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People Power For Forest Fire Curb

Bhubaneswar: When there is unrest in civil society, people burn tyres on main roads to draw the attention of the government and the media. Burning is part of the demonstration to make the administration aware of the ground realities. Nature too seems to have adopted this mode of protest when all is not well with the forests of Odisha.

There is a nationwide hue and cry over the raging fire in the Similipal National Park in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. However, the forest fire has become a regular phenomenon across the state since long and all the governments including the existing Naveen Patnaik dispensation have continued to ignore the hazard.

The state which has successfully handled major natural calamities like super cyclones and devastating floods and to certain extent lightning, has appeared to have lost the battle with the forest fire which has been damaging huge properties like flora and fauna, and other priceless resources of the forests. Nobody is, in fact, serious, about the forest fire, the incidents of which are on the rise.

The recent forest fire in Similipal is an eye opener and has forced the elite class to turn their attention towards it, albeit ensconced in their air-conditioned chambers. There is an urgency of making a specific plan to win over this calamity, and the Naveen Patnaik government can do this. If Naveen can tackle the unknown catastrophes like the Coronavirus, why not the forest fires?

This is not that the state is not aware about the forest fire incidents. It is an annual event which is seen in forests of Odisha in the beginning of the summer season from February till June. Though there are working plan prescriptions as well as several executive orders on the subject, no systematic approach and effective management practices have been devised for the prevention so far, a forest expert pointed out adding that a comprehensive Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to prevent forest fire is required for field level officers to resolve the problem at the source.

The fault lies in the system in which people in air-conditioned chambers make plans and policies to douse fire in jungles without consulting the forest guards and rangers who actually face the heat in the field.

There is practically no dearth of money for the fire extinguishing activities in Odisha forests. During the year 2020-21 under the State CAMPA Annual Plan of Operation, a sum of Rs 2161.56 lakh has been released to 37 forest divisions for taking measures for effective prevention and control of fire with an active involvement of local community.

The state has already identified 26,500 forest fringe villages. If at least two persons – one man and a woman, from each village is involved, as many as 53,000 dedicated people would be available for the purpose. They should be given monetary incentive and made accountable for the forest fire in their areas. This apart, the state has a strong presence of about 80 lakh self-help women group members who can also contribute to resolving the problem as they have done during the pandemic, floods, cyclones and other problems.

It is a fact that the state does not have adequate forest staff. But, the members of Vana Surakshya Samitis, local villagers, WSHG members can be roped in which could help dousing the forest fire in Odisha.  The fat salaried forest officials, who work mostly confined in offices in Bhubaneswar and other towns should also be held accountable and be assigned specific forests to protect.

The planning to prevent the forest fire should also be made properly so that if at all such incidents take place, it can be controlled immediately. The state has a forest cover of more than 51,000 square kilometre, but the fire lines stretch only in 19,500 kilometre. The Forest Survey of India data released everyday shows that the incidents of forest fire are higher in Odisha in comparison to other states. The FSI on Friday recorded a whopping 233 active large forest fire events in the state. The figure accounted for 25 per cent of the country’s total large forest fire events recorded on the day.      

The FSI report says that there were at least 11,088 forest fire incidents across Odisha in 2020 in which 6070.252 hectares of forest had been affected. If the state gets more than 5,000 hectares of forest damaged due to fire every year, how many days are left for Odisha to transform the greenery to barren lands? This is high time that the forest department and the state’s policymakers woke up from the deep slumber to save forests which happen to be natural gift to the poor Odisha and its people.

The history of forest fire originates from “Podu Chasa” in ancient days when the tribal people used to burn forests to make room for cultivation. Now, the situation has changed as a new mode of danger has appeared to bedevil the forest resources.

People engaged in Mahua seeds collection and the poachers use to indulge in setting fire in forest for their convenience. The forest officials in Keonjhar district arrested three persons while they were setting fire in the forest. This shows that the forest fire is not always due to the hot weather in summer: local people also contribute to the problem. They should be firmly dealt with for the protection of precious forests. The fire at Similipal National Park has no doubt caused severe damage to the medicinal plants and herbs apart from the small wildlife like pangolin. It is another matter that the state government is of the view that no wild life or large trees have been damaged in Similipal. But the government is silent on the medicinal plants and the reptiles that were destroyed as a huge area has been burnt down, may be due to callousness of our system.

This is high time, the people at the helm acted earnestly to save our forests. No science or human being can create a biosphere. Let us preserve what is a priceless gift to the humanity, by involving people living in villages on the fringes of the forests. They will turn real saviour if their involvement is made more meaningful, feel environmentalists.