Wildfires burnt 6,533 hectares of forest in Mumbai, losses pegged at ₹90 crore
The city saw 1,110 fires in its forests, which burned down 6,533 hectares, over five years, according to the Maharashtra forest department’s response to a right to information (RTI) query. The loss of forest resources has been quantified at ₹90 crore.
The query by Mumbai-based environment group Watchdog Foundation revealed data on forest fires across Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Kolhapur, Nashik and Aurangabad regions 2015 and 2019. In Mumbai, the fires were mainly reported at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), Borivli, protected and reserved forests from the Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary upto Tansa, including the Karnala bird sanctuary and Phansad wildlife sanctuary.
More than 95% forest fires in the state are man-made for agricultural and land acquisition purposes, forest officials said. “Small fires can rejuvenate forest undergrowth and replenish soil nutrients, but man-made fires have an adverse effect on plant, animal life, and can lead to soil erosion,” said Shailesh Tembhurnikar, additional principal chief conservator of forest (APCCF - conservation), state forest department. “We are monitoring fires with digitised maps from the Forest Survey of India (FSI) with real-time alerts being sent to our staff,” said MK Rao, APCCF (west), forest department. “Our efforts have reduced fires by 50% over five years.”
However, the forest department’s data showed a 119% increase in fires from 2015 to 2018 in Mumbai, while the SGNP alone recorded a 309% rise during this time. “Forests like SGNP face threat from revenge fires by locals and tribes. If arrests are made for violations or land disputes, fires are lit as an act of vengeance,” said Rao.
After Mumbai, Nashik ranked second with 525 incidents that left 4,917 hectares charred and ₹53.48 crore lost over five years. Thane and Kolhapur recorded 221 and 115 incidents with a combined loss of about ₹20 crore. Pune witnessed the least damage with 33 incidents; 98.62 hectare forest area destroyed amounting to Rs. 114.5 lakh loss. “Each district has acquired equipment such as blowers and fire beaters that swiftly douses fire. With alerts from FSI, the situation is improving,” said Tembhurnikar.
The forest department quantifies economic loss in each fire incident. “There is no set method to calculate the monetary loss during surface fires. We take into account the value of charred dry grass, leaves and shrubs. Timber is also added in some cases. However, the impact on forest resources such as loss of biodiversity, wildlife or soil (erosion concerns) is not calculated. The amount would be much more otherwise,” said Mukul Trivedi, chief conservator of forest (regulation), Nagpur.
Environmentalists said there was need for a policy to curb rising incidents. “The details are shocking as large numbers of fires have occurred with information only on damages,” said Godfrey Pimenta, trustee, Watchdog Foundation.
“In most cases, the forest department is negligent and shrugs responsibility by blaming locals for these fires,” said Madhav Gadgil, ecologist and founder of the Centre for Ecological Sciences at Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru.
“In most cases across Maharashtra, those responsible for such fires cannot be easily identified and get away with it. In a small percentage of cases where they are, the accused manage to get bail from courts despite the law being a non-bailable offence,” said Mukul Trivedi, chief conservator of forest (regulation), Nagpur
The Draft National Forest Policy 2018 unveiled released by the union environment ministry during the third week of March is the first policy that addresses the issue of forest fire prevention. The draft will be finalised by May after studying suggestions and objections to it.