The Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science & Technology, Environment & Forests, under the Chairpersonship of Renuka Chowdhury, Member of Parliament presented its Two Hundred and Ninety-third Report on ‘Forest Fires and its Effect on Environment, Forests, Bio-diversity and Wildlife and remedial/preventive measures’ to both the Houses of Parliament on December 16, 2016.
Uncontrollable and devastating forest fires ravaged the Himalayan states of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmirduring February-April 2016. In Uttarakhand alone, the forest fires destroyed nearly 4,000 ha. of forest cover across 13 districts, killed 9 and injured 17 people besides damaging the biodiversity and forest ecosystem beyond repair.
As many as 378 forest fires had broken out in Himachal. Also, the Riasi district in Jammu faced devastation including some forested patch of Trikuta Mountains where the famous Vaishno Devi edifice is enshrined. In view of the enormity of the forest fires this year in the fragile states in the Himalayan region, resulting in heavy loss of lives and extensive damage to the flora and fauna, the Rajya Sabha Committee decided to take up the subject for examination in May 2016.After 6 months, it has presented its recommendations some of which are of far reaching importance. The detailed recommendations are as below.
The Committee observes that the funds released by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to the States and UTs under Centrally Sponsored Scheme namely, Intensification of Forest Management, have shown a declining trend during the last few years, as is evident from the figures provided by Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. The Committee is at a loss to understand as to why, when most of the concerned States have been asking for additional funds under this scheme, the Ministry has not given priority to this sector. In view of the devastations caused due to the forest fires, particularly this year, the Committee recommends that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change should enhance its budgetary allocation under the Scheme and provide increased allocations under the Scheme to the affected States to enable them to take the requisite measures for prevention and mitigation of forest fires.
The Committee has been given to understand that Forest Research Institute, one of the oldest forestry institutions in the country, has been undertaking basic research in forest management. However, there seems to be a huge disconnect between the research done by FRI and its usage by the State Forest Departments and other agencies. This has been corroborated by the fact that NDRF, when deployed in Uttarakhand to control the forest fire, complained of having used very rudimentary equipment, whereas FRI claims of having designed and developed efficient fire-fighting tools. Therefore, the Committee recommends to FRI to publicise among all State about the equipment developed by them with a view to control forest fires, so that the concerned States could procure the equipment and use them in case of forest fires.
The Committee observed that a large number of posts of front line forest staff were lying vacant and expressed doubt about the preparedness of the state forest departments to combat forest fires. The Committee also observed that the recent forest fires may have resulted in adverse impact on many species and desired to know the efforts made by the Government in minimizing the loss. The Committee was informed that the Department was conducting regular surveys with respect to floral as well as faunal species conservation in the state and will undertake more studies focused towards areas where forest fires had been reported. The Committee was also informed that the State Forest Department was taking up soil and water conservation measures in affected areas to check possible negative impact on forests and water resources of the state. Further, a range of local species have been reserved which will be planted to minimize soil screened along with the contour trenches.
The Committee notes that Indian Institute of Remote Sensing and Wildlife Institute of India have made some very useful suggestions regarding remedial/preventive measures for forest fires, disaster risk reduction, restoration of habitat, wildlife habitat improvement and post fire restoration work. The Committee recommends that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the concerned State Government should take these suggestions into consideration while formulating strategies for prevention, mitigation and fighting the forest fires as well as post fire restoration work.
The Committee is of the opinion that agencies like NDRF should be deployed in fighting forest fires extremely rarely. Infact, State Governments should be asked to train their fire brigade staff to fight forest fires as they will be in a better position to deal with it. The Committee was informed that Himachal Pradesh has over 600 fire brigade staff. Likewise, all other states will be having their fire-fighting staff who needed to be trained to suit the occasion. The Committee, therefore, recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, on priority basis through Forest Research Institute, Dehradun, organize training of fire brigade officers of all the states and equip them with proper forest fire equipment so that they can rise up to the occasion in the event of forest fires and they do not have to depend on outside agencies like NDRF which has already enough duties to perform at national level. The Committee also recommends that the Government should also approach some other fire-prone countries such as Canada, New Zealand and Australia to understand as to how they deal with the problems of forest fires and study the use of other systems for fighting forest fires such as chemical fogging that is used in these countries.
The Committee was constrained to note that interest and participation of local villagers/people in dealing with the forest fires and related incidents have gone down. The Committee is of the view that the key issue in forest management is the execution of activities at the grass root level and hence there is an urgent need to restore the social commitment and sense of belongingness of the people towards the forests and their involvement in planning and management of the forests. The Committee is of the firm view that this would also help in minimising the forest fire incidents in the country. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Central Government and concerned State Governments should take immediate necessary steps to involve the local communities, including women, self-help groups and members of Village Panchayats and ZilaParishads in forest management related activities. The Committee also recommends that the State Governments should also incentivise the local people/villagers by creating facilities for them such as schools, hospitals etc. as per the local requirements to motivate and encourage the people to come forward and participate in the process of saving our precious forests from forest fires.
The Committee is in agreement with the view expressed by various representatives of Civil Society that small fires lit by the villagers in forest areas can spread and result in major forest fires. The need for taking up awareness campaigns among the villagers and exposing them to the devastating and horrifying results of such small fires cannot be over-emphasised. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change must impress upon the State Governments to take all necessary measures in this regard such as posters, slogans, campaigns in schools, hand bill etc. Since visual media is very effective in attracting people towards a cause, it is recommended that the devastating effects of forest fires should also be shown on electronic media in the form of short films, documentaries etc. to make the people aware of the horrifying impacts of forest fires.
The Committee further recommends that short films/documentaries in regional languages should also be shown periodically and the campaign should be sustained at least period of three to five years so that it can impact the minds of the people and the society at large. The Committee also recommends that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds should also be used for advertisement and awareness campaigns. Further, there should be training and mock fire-drills in schools and colleges. There should also be a dedicated toll free telephone number for reporting incidents of forest fire in each state.
The Committee is also of the view that people/tourists who come to the hilly areas from the plains, have little awareness about how to behave in the hills. The Committee, therefore, recommends that the State Governments should proactively work towards putting up public signage displaying the requisite messages in areas frequented by the tourists, to make them aware of the norms to be followed in forest areas.
Availability of fire-fighting equipment, kits and training to local people.
The Committee feels that apart from involvement of local communities in forest management and exposing them to devastations of forest fires, there is an urgent need to provide fire-fighting equipment to the people. Further, all persons deployed to fight the fires should be provided some back-pack kits which should contain water, packed food, fire-proof hand gloves and boots, breathing masks, first-aid kits etc. so that they could sustain themselves for longer periods while undertaking the job. Further, since fighting forest fire has its own intricacies, the local communities should be updated with new technology and trained on how to use this equipment so that they could work hand in hand with Government agencies in fighting forest fires, when required.
Chir Pine needles, which are highly inflammable due to its high resin content, are a prominent factor in occurring and spreading of forest fires. The Committee is in agreement with the view expressed by representatives of some NGOs that the Chir pine needles should be removed and collected frequently. The Committee recommends that the State Governments should consider procuring sweeping machines to clear the roadsides of chir pine needles and dry leaves in vulnerable areas. Further, steps should be taken for incentivising the clearing and collection of pine needles. The Government should also try to involve school children, NCC, NGOs etc. in collection of pine needles. The local communities should also be encouraged by providing remunerative emoluments in the collection process. The Committee also recommends that broad leave trees should be planted in the forests and, after a period of five years, there should be systematic replacement of chir pine trees in the forests by broad leave trees as it has been seen that incidents of fires in latter forests are minimal as compared to chir pine forests.
The Committee is further of the view that there is high resin content in chir pine needles and there is a need to explore as to how it can be used for other purposes. The Committee recommends that the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change should take up with the concerned Ministries of Government of India to explore as to how best to extract resin from these needles and how, apart from burning fuel, it could be used for other purposes.
The Committee is of the view that activities relating to collection of pine needles can not only provide employment to a large number of unskilled workers in the hilly states but also get rid of the chir pine needles which play a vital role in spreading of forest fires. The Committee, therefore, recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change should take up the inclusion of work relating to collection of chir pine needles as one of the activities under MGNREGA with the concerned Union Ministry so that the State Governments can initiate further action in this regard without any hindrance.
The Committee is dismayed to note the problems of encroachment of forest land by the people as well as the violation of forest conservation rules in Dehradun and Shimla. Some people purposefully cause fires to encroach on forest land, which sometimes spread to other areas as well. The Committee recommends that the matter needs to be administratively looked into by the concerned State Governments and ensure that there is no encroachment of forest land or violation of forest conservation rules. Municipal and town planning agencies in the States should take effective and practical steps to stop unplanned urbanization and encroachments of forest and open land. Local communities/villagers should be encouraged to report any such incidents to the concerned authorities immediately. The authorities should take prompt action in such cases. Forests are our national property and any attempt to encroach upon them and the consequent fire in forests, whether intentional or unintentional, should be strictly dealt with.Creation of check dams and ponds within the forests.
The Committee feels that creation of ponds and water harvesting structures within the forest area not only reduces river bank erosion but can be a handy tool for supply of water for dousing forest fires. This would not only reduce dependence on helicopters for supply of water but also readily provide water to the locals within the forest area for fire-fighting. The Committee, therefore, recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change should impress upon the State Governments the need to reinvigorate the system of ponds and check dams within the forest areas, so that water is immediately available at hand for making efforts to douse the forest fires. This would also save crucial time which is wasted in bringing water from other far-off resources, and help try to douse the fire in its initial stages and check it from spreading further.
Fire lines are areas which are cleaned of vegetation for stopping or slowing down a fire in forest areas. The creation of fire lines is critical in wildland fire fighting, because without fire lines, a fire can quickly get out of control. The Committee is of the view that such traditional methods of containing forest fires have stood the test of time and should not be dispensed with. While use of modern technologies for fire alerts etc. is definitely a welcome step, under the present circumstances, over-dependence on technology at the cost of traditional methods should not be encouraged. The Committee, therefore, recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change should emphasise upon the State Governments that the traditional forest operations for scientific management of forests including forest floor clearing, controlled burning and creation of water harvesting structures should be reviewed and utilised effectively. The Committee notes that the traditional fire lines are not being cleared due to lack of funds at the disposal of the State Governments. The Committee, therefore, also recommends that adequate budgetary allocations should be made by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the purpose and State Governments should ensure that fire lines, which play a crucial role in preventing spread of fires, are cleared regularly. The Committee also recommends that seasonal training, if required, should be provided to the local people including panchayats and zilaparishads for clearing of fire lines, before the onset of forest fire season.
The Committee recommends that instead of fire watchers, forest workers and CCTVs, the use of Drones should be encouraged for forest surveillance and monitoring. These drones should be deployed systematically in a day three to four times, or as felt necessary. This would enable the authorities receive much faster information since the drones will be able to go into the interior of the forest areas and send updates of the happenings inside the forests. The State Governments can equip the fire watchers with new technologies so that they can detect any suspicious or untoward incidents and report them to the concerned authorities immediately. This would not only ease the pressure on fire watchers who are pitifully paid and have to sit observing the forests in all climatic conditions but also provide more authentic and accurate data to the Government. It would also enable the State Governments to evolve a quick response system.
The Committee is shocked to note the gross underestimation of losses due to forest fires. The Government estimation in Himachal Pradesh comes to INR 470 per acre and in Uttarakhand it is INR 400 per acre. The Committee is at loss to understand who will be the actual beneficiary of this gross underestimation. The Committee, therefore, recommends that an independent agency having impeccable credibility must be roped in by the Ministry to estimate the losses in real terms and properly and earmark budget for compensation.
The Committee is in agreement with the views expressed by the representatives of Civil Society that the impact of forest fire on biodiversity is grossly underestimated and the loss of wildlife was not even by accounted for. The Committee is at loss to understand as to why the Zoological Survey of India and Botanical Survey of India, which are also the arms of the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change, did not take up any studies on loss of biodiversity of the forest fire affected areas. Even the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change did not take any initiative in this regard. Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has also stated that National Biodiversity Authority can take up studies in future on the effect of natural calamities/disasters including forest fires, and remedial/preventive measures thereof on a need basis. The Committee hopes that in future, the Ministry would take a more proactive approach in this regard and recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change should ask its concerned organisations to undertake, on priority basis, assessment of loss of biodiversity due to forest fires and devise plans to prevent loss of bio-diversity in the event of forest fires so that corrective and preventive measures in this regard could be initiated at the earliest. The Committee further suggests that the Ministry should consider making National Biodiversity Authority the nodal agency for coordinating the efforts made by the different organizations in this regard.
The Committee is also aware of the availability of natural assets like medicinal and herbal plants in our forests. The Committee feels that there are adequate nurseries in hilly areas which are the banks of medicinal and herbal plants. The Committee is of the view that the Government can also consider incentivising the forest dwellers to grow medicinal plants in the plains. As such it would become a source of earning for local people. Accordingly, in case of occurrence of incidents of fire, they would be worried about their source of income, as a result of which they will take care of the areas and work to ensure that there are no cases of forest fires.
The Committee is of the view that after forest fires, the earth around the affected areas and the roots of the trees become weak and loose. This also contributes to the landslides in the affected areas in the rainy seasons after the forest fires. The Committee, therefore, recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change should impress upon the State Governments that after the forest fires have been brought under control, a quick response system should be put in action and immediate necessary steps should be taken for minimizing the occurrence of landslides in the affected areas. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change should also issue suitable guidelines to the State Governments in this regard.
The Committee notes that almost all the State Governments have expressed resource crunch and inadequate budgetary allocations to effectively invest in protecting our forests from fires. The Committee observes that in the context of forest fires, the needs of Himalayan states are distinctly different from the other states. The whole country depends upon the services of the Himalayan region since they contribute much more to the forest cover of the country. Accordingly, the Committee recommends that the budget of all the states which are in Himalayan region should be demarcated separately from other states, with specific objectives in mind and the policies and programmes and it should not be clubbed with other states, without taking into account the specific demands of the Himalayan ecosystem. Further, there should be an accelerated system for the devolution of funds to these States to enable them to prioritize the requirements of prevention, mitigation and fighting the forest fires.
The Committee strongly feels that in this background the ball is in the court of the Central Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change to plan to remove dead and fallen tree even in the protected forest areas. The Committee recommends that in the light of Supreme Court order of 1996, the Central Government is bound to persuade the State Governments and approve their Working Plans for salvaging dead and fallen trees with a view to avoid induced forest fire in future.
The Committee is of the view that forest fires have become an annual feature in the country and have a devastating effect on environment, forest, biodiversity and wildlife. The Committee feels that there is an urgent need to devise a policy with regard to prevention and mitigation of forest fires and recommends that Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change should, at the earliest, come up with a national policy on the subject.