Forest fires: Frame action plan

Forest fires: Frame action plan

20 June 2016

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India– The efforts made by the Central and state governments towards controlling, preventing fires were at best tardy.

The recent and sudden outbreak of wildfires in forests, especially in Uttarakhand, have caused cataclysmic destruction to the country’s bio-diversity and carbon pool year after year. Not only that, these wildfires have acquired major implications for the country’s environment.

The irreversible impact of   pollution caused by these annual fires must now be viewed in the context the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests’ (MoEF) tough stance against the factors causing pollution.

The carbon gas emission and bio-diversity loss  caused by the forest fires continue unabated, with wild summer fires breaking out in several states. But what brought the wildfires to the national limelight this summer was their intensity  that engulfed huge chunks of forests in the sub-Himalayan states of Uttarakhand and Himachal.

The exhausted Uttarakhand state machinery was once more seen in action in its bid to douse the raging fires. MI-17 helicopters of the Indian Air Force fitted with Bambi buckets were also pressed into service to sprinkle water over a large area. Forest fires were also reported from Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Chattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Telangana etc.

Forestry experts and officials  generally attribute these fires to forest intruders and natural factors such as heat waves causing strong friction on the forest floor full of leaves and dried grass.

Even forest dependents do the mischief sometimes. It is also said that the  cattle grazers burn the forest floor deliberately in order to  stimulate fresh vegetation in the short run, enabling their livestock to graze to its fill. It has been observed that deciduous and dry forests in the lower and middle uplands in the lower Himalayan region all along till the Northeastern states, are regularly burnt for such purposes.

The forest fires emit dark carbon dust which falls on the water bodies, such as rivers and lakes, polluting them severely. One of the causes of the early  melting of the Himalayan glaciers is said to be unnatural rise in temperature and sheet of carbon dust lying on them. One can easily understand the implications of this phenomenon and the damage it must have caused to the wildlife dependent on the eco system.

The forests sustain a plethora of plant and animal species. The Wildlife Institute of India (WII) has a list of wild animals, which are either extinct or are on way to extinction. It is the forest fires  which destroy them and their habitats. This is true specially for the Himalayan states. Besides those in Uttarakhand, several indigenous species in the fire-prone Northeast are also in the endangered list.

The Forest Survey of India (FSI) in Dehradun is now engaged in collecting ground reports from all the affected states  and the fire surveillance unit is preparing a comprehensive report on the total area affected. Teams from the zonal centres of FSI are engaged in the collection of ground data. These zonal areas are set up in different zones in Kolkata, Bengaluru, Shimla and Nagpur.

The FSI is studying the vulnerability of sensitive forests to  summer fires through mapping and satellite data analysis. Though, the state forest departments are regularly apprised of the identified potential fire poi-nts in the respective states, the fires continue to blaze ever year.

Highly vulnerable districts

According to the FSI State of Forest Report 2015, 19.27% area of the total area of the country was under forest cover, spread over 63 million hectares but their actual crown density is stated to be within 38 million hectares. Of this, 3.73 million hectares are presumed to be affected by fires. About 348 districts in the country are vulnerable to forest fires, and out of these 168 are highly vulnerable.

A kind of apathy towards establishing a permanent mechanism to tackle the wildfires is reflected in the half hearted manner the problem is being dealt with by the Union and  state governments. The efforts  made by the state governments towards controlling and preventing fires are, at best, tardy. 

There is a need to create a separate forest protection force on the lines of Railway Protection Force to check forest fires, poaching and clandestine felling of trees. There is also a need to empower and strengthen the ground staff of forest departments. A comprehensive action plan is the need of the hour.

The need for such an action plan can be understood in the light of the fact that carbon pool  and bio-diversity destruction continue despite the stringent provisions of Forest Act 1927, Forest Conservation Act 1980, Wildlife Protection Act 1972 and the national forest policy being in place.

The National Forest Commission, set up in 2003, was entrusted with the task of looking into the overall situation and coming up with institutional arrangements to conserve forest and wildlife. But it seems that its basic stress has been on joint forest management and extensive forestation.

The forests are valuable carbon pools with a great bearing on the economy and ecology. It takes almost a generation for a new forest cluster to replace the ravaged one. It is high time an assessment of national biodiversity action plan is set in motion at the earliest.

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