Firefighting in Rural Bihar
Farmers lose standing crops, homes and livestock to fires caused by stubble burning, short circuits and electricity theft. Rising temperatures and the westerly winds fan the flames in the summer season when the incidence of fires increases 40-50%.
Rahul Jha 25 April 2023 8:47 AM GMT
The rising heat and heat waves are taking a toll in rural Bihar where farmers are losing their crop harvest to increasing incidence of fires. Earlier this month, on April 11, more than 10 bighas of agricultural land in Nalanda district burnt down (1 bigha = 0.25 hectare).
“It took the fire fighters one and a half hours to arrive at the spot and more than 10 bighas of land with harvested wheat were destroyed by fire,” Lal Babu, a 53-year-old farmer from Devariya village in Ben block, told Gaon Connection. Two bighas of that were his. “When I called for help, the phone line of the fire department kept getting cut, it was only the quick help from villagers here that helped us control the fire,” he said. But, by then he had already lost Rs 71,000 worth of wheat in the fire.
Just five days back, on April 6, three fires had broken out in Patna, the state capital. In one, no more than four kilometres away from the state secretariat, 80 homes in a slum were burnt to the ground. Seven cattle also perished in the fire.
The second fire broke out near the Survey Office at Rajvanshi Nagar where 30 huts were destroyed, and the fire at the Niyojan Bhawan near Income Tax Golambar, was quickly brought under control before it could do any real damage.
“The incidence of fires increases forty to fifty per cent in the summers, and stubble burning and short circuits are the major cause of that. The westerly winds that blow in at this time, make the situation worse,” Patna-based environmentalist Dharmendra told Gaon Connection.
“There are 170 hotspots identified in Bihar where the chances of fires breaking out are high. Twenty of them are in Patna. And, though we have approximately 700 fire fighting vehicles, they fall short at times,” an official at the Patna district fire department, who did not want to be named, told Gaon Connection.
According to him, in 2021, there were more than 700 fire incidents within Patna Corporation limits.
Interestingly, amid the rising incidence of fires being reported, April 14 to April 20 was celebrated as Fire Service Week or Fire Prevention Week across the country. In Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar congratulated the fire services of the state and spoke of how fires devastated life and property, and how it was the duty of every citizen of the state to contribute to making Bihar fire-safe.
Small farmers face the threat of fires more, said Rahul Patel, a 26-year-old from Devariya village in Nalanda. “The big farmers use machines to harvest their crop and soon after that, set fire to the stubble that has remained behind, as they are in a hurry to sow their next crop of moong,” Patel told Gaon Connection. The smaller farmers manually harvest their wheat and it is more time consuming. “Sometimes the spark from the stubble fires spreads to the still standing crops of the smaller land holdings,” Patel explained.
Close to Patel’s village, in the second week of April, at least 20 houses were reduced to ashes in a matter of minutes. “A thresher was working on the fields nearby, and a spark from it set off the fire where 20 houses were gutted,” Hiralal Mukhiya from Bhaptiyahi Panchayat in Supaul district, told Gaon Connection. Mukhiya lost three homes, and along with it stored grains and other belongings, but is yet to receive any compensation, he said.
“Not a day goes by without a fire incident in the rural areas. Most of the houses here are still thatched,” Chandrasekhar Mandal, member of the Indian Red Cross Society, in Supaul district, told Gaon Connection.
“And, in these villages there is neither any proper fire fighting mechanism, nor a hospital where burn victims can be given emergency treatment,” he said. “And the compensation is invariably a pitiful amount,” he added. The Indian Red Cross Society reaches the fire affected areas to offer its help to the victims.
Pintu Kumar, circle officer of Saraigarh sub division in Supaul, said that relief was being provided to those affected by the fires. “The government will also be paying them compensation,” he told Gaon Connection.
Pitiful compensation, say victims
Nandlal who is a daily wage labourer and his wife Kiran Devi who works as a domestic help lost all their belongings in the fire as theirs was one of the 80 gutted huts in the fire at Shastri Nagar in Patna on April 6.
“I had collected some things for my daughter’s trousseau, they are all gone,” Kiran Devi told Gaon Connection. “We got a compensation of Rs 9,800 from the government,” she added.
“The fire had started from a stove in one of the homes in the area and by the time the fire engines came 80 dwellings were beyond help,” Ajay Kumar, whose home was also destroyed, told Gaon Connection.
According to him, compensation was given to them by the office of the district magistrate. “Each affected family received up to Rs 10,000, they were given some polythene sheets and some rations,” Ajay Kumar said. “Some officials collected data about the burnt houses, but it has been 15 days now, and there has been no update,” he said.
According to the disaster management department, 28 people died in fires in 2020, and 54 people lost their lives in 2021. In 2022, the number of fatalities due to fire-related incidents was 83.
Electricity theft another cause of fires
On March 28, last month, 100 houses were reduced to ashes in a fire in Ward one and Ward two of Patra Uttar Panchayat in Pipra Block, Supaul. It was an electric fire at three in the afternoon that caused the damage.
“The fire was so fierce that we could go nowhere near Mohammad Farid’s house,” Mohammad Jafar, who tried to help his neighbour Farid douse the fire, told Gaon Connection. The fire engine came nearly an hour later, and it took three hours to put it out, he said. “But the district administration and several NGOs came to our help and supplied us with relief materials,” he added.
“Theft of electricity is one of the main reasons for these kinds of fires,” Shailesh Jha, who once worked with the electricity department at Saharsa in Supaul district, told Gaon Connection. “The department has orders to repair and strengthen the loosely hanging wires in rural areas in this season as they can lead to short circuits and subsequently dangerous fires,” he said.
The summers also mean forest fires in the state. And, the occurrences of forest fires have increased over the years. According to the Disaster Management Department, in the year 2019-20 about 425.3 hectares (ha) of forests were on fire. In 2020-21, the area under forest fires was 572.4 ha. This increased to 665 ha in 2021-22.
Prevention is better than cure
The Disaster management Department, the Information Public Relations Department and the Agriculture Department of the state have been regularly alerting the people about the fires.
- The disaster management department has also released directions to be followed in order to prevent fires.
- Cook on fires before 9 am and after 6 pm
- Care should be taken to ensure the cooking fires are completely doused after the food is made
- As far as possible the roof of the kitchen area should be high and inflammable products should be kept away from the fire and from the reach of children
- Pujas involving havan should be completed before 9 am