coterie and corrupt babus – all vying for promised ‘permissions’ and plum posts in the department. The forces of gravity naturally will come into play. Who can stop? In a top-down approach, the message as expected trickles down to the ground staff. To make this system an integrated circuit, a ‘free lunch’ has been overtly announced with the clause of backward transfer of ‘percentage’ in a bottom-up approach. I wonder why such a success story of wealth creation with full of innovative skills has not still caught the attention of the top management gurus from Harvard, Stanford and IIMs. Hey guys, why you are too much obsessed with Lalu and Railway. Descend to this part of the world and see the astounding ‘success’ story of our Forest department! An incredible case study! By studying just a single case, you will understand and appreciate both top-down and bottom-up approaches.
At the administrative level, the Forest department babus are always busy in putting their ‘notes’ on the files than their actual duties in the field. I will not blame them for their destined failure in saving forests because they are ‘bred’ in a system that treats and trains them same as bureaucrats in other departments, like transport, food supplies, etc. The department is flooded with staff groomed in a system of mediocrity, except few persons that are oasis in the ‘barren land’.


In the arena of policy making, we have enacted innumerable laws but with so many flaws. Conceived craftily! Seemingly noble in content but operationally worst in action. Programs launched in the name of forest protection are always big failure stories. Project proposals are made to siphon off every penny earmarked for the purpose. Grandiose plans are planned on papers to provide subject matter to be discussed in the meetings and dressed for media briefings.
On the implementation front, poor understanding of our forest mangers has wreaked havoc with the millions-old ecology of forests. Instead of seeing forests as a natural system which need scientific measures, ‘public-works’ mindset has engulfed the stewards of our forests. I would like to inform the mandarins of our forest department to please give up your ‘developmental’ therapy for forests. The artificial plantations carried under the afforestation programs can never compensate for the loss of our natural forests. We are inviting trouble by planting the fast-spreading exotics at the cost of our native biodiversity. Nowadays, over-hyped biofuel trees can add ‘green fuel’ to our ecosystems and the biodiversity they possess. Exotic species have led to mal-functioning of natural ecological processes in our natural ecosystems, such as forests, grasslands, wetlands, etc, that may ultimately impair the life-supporting natural goods and services.
During the last few years, we are witnessing a ‘boom’ in the man-wildlife conflicts with no signs of downward ‘bust’. These conflict are so frequent these days, it has left our mandarins of wild life with no solution in sight. Unfortunately, precious human life has got killed or injured in such attacks by wild animals. The issue is not as complex as it is made to be in the media. There are no multiple causes but a single cause of the loss of original habitat of wildlife i.e. forests, which is responsible for an increase in such incidents. It is so ridiculous of the so-called wildlife experts to cite the increase in the number of wild animals without any preliminary scientific evidence. Plainly speaking, instrument, equipments and modern tools will not stop occurrence of such unfortunate incidents. No weapons, no technology and no expertise can work. The plans and projects can achieve nothing except fill the coffers of planners when natural forests are wiped away at a faster rate. Just stop disturbing their original dwelling places, i. e. natural forests, then see how these wild ‘beasts’ behave in a ‘civilized’ manner. If the civilized human-beings have disturbed their pristine life, then are we justified in blaming the wild animals?
Recently, one senior official of the department, as if it was an achievement, reported that the State Government has sent a proposal to Japanese Government for financial assistance for conservation of forests. Forests are the best financial assets. Why the need for approaching the foreign agencies for financial support? Already, we are importing the Australian timber as we have shamelessly clean-shaved our lush-green forests. In spite of spending corers of rupees, under the Central Government sponsored schemes, such as Integrated Watershed Programmes and the like, how far they have been successful in restoring the degraded forests.
Over the past decade, I have visited almost all the three regions of the State, especially the forest areas. Everywhere, I have seen naturally fallen timber worth not millions but trillions of dollars which goes waste in the forest interiors due to utter negligence of the concerned agencies. Despite the department has a huge infrastructure available for extracting timber during the summer months that falls every year in the winter season. I have not even an iota of doubt in claiming that the timber if extracted in a systematic but sustainable manner would not only meet out our domestic demand, but we can export the green gold outside the State. Pertinently, the State Forest Corporation (SFC) that was entrusted with task is in red and the survival of this white-elephant is at risk. In contrast, the business of few private timber companies has reached to the zenith.
Relevant to mention here is that we had the ground staff with the nomenclature of Forest Guards in the department, but still a new force, the Forest Protection Force (FPF), was raised a decade before Again a burden on exchequer more for political reasons than for protection of forests. The Force has yet to come into force in the real sense of terms. It is a ‘tooth-less tiger’ with no weapons, for which they were trained, to be used against the heavily-equipped smugglers.

Recently, SSRB selected one of my friends both for the Teacher and Forest Guard posts. Besides with a relatively higher pay scale, and as they say that the Teacher is a ‘noble’ job, I expected he will join the same post. However, as advised by every body from family members to friends, from neighbors to near ones, he joined as Forest Guard. Not a surprise for me. Because the department he has joined is a goldmine. However, the uncertainty that haunts me is how far we can mine the forests for green gold. Will they last the present, not to talk of future?


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