Adivasis living near the Moleyuru forest in Mysuru district of Karnataka have claimed that signs of fire at the Bandipur Tiger Reserve were available many hours before the forest officials launched the fire-fighting operations on February 18.
“I saw many elephants moving out of the forest at noon. It was an uncommon sight in this part during summer. I thought they were coming to attack us, so I screamed to alert others,” said Lakshmi, a resident of the Jenu Kuruba Adivasi colony.
The fire was first reported from Moleyuru, one of the 11 forest ranges under the Bandipur Tiger Reserve. It later spread to Kalkere and Hediyala ranges in the north-western parts of the reserve.
A pall of gloom descended on the settlement the next morning when they heard about the fate of Manju, a forest watcher from the colony, who suffered severe burn injuries while putting out the fire.
Manju, along with two of his colleagues, is being treated at the Apollo Hospital in Mysuru. Their condition is now reported to be stable by hospital officials.
A forest guard, Murigeppa Thammagol, lost his life due to asphyxiation during the fire-fighting operations.
The Jenu Kuruba community, considered as the original inhabitants of forests in the western ghats, blamed the forest department for the high intensity fire that destroyed more than 2,000 hectares in the ecologically sensitive area.
“The forest department should be held responsible for this disaster,” Manju’s grandmother, Bolamma, fumed.
The department did not hire enough forest watchers this summer, she claimed. “Had they employed jobless Jenu Kuruba youngsters temporarily, the forest would have remained safe,” she explained.
Only seven persons from her colony were employed with the forest department, she said. “As many as 40 people had applied for temporary jobs, but the officials ignored them.”
Those who fail to get government jobs would end up working in the cotton and ragi fields in Sargur and HD Kote, both in Mysore district, to make a living.
“My son is working in Sarugur and he comes to visit me once in a week,” said Sumathi, another inhabitant of the settlement.
Adivasi communities who live close to the forests in Karnataka have been complaining about being denied jobs by the forest department. It has created a rift between the Adivasi communities and the department.
Karnataka Forest Minister, B Ramanath Rai, refuted the charge and said forest department in Karnataka employs highest number of Adivasis in India. “Officials in my department always encourage tribals to take up jobs,” he said. “We have never denied them the jobs.”
The tension between local communities and the forest department was noted as the major reason for forest fires in Karnataka by the National Institute of Disaster Management after studying the pattern of forest fires in the country.
Last week’s fire was indeed a man-made disaster, confirmed Heeralal, director of Bandipur Tiger Reserve.
There had earlier been speculation that disgruntled members of Adivasi communities who were denied jobs might have set off the fire. However, Rai said it was too early to arrive at a conclusion. “We have confirmed that the fire was set by the people living near the forest. We will know the culprits after completing the high-level inquiry.”
S Krupakar, Green Oscar-winning wildlife photographer from Mysore, believes there exists a conflict between the tribal communities and the forest department in Karnataka. “Tribals hate forest officials for denying them jobs,” he said.
“I think all aspiring Adivasis should be provided jobs in the forest department. For, Adivasis consider the forest as their home,” he added. Only Adivasis have the skills to act in emergency situations like forest fires, Krupakar said. “There are no better fire fighters than members of Adivasi communities.”
“The government should acknowledge their skills. The forest department needs to win the confidence of tribal communities to avert major fire tragedies in future,” he said.
‘We didn’t do it’
The Jenu Kuruba community refuted the reports that blamed them for the fire. “We are the protectors of the forest, and we will not harm it,” said Pushpa, Manju’s sister. “We depend on the forest for a living and we cannot destroy it,” she added.
Bolamma looked worried and feared that forest department would act against them based on the reports. “The forest department didn’t give jobs for our youngsters. Now they are trying to frame us with false accusations. We would like to live in Moleyuru and hope no one will displace us from here.”