Melghat Tiger Reserve's Anghar Mukt Abhiyan has brought down forest fires by involving local communities

The Anghar Mukt Abhiyan is an awareness campaign to sensitise the local villagers regarding forest fire. The programme, conducted in 113 buffer villages of the tiger reserve, has witnessed participation of close to 10,000 people. The incidence of forest fires in Melghat has come down from 379 in 2016 to 221 in 2021.

Sarah KhanSarah Khan   14 April 2022 10:17 AM GMT

Melghat Tiger Reserves Anghar Mukt Abhiyan has brought down forest fires by involving local communities

All photos: By arrangement

A week ago a video of four people trying to douse a forest fire went viral on social media. In the backdrop of the hilly terrain, loaded with 15 kilogram of blowers, down the slopes were two foresters who were trying to put out the fire. The clip was shared by Jayoti Banerjee, the Indian Forest Official who has been heading the Melghat Tiger Reserve.

Refuting the claims of those who thought it was a demonstration video, she affirmed that it was a real video and the people trying to put out the fire were the members of the forest fire team. The visual was from Maharashtra's Melghat Tiger Reserve.

Melghat aside, forests in several states of the country have been reporting incidences of forest fires – Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan, and the jungles of Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha. Every year, in the summer months thousands of hectares of forests are engulfed in forest fires. And there are a number of factors that contribute to these wildfires, including human factors.

Also Read: Climate change induced heat waves responsible for forest fire incidents?

"Fires in deciduous parts of forests are never natural and are always man-made. There are various reasons behind these man-made forests but the key question is how do we reconcile this factor? Jayoti Banerjee, the chief conservator and field director of Melghat Tiger Reserve, told Gaon Connection. "Anghar Mukt Abhiyan is one such initiative towards achieving this," she informed.

Melghat's Anghar Mukt Abhiyan

Nestled in the Satpura hill ranges of Central India, in the midst of natural forests, rich biodiverse ecosystems and varied habitats of deep valleys and local hills, is the Melghat Tiger reserve in Amravati district. Spreading across an area of 2,768 square kilometre (sq. km), it's considered as one of the biggest tiger reserves in the country.

The issue of forest fires has plagued Melghat Tiger Reserve for a long time. Now, with the assistance of the local forest community, the forest officials have been able to reduce the forest fires considerably over the last few years.

The Anghar Mukt Abhiyan is an awareness campaign to sensitise the local villagers regarding forest fire. The programme that is conducted in 113 buffer villages of Melghat Tiger Reserve has witnessed participation of close to ten thousand people, as per the claims of the forest officials.

"It is a sort of a contest where prizes are given to gram panchayats if there's no fire in and around their villages. We give them a lump sum amount of Rs 30,000 or Rs 40,000," Banerjee added.

Also Read: Forest fire: Over 2,500 ha of Uttarakhand forests burnt to ashes since January this year

The tiger reserve director also pointed out that in firefighting operations, a lot of people are needed to assist the forest officials to douse the fires and people from the local villages come forward and commit to help. "The forest labourers who thus commit are put on daily wages and that's how they co-opt with the fire fighting officials in mitigating the fire," she explained.

While the efforts are a step in the right direction however Purnima Upadhayay, the founder member of KHOJ, an organisation that works for forest rights in Melghat feels that instead of handing over money to gram panchayats, the forest department needs to work with the community as a whole who are working towards protecting their forest areas.

"The forest department is still caught up with their Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Jan Van Vikas Yojana or eco-development committees. The entire village needs to be rewarded, you can't just put the reward in a committee in which the entire community does not have a say," Upadhayay told Gaon Connection.

The Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Jan Van Vikas Yojana was launched by the Maharashtra government in 2015 for the development of villages around tiger reserves.

The forest rights activist also added that there are participation efforts by the local communities because "they now feel that forest and its resources belong to them and they have a duty to protect their own forest natural resources".

Also Read: Nepal's forest fires under control, but peak wildfire season has just begun

Reduction in forest fires

As per the data provided by Melghat Tiger Reserve officials, the number of forest fires has come down from 379 in 2016 to 221 in 2021 and there has been a considerable decrease in the forest area that has been burnt.

The burnt forest area has reduced from 11401.03 hectare in 2016 to 2891.931 hectare (ha) in 2021. The lowest figure was in 2020 where 1015.562 ha of forest area was burnt in the forest that stretches to 276,800 ha.

"Melghat is a large area of more than 3,000 square kilometres. So, hypothetically if this year 500 hectares is burnt, and next year 1000 hectares of land is burnt, it feels as if there's a 100 per cent increase but if you take the whole percentage of the total forest area then it's a minuscule area," a forest official, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

The official also added that since all fires are recorded by the Forest Survey of India via satellite, one cannot hide any fire data.

Also Read: Odisha forest fires: Similipal Tiger Reserve continues to burn; Kuldiha sanctuary in flames too

The efforts of Melghat Tiger Reserve to include the local community in mitigating forest fires are in line with recommendations of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) which suggested "supporting and integrating indigenous, traditional and contemporary fire management practices into policy" in its report titled Spreading like wildfire: The rising threat of extraordinary landscape fires that was released on February 23 this year.

"Indigenous and traditional knowledge of land management in many regions – particularly the use of fire to manage fuel, including for wildfire mitigation – can be an effective way of reducing hazard. It can also ensure that biodiversity, and cultural (including understanding traditional gender roles that can govern burning activities) and ecological values are respected, as well as create livelihood opportunities," the report read.

Other initiatives to reduce forest fires in Melghat

The forest official added that through Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Jan Van Vikas Yojana, the forest department has tried to reduce the dependency of the local communities on forest resources.

Photo by: Arun Singh

"We provide them with alternative sources like LPG connection to reduce fuel wood dependence, improved chulhas, provision of drinking water resources set up near villages for easier access," the forest official told Gaon Connection.

Also Read: Tigers and a Tale: How smokeless chulhas and saris-turned-mahua-nets are helping reduce human-tiger conflict in Melghat Tiger Reserve, Maharashtra

The official outlined that forest prevention work like laying down a network of forest lines near the village area is allotted to the local communities. The forest lines so laid out prevent the fire from spreading to wide areas of the hills and the plantations. "Several protection camps have been set in the field including forest staff and labourers who are permanently posted there," the official said.

Other initiatives include establishment of a well-equipped forest cell in the forest area which works 24 X 7 during the fire season that lasts between February and July, as per a document shared by the Melghat forest officials that outlined the forest fire management efforts by the department. The cell is monitored on an hourly basis by the field officer and director.

Dual system to detect forest fires

In addition, the tiger reserve uses a dual system to detect forest fire – traditional forest fire watch towers and satellite alerts. Since detection of forest fires is an essential step, forest fire data is sourced from the Forest Survey of India as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the document stated.

The fire locations thus shared are analysed on QGIS (Quantum GIS) software to find out affected forest administrative details. They are also analysed on Google Earth to understand the topography of that area and every hour a fresh update is shared in the core fire cell whatsapp group pointing out the latest fire situation in the tiger reserve.

When mahua and tendu leaves collection leads to forest fires

As per the forest department officials, the fires in the Melghat Tiger Reserve are mostly human-made and rarely natural. From mahua collection to burning of agricultural land in the hope that it will reap better yield to mischief fires, various reasons are cited by the forest officials behind these fires in the Melghat region.

Photo by: Nidhi Jamwal

Also Read: Mahua flowers are not just of cultural significance to tribal communities but also the fulcrum of their economy

"Mahua flowers are pale white in colour, so in order to ensure that they can be collected easily, without any litter, the locals burn the dried leaves on the ground. And sometimes, these mahua fires escape into the forest and it goes completely wild," Banerjee, the chief conservator of the tiger reserve, told Gaon Connection.

The most sustainable solution to this problem, she said, lies in putting a rag around the trees instead of burning the dried leaves.

Tendu leaves are the second reason behind the anomaly, she added. The habit of the local people that setting fire to a particular agricultural patch of land will lead to a better yield is another reason behind the forest fires. "This belief is absolutely wrong and rather robs off the land of its major nutrients. Additionally, a lot of mischief fires also happen but our aim is to move along with the people," Banerjee told Gaon Connection.

Also Read: Jungle Book: While others were financially crippled during the pandemic, two forest villages in Melghat, Maharashtra, offered cash and interest-free loans to its residents

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