Forest Fires

Smt. Kalpana Palkiwala (*Senior Media & Communications Officer)

Fire is a common feature in the Indian forests every year, causing incalculable damage to the forest wealth and ecosystem. High proportions of these fires are attributed to man-made reasons either deliberately or accidentally. Also the components of fires are very localised and the people who live in the locality know the local conditions best. Therefore, efforts are on to involve communities in fire prevention and control. This necessitates better understanding of the conditions under which community would participate.

India, with a forest cover of 76.4 million hectares, contains a variety of climate zones, including the tropical south, northwestern deserts, Himalayan mountains, and the wet north-east. Forests are widely distributed in the country. India’s forests are endowed with a variety of biomass and biological communities. The forest vegetation in the country varies from tropical evergreen forests in the West Coast and in the North-East to Alpine forests in the Himalayas in the North. In between the two extremes, there are semi-evergreen forests, deciduous forests, sub-tropical broad-leaved hill forests, sub-tropical pine forests and sub-tropical temperate forests.

With increasing population pressure, the forest cover of the country is deteriorating at an alarming rate. Along with various factors, forest fires are a major cause of degradation of Indian forests. According to a Forest Survey of India Report, about 50 percent of forest areas in the country are fire prone (ranging from 50 percent in some states to 90 percent in the others). About 6 percent of the forests are prone to severe fire damage.

Forest Fires in India
In India forest fires are significant and one of the increasing contributory factors in the degradation of existing forest resources. The data on forest fire loss is very sketchy and fragmented.
Majority of forest fires in India are man-made and the main causes of fire are:
· Deforestation activities: conversion of forestland to agriculture, pasture development etc.;
· Traditional slash and burn/shifting agriculture;
· Grazing land management: Setting of fires in forests by villagers for getting fresh blade of grass, fodder etc.;
· Collection and use of NWFPs: e.g. fires set for the purpose of collection of honey, Sal seeds, flowers of Mahua etc.;
· Forest/human habitation interface: e.g. fire set to burn leaves and other biomass from agriculture fields and fire set to scare the wildlife etc.;
· Conflicts over the land right claims and
· Fire caused by negligence.

Forest fires in the country are mostly experienced during summer months from April to June, though the extent and type varies from state to state, type of forest as well as climatic conditions like prolonged spell of dry conditions or delay in arrival of monsoon etc.

Fire Prevention and Control
Over the years, there has been a significant decline in the prioritization of fire management in the forest management objectives. With various social sectors competing for funds, the funding for the fire prevention and control has also gone down or has been diverted to schemes like ‘employment generation’ or even the establishment expenses of the forest department. In fact at present most of the states do not have any regular schemes/funds for prevention and control of forest fires. With meagre human resource at its disposal, the forest departments in most of the states are poorly equipped to prevent or control the spread of forest fires. This situation and the fact that forests are under tremendous pressure, due to increasing population pressure and hence commensurate demand of land, forest products etc necessitates exploration of alternatives to arrest this phenomenon. Attempts to elicit peoples’ participation in fire control offers hope of minimising the damage caused by fires. In this context Joint Forest Management (JFM) assumes an important role in fire prevention and control. JFM has played a significant role in the context of institutional arrangements pertaining to forest management in India. The effective involvement of local communities in evolving sustainable forest management systems is being looked upon as an important approach to address the long-standing problems of deforestation and land degradation in India.

The National Forest Policy (1988) and Joint Forest Management Guidelines (1990) acknowledges and endorses this system of management, which supports the involvement of village communities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the regeneration, management and protection of degraded forests. The conducive environment created by these enabling legal and administrative measures is manifested in the fact that as many as twenty two State Governments have issued directions to the respective State Forest Departments for adoption of JFM. At present more than one lakh forest protection committees are protecting about 22 million ha of forest area in the country. These committees operational in various states are assisting the forest department in forest protection (including fire prevention and control) and management, though the extent of participation and contribution to efforts varies.

A very definitive lesson and pre-requisite for community based approach to fire management, which emerges out of the JFM experience in forest protection, is a participatory approach in which people co-operate with forest department in forest protection in return for economic benefits.

Participatory Approach
The community based fire management has to rely extremely on the positive relationship between the people in the rural space and their forest. Mutual confidence and public support has to be created by participatory approaches e.g. incentives, income generation activities, involvement in production enterprises etc. for involvement of communities in fire prevention and control.

In JFM villages, people feel duty bound to put out the fire in the forest because they have a stake in it. Remarks like ‘the forest now belongs to us and we feel obliged to protect it’ are commonly heard, whereas in non-JFM villages people are non-enthusiastic about such voluntary efforts. Their efforts are mainly confined to check spread of forest fires to their agricultural fields.

Creating Awareness
People’s view on the occurrence of forest fires is of vital importance in assessing the impact of community efforts at fire control. It is not surprising that socio-economic and cultural surveys on fire causes often reveal that most important reason for failure of prevention of forest fires is related to the fact that communities do not realize the economic and ecological losses due to forest fires. Therefore, an efficient motivation strategy for fire prevention requires an initial understanding of the cultural, socio-economic and psychological background of community perception of fire losses.

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