Meet Ashish Arora, resort owner in Uttarakhand who lives next to a forest. It is not just the chirping birds, clean air and wild animals that surround him. He also has to grapple with forest fires every year. For the people in Uttarakhand like any other forest-rich state, forest fires are a way of life, an annual hazard brought about by the scorching summer sun.The Uttarakhand blazeBut this year’s blaze was exceptionally vengeful. Huge tracts of dense forests had already turned into a tinderbox after a feeble monsoon and a dry winter — the inflammable chir pine needles adding to the feeding frenzy. The small and medium fires that began early February readily coalesced into an inferno eating up 3,000 acres of foliage in Uttarakhand. Seven people, including three women and a child, were killed. The conflagration has caused untold damage to the flora and fauna.<!– /11440465/Dna_Article_Middle_300x250_BTF –>The fires grew from strength to strength as the Uttarakhand government treated the build-up with characteristic nonchalance. From February 2, when the first fires were reported — there were more than 1,200 incidents — till the time the Centre and state woke up to the battle in hand, more than a couple of months had passed. It was then left to 9,000 forest personnel, three teams of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF), a State Disaster Response Force, the police, the Army and the Air Force to do the firefighting.The NDMA messThe entire episode has laid bare the true nature of India’s disaster management. Since the time the National Disaster Management Act came into force in 2005, followed by the setting up of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and subsequently the National Policy on Disaster Management in 2009, the government’s approach to calamities has been reactive — rather than pre-emptive — and even then the responses are mostly knee-jerk.On paper, however, the close links between Centre and state governments on fighting disasters reflect a remarkably coherent strategy. NDMA’s website describes disaster management “as an integrated process of planning, organising, coordinating and implementing measures essential to manage disasters” — the very antithesis of which is the established practice. In the absence of firefighting uniforms, extinguishers and even medicines, those 9,000 forest personnel had to work under life-threatening conditions. Only three IAF helicopters were pressed into service to dump water from above in the remote regions of the forest. It hardly worked because from that altitude it was difficult to hit the target.India is prone to forest fires, yet the NDMA website doesn’t list it as a major threat. Every year the country witnesses nearly 20,000 of such cases between February and June.Between 1990 and 2011, there had been at least 14 major forest fires across the country, Uttarakhand being a victim even earlier, in 1995. Lack of foresight at the policy level automatically translates into poor implementation of basic preventive measures on the ground such as making fire lines — creating gaps in the vegetation — that act as barriers.Global response to forest firesTime and again successive governments at the Centre have refused to learn from the ways other countries practise disaster management. On May 8 when Uttarakhand was making headlines, Canada’s Fort McMurray forest fire was dominating international news. In just four days, a huge wall of fire had destroyed thousands of acres of vegetation and reduced 80% of Fort McMurray’s Beacon Hill community’s homes and establishments into ashes. The authorities had to ensure evacuation of 88,000 people — thousands had to be airlifted — while hundreds of firefighters, 145 helicopters and 22 air tankers struggled to contain the blaze.Canada’s neighbour, the US, has taken disaster management to a whole new level. The country ravaged by floods, cyclones and heat waves has evolved a system that is second to none. America’s success, according to the US Government Accountability Office, rests primarily on putting into practice five key elements — clearly defined roles and responsibilities; developing and assessing Capabilities; effective coordination and collaboration among relevant stakeholders; accountability and last but not least periodic evaluation of and reporting on these coordinated efforts.India’s disaster preparedness, risk management and resilience operation is still in infancy. Look no further than the Chennai floods, Kashmir deluge and Uttarakhand floods to assess the country’s efficiency. There are stray instances of dazzling efforts of individual states — such as the Odisha government’s admirable handling of the Cyclone Phalin and the glitch-free evacuation of nearly seven lakh people — but the country as a whole suffers from a myopic attitude. Some of the systems are actually in place, like the ISRO satellite system issuing warnings on forest fires and impending natural disasters, but that’s just a tiny shining bit of rusted machinery.India’s future is brown or green?Disaster management is not a choice, but a socio-economic and political imperative for India, which is prone to earthquakes, floods, cyclones, tsunamis, droughts, landslides and avalanches, to name a few. Most of these are the consequences of global warming. The adverse effects of climate change have impacted lives and livelihoods around the globe.In India, it is more acutely felt because of a collective anathema to capacity building. On a positive note, the Modi government is planning to spend a massive amount — Rs 41,000 crore — to enhance India’s green cover. The transfusion of funds is aimed at increasing India’s forestland from the current 21.34 per cent to 33 per cent of the total land. The big news is the states will have access to 90 per cent of the money — generated from the fees paid by private companies since 2006 to the Government of India for allowing them to set up projects in forest areas. The Compensatory Afforestation Fund Bill, 2015, has passed the Lok Sabha test and now awaits Rajya Sabha’s nod. But even with the noblest of intent, a project of this scale can come a cropper. Like all government initiatives, this too can bleed to death from the fatal blows of corruption and accountability issues. For Ashish Arora he will continue to live with these forest fires each year.
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