On March 27, the news of a forest fire at Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan in northwest came to light. By the time the news reached the concerned officials at Baleta-Prithvipura outpost in the Akbarpur Range, it was quite late.
The forest field staff was quickly deployed to tackle the fire. Residents of villages also joined hands to help. The National Disaster Relief Force and State Disaster Relief Force arrived to join the efforts. In addition, there was assistance from the Indian Air Force which used its MIG-17 helicopter to douse the fire.
The state forest secretary arrived in Alwar to take control of the affairs while Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked to Rajasthan’s Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to offer support. Overall, over 400 people worked for six days to control the forest fire that had spread over an area of around 20 km.
However, the forests of Chhattisgarh are not as lucky. As fire rages in the central-eastern state, personnel and union support is scarce.
It is forest fire season and fires have been reported in recent weeks from Sarguja to Sukma in Chhattisgarh, as a result of which the flora and fauna are impacted. Photos and videos of elephants, leopards and other animals escaping the fire and running towards nearby human habitations are widespread on social media.
But as the fire continues, sufficient field staff of the forest department that would be the first in line to act on the fire, is not present. About ten thousand employees of the forest department, associated with the Chhattisgarh Forest Employees Union, are on an indefinite strike since March 21. The employees on strike include forest rangers, foresters and forest guards.
The strike comes at a time when forest fires are common. In India, the February to June period is highly prone to forest fires around the country. This year too, forest fires started with the onset of summer. Usually, as soon as forest fire incidents are reported or noticed, the forest staff actively takes steps to control the fire in a timely manner.
According to Chhattisgarh’s forest department, there were a total of 11,595 incidents of forest fires reported in March. However, according to the Indian Forest Survey data, there were 14,487 cases of forest fires in Chhattisgarh in March. On March 31 alone, 1,571 active forest fires were reported in Chhattisgarh. The areas which are under the effect of fire included national parks and tiger reserves too.
On the issue of forest fires, the state government spokesperson and Chhattisgarh state Agriculture Minister, Rabindra Chaubey said, “It is difficult to comment on how much fire has spread in which of the forest areas in the state, while sitting in the state capital…as far as the damages are concerned, the government is taking all steps to find solutions.”
However, on ground realities of rising forest fires and forest staff strikes tell a different story. Last month, in the Jagdalpur Wildlife Circle’s Indravati Tiger Reserve in Chhattisgarh, 1,162 cases of forest fires were reported. In the Bijapur Division in Jagdalpur district of the state, 1,121 cases of forest fires were reported last month as well. In the Guru Ghasidas National Park under the Sarguja Wildlife Range there were 1,009 cases of forest fires in the same period.
This national park is in fact an important example that shows the magnitude of the impact of forest fires – around 6.34% of the park’s territorial area is under forest fires. The park is spread over an area of around 46,665 hectares and of this, fires are spread across around 2,962 hectares.
Chhattisgarh ranks fourth among states in terms of area under forests. The state is spread over 135,192 sq km, of which 59,816 sq km (44.24%) is covered with forests – this is around 7.71% of the total forest area of India.
Staff on strike
While forest fires have escalated the threat to the forest cover of the state, the forest department employees that are striking are adamant about their demands and claim that the state has ignored their demands for several years.
“We are also worried about the forest fires,” Moolchand Sharma, President of the Chhattisgarh Forest Employees Union, told Mongabay-India. “We are sad that the forest which we nurtured and protected for years is now burning in front of us. However, since the time the state was formed (in 2000) we have raised our concerns with the authorities through several protests. We were given assurances in the past but nothing changed till now. Thus we were forced to go on strike.”
The Employees Union alleged that in 2003 the pay scale of forest guards was fixed at Rs 3,050 to Rs 4,590, but it was not implemented for long. In 2008, when the forest staff protested, it was implemented but new rules were later added to it. Due to this, the cases related to salaries and pensions became complicated.
The union is demanding that the pay scale fixed in 2003 should be fully implemented. The union members emphasised that the forest staff works in risky Naxal-dominated areas, where, even without any arms, they work to control illegal mining, illegal timber mafia and poaching, yet, they are not paid well.
The Union also demanded that similar to the situation in states such as Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh, the clerical staff, foresters, deputy forest ranger and rangers in Chhattisgarh should get revised pay. After the constitution of new districts in the state in 2013, the demand for a relook at the department setup was raised but nothing was done on that front even at that time.
The Union demanded that specially trained units should be constituted in the forest divisions in such areas and ample equipment and tools should be given to the forest department staff to handle the elephant-related issues. Chhattisgarh has around 600 elephants.
The Union also wants that the benefit of promotion should be given to the peons and forest watchmen and the staff engaged in daily wages should be regularised. The demands for change in the designations, uniforms and identification marks of staff engaged in the forest department, akin to other states, are also said to be pending for several years.
“The personnel engaged in forest works are also entrusted with the task of other works too like helping in the collection of tendu leaves and other forest livelihood related work,” Sharma added. “We had demanded an additional one-month salary for our additional work that we do for several months.”
The forest department, however, claims that even after the return of the staff on strike the threat of forest fire would continue. An official from Kanker, while requesting anonymity, said that one beat of the department comprises 700 hectares-900 hectares of forest area for which there is one forest guard and one fire watcher assigned.
If a fire takes place in this area, controlling it with two personnel almost becomes impossible. He also claimed that the department still uses traditional resources to counter forest fires. “If we continue to douse the fire by beating it with bushes from the area, think how many days it will take to douse the fire,” said the official. “After many efforts and push, few blowers were procured by the government but their numbers are very still very less.”
Another official from the Bastar region claimed that, in Bastar, all cases of forest fires are initiated by humans. He claimed that to collect mahua, many people set fire below the mahua trees and this fire then spreads. Similarly, fire is also used to collect tendu leaves.
“After around 1 months-1.5 months of extinguishing the fire, new and tender tendu leaves emerge which fetch a good price in the market,” said the official. “Several times the contractors force the local communities to set fire in the jungle to seek the best tendu leaves for the market.”
Alok Shukla, the convenor of activist organisation Chhattisgarh Bachao Aandolan, links incidents of forest fires to illegal mining mafia, apart from the illegal mahua and tendu leaf collection methods.
He said that the provisions of the Forest Rights Act of 2006, which give local forest communities certain rights over the forest, remain on paper, but if the department involved the local community in forest management, it could have helped in preventing incidents of the forest fire.
However, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests in Chhattisgarh, Rakesh Chaturvedi, said that the forest department officials, with the help of the daily wage workers, are trying to control the forest fires. He expressed confidence in the traditional ways of dousing fire rather than fire extinguishing equipment. He claimed that equipment like blowers to extinguish fires was procured on an experimental basis but have not been of much use.
Regarding the strike by forest staff, Chaturvedi told Mongabay-India, “There are several demands raised by the people on strike which can only be resolved at the state cabinet level. Some demands are related to the finance department. In such cases, an instant solution is not possible. We are anyway tackling the forest fires for the time being.”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.