India — HYDERABAD: The main reason for the rapid drop in green cover in Andhra Pradesh seems to be hidden in the Forest Survey of India’s (FSI) latest data on forest fires. As per FSI, the state has witnessed 506 forest fires in the last 51 days alone, which is almost five times more than any other state in India. In fact, on February 20 itself, there were as many as 169 fires reported across AP mainly from Khammam, Mahbubnagar and Adilabad.
While the reasons for these alarming number of fires range from ‘controlled burning’ undertaken by state-appointed foresters to illegal clearing of ground by tribals and poachers to even the lack of proper fire management programmes implemented by the forest department, environmentalists fear that such a trend might soon cast a shadow on the fate of AP’s green cover. “Apart from further receding the state’s forest area, these fires are also likely to deteriorate the health of trees,” said former IFS officer Sarvottam Rao, dismissing the argument of officials about fires boosting the growth of plants. “For instance, they (forest authorities) claim that controlled burning in the Telangana region improves the growth of beedi leaves. This is unscientific. The fires, instead, make the leaves harder and bitter,” Rao said. There are also other concerns such as poor regeneration of trees and dropping moisture levels of the soil, that are further heightened due to such fires, experts noted.
Other states with larger forest areas have reported only a miniscule percentage of forest fires in the corresponding period. Madhya Pradesh, for instance, with the largest forest cover of 77,700 sq km has witnessed just about 84 forest fires this year. In Maharashtra (50,650 sq km), it is been restricted to a moderate139 while in Orissa (48,855 sq km) the numbers haven’t crossed 25.
Forest officials underplay the issue terming it as a usual phenomenon, but environmentalists stress on the need for a better fire management policy. The 385 fire watchers and 100-odd fire towers (to spot any fire), which the state department claim to have in place, are clearly not enough to protect the state’s forest spread, they say. “There is a huge scope for improving fire management in AP,” said Farida Tampal, state director, World Wildlife Foundation (WWF-AP), expressing serious concern over the raging number of fires reported from the state lately. She added, “While we have on several occasions offered to help the forest department to tackle fires, our pleas have not been honoured so far.” The WWF has in the past conducted a thorough study on forest fires across Indian states.
“We do this to lay fire lines (a gap in vegetation so that the flames do not spread), to maintain the ones we have created in the past and to provide better sighting of animals for tourists. These fires are hardly dangerous,” said P K Sharma, additional principal chief conservator of forests, IT. However, he quickly added how the state department, with its limited budget, was in no position to do anything more.
“We, on an average, get just about Rs 10 crore for fire management. It is not enough to address the issue,” the APCCF claimed.