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Environment

(Fire) Fighting Fake News. Real Issues Burning
By Medha Pande

In wake of viral fake news on Forest fire in Uttarakhand it becomes important on world environment day to talk about how much we understand forest fires in India. 

Fake, fake, fake…it has dented even the environment. While India grapples unrestrained corona spike, people had this horrific viral picture for forest fire in country’s most coveted Uttarakhand forest reserves in last week of May. It couldn’t have been worse, but thankfully it was a fake news. #prayforuttarakhand was everywhere, and we, being human, emotional creatures, started praying and forwarding.

It has been some time now. All is well. Public memory is short lived. We have moved on but not without a very pertinent question for us to think on.  How did this spread, the news, literally, like wildfire? This one was also sensational by virtue of its very nature and probable outcome in the wake of memories of recent Australian forest fire which almost devastated the continent.

In absence of credible data and first-hand information many issues emerge, sometimes even confusing, with regard to the wildfire. We need to clear air on forest fire. Some claim fires a part of forest ecology, others blame mafias for setting forests afire for unlawful gains, and still others say villagers burn forests to obtain better grass for livestock. In the midst of all this, every year, headlines spike in the fire season but rains wash away the issue till the next forest fire season. On world environment day it becomes pertinent to throw some light on how we perceive forests and reality of forest fires in India.

Are we mistaking trees for the forest?

Imperial Forest Department was created in 1864 by then British government to fulfill its demand for commercial use as a ‘sustained yield of timber’. Please note, that this ‘sustained yield’ is distinct from sustainability that we strive to achieve for our natural resources now. British wanted regular supply of this useful timber from selective species.

Pine, used extensively for construction of railway tracks back then, was encouraged to grow in the hills of Uttarakhand, to the detriment of the native biologically diverse forests heavily dependent upon broad leaved species like Oak and Rhododendron. This tree centric approach and silviculture were accepted globally.

The watershed moment in this perspective was Rio Earth Summit, 1992, when the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) gave the true understanding of forests as living, thriving systems, consisting of innumerable flora and fauna, including billions of microscopic creatures, and many species still undiscovered; out of which trees are only just a handful. India is a signatory to CBD. To endorse this commitment legally, the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and Biological Diversity Rules, 2004 were formulated.

However, we have failed to put this praiseworthy statute into practice; so much so that even the pattern and management of the forest departments is continuing almost on colonial legacy.  Firstly,the information on ‘forest cover’ in India is obtained through satellite pictures by Forest Survey of India, once every 2 years. These pictures show only the canopy cover and comment just on the degree of density of the canopy (dense, very dense etc).

Second, the major solution of forest degradation in India is given as plantation. This plantation is of the trees only. Even for land transfers from a forest to non-forestry purpose, there is CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority). The name is self explanatory. To ‘compensate’ for the loss of forest in any non-forest activity, only a certain number of trees have to be grown somewhere else, with utter disregard to the loss of an ecosystem. These is also a lack of any other mechanism to gauge the health of a forest. The result is that the forest department itself lacks the true picture of the whole forest with its various components and is hence clueless about the developments and/or degradations.

What is actually burning?

Basically, fire needs following agents to kindle- combustible material, dryness and spark; not to mention oxygen. Fires in middle-Himalayan forests are most of the times ground fires only (as opposed to crown fires burning entire canopy). The ground here is covered by fallen leaves in various stages of decomposition. This spongy biological resource absorbs water and makes the ground moist even in dry seasons. Only the topmost layer of newly fallen leaves, that is inherently dry, can burn, and that too for a small period of time. Once decay sets in, the leaf mass becomes mushy and hence does not burn easily.

Fall season coincides with the approaching summer, which also happens to be the fire season due to high temperature and dryness and dry leaves have a high susceptibility to burn in the fire-season.

The leaf-mass ordinarily undergoes decomposition with the help of various micro-organisms and fungi into invaluable humus. This in turn converts into soil- the foundation of all life on earth. And this thriving ecosystem, consisting of innumerable flora, fauna, eggs, nests and food-chains, is exactly what is lost in most of the wild fires in Uttarakhand. Therefore, although the fires may last for a small time, irreparable damage might ensue, even after fire is extinguished.

Do the forest fires actually support ecology?

Ground fires are supposedly a part of forest ecology of the middle Himalayas, with some species even benefiting from it. For example the seeds of  bayberry (kafal) need roasting to be able to germinate; many useless weeds are also wiped out. However, in recent times, the fires are increasing in occurrences and magnitude. As a result, smoke in forests has become a ubiquitous phenomena of the middle Himalayan summers now.

Does someone deliberately introduce spark?

Natives, living in and around forests, are sometimes blamed for deliberately burning the forests for better grass for livestock. Pirul, the fallen needles of pine, is definitely burnt by villagers. Pine needle, being highly slippery in nature, presents a deadly hazard for cattle and humans in forests. Myths also abound of better grass following a fire. However, this fire is limited in extent. A case against this passing of the buck can be made from the following point. Forests in urban areas, where grazing is almost zero, also see widespread fire.

Intrusion of humans in forest areas is increasing and so is the waste generated. In the absence of waste incinerators and proper waste management, piles of garbage,  even beside forest land, are simple burnt in Uttarakhand. Our perception of leaves is also to be blamed. Heaps of leaves are considered waste and burnt freely throughout India by municipal workers and residents alike. A spark from both the above could become the reason of fire introduction in the forests. Mafias are also an accepted, existing feature of Indian forests and are sometimes blamed for the fires as well for fulfilling their vested interests.

Are all the fires equally destructive?

No. Different areas may differ in the type and number of species inhabiting it i.e the biodiversity across areas may differ. For example an intense inferno in a mono-culture of pine is less destructive ecologically than a small fire in a rich, virgin oak forest. And it is not just across different forest types. Inside a particular forested land as well, different pockets may present differing bio-diversity. Therefore, the quality of the area burnt is a more important factor to consider than its quantity, to understand the real loss to nature.

By concentrating only on the number of hectares burnt and neglecting the biodiversity within, our perception of a forest fire and the ecological loss due to it, may be poles apart. But, to correctly assess the biodiversity, there should be a proper record of species. According to the Biological Diversity Rules, 2004, local bodies have to create a People’s Biodiversity Register (PBR), documenting the biological resources of the area under their jurisdiction. This comprehensive document is a list of the availability of all plants, animals and micro-organisms, and also their parts, genetic material and by-products. However, the progress of PBR is abysmal in Uttarakhand, with the NGT having recently reproved the state in this matter.

Now let us bring our focus to the judiciary. There was a commendable judgment of the High Court of Uttarakhand in 2016, which is a comprehensive document vis-á-vis forest fires. It goes to the extent of saying that if a forest fire continues for 24 hours, 48 hours or 72 hours, the Divisional Forest Officer, the Conservator of Forest and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forest respectively, will be deemed to be put under suspension. However, due to lack of political will and the resultant execution of a judgment, even the strictest order fails to achieve its purpose.

What needs to be stressed is that the particular pictures may be false, but let us not take the benefit of the ‘fake news’ to proof that everything is right when it is in fact not. The fire fake news is relatively easy to tackle, but to solve the real problem, a concrete, long-term and sustained strategy is required. The factors at the core of forest fires are such that require action throughout the year. Some may even need drastic systemic changes in the administration of forests. Therefore, the government needs to have more commitment to tackle the real problem than it has shown to fight the fake news. And this should be done before it is too late.

(The views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion, beliefs and view point of the owners of asiannewsmakers.com)

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