Protecting forests in India from disastrous fires

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India’s commitment to sustainable development is clearly demonstrated through its innovative and progressive forest policies. The Government’s policy of incentivising state governments to improve their forest cover is evident in the 14th Finance Commission’s allocation of 7.5% of total revenues on the basis of the state’s forest cover. This makes India the implementer of the world’s largest Payment for Environmental Services scheme.

Over the last few years, the forest and tree cover in the country has been steadily increasing, and at present, it stands at 24.16% of the total geographic area. This affirms that sustainable forest management and long-term thinking about natural assets are foundations for strong and sustained growth. This is not to say that there are no challenges. Forest fires are a leading cause of forest degradation in India, and the current pattern of widespread and frequent fires could make it more difficult for India to meet its long-term goal of bringing 33% of its geographical area under forest & tree cover and to achieve its international commitment to create additional carbon sinks of 2.5 billion to 3 billion tons worth of CO2 equivalent by 2030.


Recognizing the challenge of forest fires in India, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the World Bank co-organized an international workshop on Forest Fire Prevention and Management from November 1 to 3, 2017. The discussion benefitted from the perspectives of government officials from India, researchers, experts and representatives from Australia, Belarus, Canada, Mexico, Nepal, the United States of America, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. This workshop served as an opportunity for knowledge exchange to help India devise a robust strategy to tackle the challenge of forest fires. It was also an opportunity for Indian states to share good practices with each other, and with countries from around the world, and to learn from other countries.

Forest fire can threaten lives and property. In India, different agencies are mandated with dealing natural disasters including forest fire. Developing institutional mechanisms to improve coordination among various players is a key ingredient for effective management. Forest fire will continue to be managed primarily by state forest departments, but will also need to be a part of disaster planning and the forest department needs to be involved in this process. Because other agencies, such as local police, fire departments and disaster management agencies, may be called in case of large fires, it is important that they are trained in forest fire suppression methods. Moreover, joint trainings should be organized to coordinate between these departments.

In India, local people who depend on forests for their livelihood and to supplement their incomes are the ones who often set fires in the forests. In many cases, they use fire as a tool to obtain the goods and services on which they rely, for example, by burning ground cover to get a fresh flush of grass for consumption by their livestock. Local community members are also the ones who are called to help respond to fires when they spread and burn out of control. While much is already being done at the grassroots level by the forest departments to raise awareness about the impacts of forest fires among local people, increasing the effectiveness of this engagement and encouraging changes in the way people use fire will require providing the right incentives, guided by the overall aim of enhancing the services provided by healthy forests to communities.     

At the same time, it is necessary to have comprehensive information on forest fires in India. Forest Fire Information Systems have a role to play in prevention, detection, suppression, and recovery, that is, across the spectrum of needed interventions. Although many states have tried out innovative solutions for fire prevention and management, not all the states are aware of these developments. To leverage this knowledge about what works, it needs to be collected in a systematic way and shared. Systems using satellite monitoring to alert forest managers and the public about active forest fires in their area, pioneered by the Forest Survey of India and states such as Madhya Pradesh, or the early warning system for forest fire danger that is being developed by the Forest Survey of India, are key ingredients of a forest fire management plan. Other states also have these systems, and states can learn from each other’s experiences to make these systems more effective.

Moreover, making investments in modern technologies for fire detection, as well as adequate fire suppression and safety equipment, while at the same time working to build capacity across the ranks of forest officers and improving accountability will help the forest department deliver on its mandate.

Read other blogs from this workshop here.

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