Forest fire raging in the hills of south Mizoram|Photo: Twitter(@@ZoramthangaCM)

Policy red flags burn bright in India’s forest fire problem

An active fire season across several states of the country holds clear warnings for the country’s approach towards forest management and environmental protection

Forest fires are currently raging in India’s north-eastern state of Mizoram. While most seem to have been brought under control, the damage, estimated to be across several hundred hectares of land and vegetation, is yet to be ascertained.  

The conflagration in Mizoram is the latest episode in an active ongoing forest fire season across the country. The worst affected region so far has been the Himalayas, which have already lost 1000 hectares of forests to fires, which also reportedly killed eight people in Uttrakhand alone. These fires started in early October 2020, and as the weather gets dryer and the temperature rises, will get even more unmanageable. 

The story is the same every year. The weaker monsoon of 2020 and the early onset of summers in northern India, especially in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, resulted in a chain of forest fire incidents in these states. The brief report by the Disaster Management Division of the Ministry of External Affairs highlighted a total of 949 fire incidents by April 8, 2021, engulfing around 969.89 hectares of area in these two states alone and affecting the local biodiversity and wildlife.

In India, such fires are primarily a result of anthropogenic activities in the forest. The argument is further supported by the technical report of the Forest Survey of India, which argues that 95% of forest fires are a result of man-made activities. For example, a fire is ignited to clear the forest floor to collect non-timber forest products or for hunting or poaching. A dry forest floor causes fires to spread more rapidly.    

A Himalayan state like Uttarakhand has a rich forest density and consists of up to 70% of forests. The Indian Institute of Forest Management estimated the cost of the valuable forest resources in Uttarakhand to be ₹95,112 crore annually. The amount is equivalent to a yearly flow of ₹3,88,085 per hectare of forest. At this amount, the current loss will be equivalent to approximately ₹37.6 crore till April 8, 2021. This amount, although massive, pales in comparison to the absolute ecosystem value of the lost biodiversity. 

Government apathy a concern  

Forest fires are common in states like Uttarakhand now, but they still fail to grab the attention of the state government. We can view the prevention and management of forest fires from two interlinked lenses of finance and policy. 

The draft National Forest Policy of 2018 proposes mapping vulnerable areas and strengthening early warning systems. Both the concerns are well managed by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), which relies on modern geospatial techniques for monitoring forest fires in India. The FSI relies on real-time satellite data to identify forest fire points and send effective authorities’ responses. Despite the strengthening of early warning systems, forest fire management in the Himalayas remains a concern. The issue has also been previously recognised by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), which directed the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) to formulate the National Forest Fire Action Plan in consultation with state governments. However, its progress remains questionable.   

Besides policies, another cardinal point for forest fire management is the availability of finance. The State of Indian Forest of 2019 report points to shortfalls in resources as one of the chief reasons for failure in effectively tackling forest fires. The report further criticises the state forest departments and the Centre for their inefficiency in preventing and managing forest fire incidents. The report also states that despite the limited availability of resources, there have been instances where states have failed to utilise available funds. Even two years after the report, it seems like nothing has changed.

The only dedicated centrally funded scheme that assists states in fighting forest fires is the Forest fire Prevention and Management scheme (FPM). The scheme follows a Centre-state cost-sharing ratio of 90:10 in the north-eastern and other Himalayan states of India, while a 60:40 ratio has been adopted for the rest of the states. In case of scarcity of funds under the FPM scheme, states can secure additional funds through NITI Aayog’s special “flexi fund” initiative, which lists wildlife conservation and greening as major agenda priorities. Additional funds required can also be made available through the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA).

Despite the availability of required policies and finance, why are we failing to curb forest fires? One plausible answer could be a lack of a bottom-up approach in action-based policies. Considering the diverse types of forests in India, a one-size-fits-all policy will not be effective. The policies must take cognisance of the local communities and empower them to be a part of the solution. Forest as a resource is equally important to the government and local communities. 

Encouraging local participation

Since locals are closest to the forests and often the first to respond to a fire incident, a sense of ownership must be created among them. This argument might again revive the debate of forest ownership. Its relevance, however, can be understood if seen from a lens of conservation of verdant forest. Let us take the example of van panchayats in Uttarakhand. They have been actively involved in the protection and management of the local forest. There have been incidents where van panchayats have successfully controlled forest fires by regularly clearing the forest floor and avoiding the chances of the spreading of fire. Besides this, such a model’s success can be seen in the community-managed forest in Simlipal National Park, where satellite data suggests that the forest area under the Community Forest Rights is least damaged by forest fires. These incidents emphasise the importance and capability of the local communities towards managing such fires. 

In addition to empowering local communities, we need to strengthen our policies based on data collected and designing localised solutions instead of lifting modules from other countries. 

Lastly, while the discussion around achieving net-zero emissions has ramped up around the globe, how prudent would it be to lose carbon locked into forest biomass to the atmosphere due to ineffective policy? Forests have been a strong pillar for India in international negotiations, yet India’s poor management of forest resources is a matter of concern. Scientists have emphasised that climate change will affect the Himalayan forest on a massive scale, and thus, there is a greater need to look at the bigger picture and formulate urgent and planned policies instead of falling back on knee-jerk reactions every summer.           

 *Tarun is an intersectional environmentalist, working as a research assistant for ICRIER, New Delhi

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