Would Odisha’s forest fires be better controlled if local communities were empowered?

Forest fires are an annual affair in Odisha. So why are this year’s flames sparking so much debate?

Updated - March 21, 2021 09:35 am IST

Published - March 20, 2021 11:58 am IST

A Sabuja Bahini member tries to douse a burning patch of forest near Similipal biosphere, Odisha

A Sabuja Bahini member tries to douse a burning patch of forest near Similipal biosphere, Odisha

You wouldn’t expect a whirlwind to leave someone with burn injuries. But that is what happened to Sasmita Naik of Raipada village in Odisha’s Mayurbhanj district. On March 1, an autorickshaw she was travelling in was passing a burning forest patch when it collided with a car that had got caught in a raging whirlwind. Sasmita was thrown out of the auto and landed right in the fire.

Some 10 km from Raipada, in Baring village, Minati Mohanta had to literally walk through a fire to reach the local market.

These two villages are located in Thakurmunda block, a part of Similipal, a UNESCO-designated biosphere and one of the country’s largest natural heritage sites. The first half of March saw vast forest fires sweeping through Similipal. Was it climate change playing out? Did the State forest department’s protocol to tackle this annual phenomenon fall short? Or was there more to it this year?

Flames seen in the Similipal buffer area

Flames seen in the Similipal buffer area

This fire, as the many that Odisha is vulnerable to each year, might have gone unnoticed. Officials downplayed it as an annual phenomenon until dramatic photographs and videos of flames engulfing different parts of the forests, especially around Similipal, went viral on social media. Soon, the forest department had to launch the biggest fire-fighting exercise in the State’s history.

Rich biodiversity

Similipal — once a hunting ground for royals and declared a national park in the 80s — stands out for its ecological diversity, Some 1,078 species of plants, including 94 species of orchids, are found here. The forest is known for its tigers and elephants, among 55 species of mammals, 304 species of birds, 60 reptiles and 164 butterfly species.

The reserve’s two exquisite waterfalls, Joranda and Barehipani, attract thousands of tourists every year. Twelve rivers, including Burhabalanga, Palpala, Bhandan, Salandi, Kahairi and Deo, flow through Similipal, and it also boasts of the twin peaks of Khairiburu and Meghashini. The Similipal biosphere is one of the most protected forests in the State, managed by at least six senior officers of the Indian Forest Service.

Yet, at one point this year, Similipal was burning in at least 300 places. This is attributed in part to the extreme dry weather. “There was no rain between November and March. Leaf litter and twigs on the forest floor became more combustible than ever before. Small ignitions led to major fires,” says Jitendra Kumar, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF).

A woman walks through a burning patch on her way to the weekly market

A woman walks through a burning patch on her way to the weekly market

While everyone agrees that the weather fanned the flames this year, they also say it could have been checked as the majority of forest fires are manmade. “True, forest fires are not new,” says Biswajit Mohanty, a conservationist. “The forest department has had a plan to tackle them since the British era. But the involvement of the local community was central to fighting the fires; in drawing fire-lines, for instance. Now, we believe that the level of community participation has come down.”

There should be continuous interaction, says Mohanty, since Odisha’s forests are very prone to fires. “The forest is so vast that a handful of forest department personnel and volunteers cannot reach every spot where fires ignite.”

PCCF Kumar, meanwhile, says that mohua collection is also a major culprit. Villagers collect the blooms to make the local liquor. The practice is to burn the dry leaves below the trees to make it easier to pick the fallen flowers beneath, and officials say these small fires are often not put out fully, thus spreading to other areas. “In some forest divisions such as Baliguda, Phulbani and Rayagada, the forest department has geo-tagged mohua trees and carried out controlled fires. That proved very helpful and the fires did not spread. We have asked other divisional forest officers to follow the practice,” says Kumar.

But the allegations against the forest department are that they did not follow standard procedures and did not conduct adequate awareness programmes in the villages before the fire season began. “We did not have a single awareness programme on forest fires this year. Only when forests outside Similipal started to burn was a football match organised on February 23, during which people were urged to stay vigilant about the fires,” says Mataram Ho, sarpanch of Guruguria Panchayat in Similipal. The forest department, however, says it conducted over 600 awareness camps.

When we undertook a 15 km drive through Similipal on March 8, we did not see a single fire-line. These are typically created by scraping away leaf litter, twigs and vegetation to create natural barriers that can break the spreading flames. The forest department, however, says that 19,500 km of fire-lines were created this season.

Mohanty accuses the government of taking the fire too lightly. For instance, the Odisha government came up with a toll-free number for forest fires three years ago, but the number has not been publicised, defeating the very purpose of the exercise.

Forest wisdom

Activists also rue that the forest department does not recognise the forest dwellers’ traditional wisdom in detecting forest fires. For ages, people have followed a thumb rule: Dina re dhuan aau ratire nian (smoke during daytime means flames by night).

Young Pintu Maharana who was injured when an accident threw him right into a blazing strip of forest

Young Pintu Maharana who was injured when an accident threw him right into a blazing strip of forest

The forest department has instead emphasised detection through satellite imagery. This cannot always be the sole medium of fire management, points out Hemant Kumar Sahoo, an ecologist who has worked extensively in Similipal. “The information does not automatically trickle down to villagers. There is an administrative hierarchy that the information passes through.” This delays the process because it’s ultimately the villagers who have to put out the fires before they get out of control.

Indeed, the fires were found to be less intense and better controlled wherever villagers had been given community forest rights under the Forest Rights Act (FRA). For instance, villagers in Kolha, inside Similipal, got their act together and immediately stopped a fire on March 10. “When forest rights are given, people start to get a sense of ownership of the forest. The forest department is deliberately not acknowledging these efforts. They think the empowerment of people will shift the balance of power from the forest department to villagers,” says Sahoo. Under the FRA, the community prepares plans for conservation. “This makes them owners of a forest patch. The true spirit of the Act requires the forest department to take the community into confidence in all forest protection activities and ensure their involvement,” he adds.

Two leading people’s representatives — Mohanty Birua, sarpanch of Astakuan, and Jujhar Bansingh, sarpanch of Barehipani — tell us that the forest department has systematically distanced itself from local people. “We are not made partners in development work or provided wage employment,” they allege. Says Birua, “Field-level forest functionaries have become civil contractors who execute various small projects while they have forgotten basic forestry work.”

Interestingly, both forest officials and villagers seem to see this year’s fires as a reflection of the growing animosity between the forest department and the local people.

Not just tigers

Similipal was not the only forest in Odisha to suffer. From November last year — the start of the fire season — to March 10 this year, Odisha saw a stunning 29,580 fires, followed by Madhya Pradesh with 11,129, as per the Forest Survey of India.

A signboard inside the reserve forest

A signboard inside the reserve forest

Facing heavy criticism, the State government soon deployed a task force under the chairmanship of Sandeep Tripathi, former PCCF of Odisha. After its first assessment, the task force said there was no damage to wildlife or big trees and that people were safe. This sets a dangerous precedent, explains Akshita Bhanj Deo, scion of the erstwhile royal family of Mayurbhanj, whose tweets first drew attention to the issue this year. “Only big trees and megafauna cannot be given attention. The forest does not consist of only woody species. The ratio between saplings and smaller trees and bigger trees becomes greatly imbalanced during fires. It creates a fragile ecosystem.”

And neither is the forest only about tigers, elephants and big mammals, she adds. Major fires destroy a generation of pollinators such as birds and insects. And fire service personnel have come across hundreds of eggs of birds and reptiles destroyed in these fires. It also means a loss of habitat for many fauna. In some places, spotted deer were seen running into villages for shelter.

Loss of livelihood

Forest fires are not just an ecological disaster. They also present a livelihood crisis for indigenous communities. An astronomical 1,200 villages are located in the transition area of Similipal, housing a population of whom 73.44% are people drawn from tribes such as the Bhumij, Bathudi, Kolha, Ganda, Santhal, Khadia and Mankadia.

“The forest fire is a direct threat to our livelihood. We lose siali fibre,” says Brahmananda Mankidia of Dengam village. The Khadias harvest wild honey. This makes the Mankidias and Khadias more than eager to help in fire management. There are also the people who have lost grazing ground for domestic animals. In some places, villagers stayed awake nights to prevent their homes and cattle sheds from burning down.

Then, on March 10, everyone’s prayers were answered. Similipal had its first spell of rain.

Meanwhile, the task force has recommended giving incentives of ₹3,000 to ₹5,000 to villages on the forest fringe to win their trust and cooperation. The forest department is also set to acquire 700 fire blowers in addition to the existing 750. Conservationists, however, argue that the government must set aside substantial funding for the annual fire crisis since it threatens forest wealth worth billions. Above all, they insist that the local community be made the fulcrum of any future strategy.

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