Come March every year, the print media is filled with reports of fires in the dry deciduous forests of India, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Odisha. This year has been no different. The death of Murigeppa Tammangol, a forest guard who served in Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka, in a forest fire last month, is a sombre reminder of the danger posed by forest fires to our front-line forest staff.
Fighting fires with minimal equipment in challenging terrain is a thankless task that poses grave risks. It is perhaps time to ask whether a strict no-fire policy is relevant in ecological and societal contexts, rather than raise ineffective questions about how forest fires can be controlled or prevented through technology.
The bulk of forest fires in India occurs in the tropical dry forests of our country, an umbrella category encompassing scrub, savanna grassland, dry and moist-deciduous forests. Almost 70% of forests in India are composed of these types.
Recent research on the ecology and bio-geographical origin of these forests indicates that fire occurrence and light availability are important factors that maintain the ecosystem. However, forest management still suffers from a colonial hangover intent on keeping production forestry systems free from fire in order to prevent the loss of 'stock'. It is no surprise, therefore, that even today, the aftermath of a forest fire is accompanied by reports of how trees in hundreds of acres have been 'destroyed'. Field ecological research, on the other hand, indicates that many tree species distinct to dry forests have co-evolved with fires and have developed fire-resistance features like thick, spongy bark, and can re-sprout from rootstock in response to fire.
Blanket ban woes
The roots of our current fire crisis lie squarely in the blanket implementation of a no-fire forest policy. This 'one-size-fits-all' approach of fire protection is perhaps incompatible with the ecology of India’s tropical dry forests. For example, the fires in Bandipur Tiger Reserve were immensely difficult to control because of ample fuel supplied by the alien invasive species Lantana camara. Recent ethnographic and empirical research from the neighbouring Biligiri Rangaswamy Tiger Reserve indicates that a no-fire policy was likely responsible for the spread of Lantana in the first place.
Additionally, frequent, low-intensity forest fires possibly prevented the proliferation of Lantana in the past, a time when fires were not yet anathema for forest managers. Tribal elders of the area predict that future forest fires will be difficult to control unless Lantana biomass is physically reduced first.
Are frequent, small forest fires preferable to infrequent, catastrophic fires? Forest-dwellers of the area clearly seem to favour the former. Findings from conventional scientific studies also support these insights from indigenous knowledge, and indicate that early dry season fires burn less hot, and are far less detrimental to vegetation than peak dry season fires which burn much hotter.
Who has the power to wield fire in India’s tropical dry forests? The answer exposes the fault lines among contesting groups of stakeholders. Forest dwellers set fire to forests to clear walking paths, to collect non-timber forest products like gooseberry and mahua flowers, and to encourage the fresh growth of grass for their livestock, and sometimes as a part of ritual practice.
Agriculturists set fire to hill forests so that the fertilising ash from fire washes down to their fields with the monsoon rains. For the forest dweller, therefore, fires have cultural and livelihood significance. The forest department, on the other hand, has historically prevented fire in order to protect timber stocks, and initiated a system of fire-lines around valuable timber ‘compartments’ or coupes. By burning the fire-lines before the onset of summer, forest fires, if they occurred, could be confined to a few compartments. More recently however, fire has been used as a management tool to increase the density of herbivores in tropical dry forests.
The logic for this kind of burning is also related to the creation of fresh grass, but this time for consumption by wild herbivores rather than by cattle. In a centralised, top-down hierarchical system, these two broad ways of wielding fire are clearly incompatible. By enacting legislation that made the setting of forest fires an offence, the forest department gradually legitimised one world view of forests as timber and wildlife production systems and ignored other world views that envisioned forests as cultural and livelihood spaces.
Instead of viewing forest fires as being purely destructive in nature, forest managers should perhaps expand their world view and be more inclusive to information from ecological and local knowledge systems that view fires as being both rejuvenating and revitalising.
Bharath Sundaram is an Assistant Professor in the School of Ecology and Environment Studies, Nalanda University