Syed Junaid Hashmi
With state government in deep slumber, 242 incidents of forest fires have occurred in different parts affecting 502 hectare area in the sub-tropical forests of Jammu region.
Only few stray incidents have been reported from the temperate forests of Kashmir valley. Apart from this, about 180 hectare of forests in the Trikuta Hills of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine falling in Reasi District have been badly affected by fire-incidents. Forests department has done nothing much apart from claiming of having deployed adequate manforce to control these dangerous forest fires.
But what makes these first fires suspect is the subsequent grabbing of this land on the pretext of constructing a religious place or a prayer hall.
According to an official report of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the main cause of forest fires in Jammu region is through human interference. The ministry has said that about 90 percent of fires are caused by local people as well as land grabbers intentionally to clean forest floor to get good growth of grasses for Fodder/grazing in the following season, burning of undergrowth and grass to collect MFP and to clear undergrowth with the ultimate aim of cultivating/encroaching the forest area.
The ministry has further said that the forest fires are lit for charring the stumps to destroy evidence of illicit felling and scaring away wild animals from near villages. Even in most other cases, the forests are burnt for clearing land for being sold illegally, the report has claimed. A huge chunk of forest land has been occupied by politicians and other influential people. They have constructed Pucca and concrete structures over this huge chunk of forest land, is what the report of the forest ministry has accepted, probably for the first time.
It has laid stress on getting the forest land vacated and illegal structures removed. The ministry has further said that major reason for forest fires in Jammu and Kashmir is the unprecedented lust for land. Apart from this, the unintentional causes of forest fires include un-extinguished camp fires of trekkers, nomadic graziers, labourers, tourists, sparks from transmission lines and powers transformers, careless throwing of torchwood, un-extinguished cigarettes, matchsticks, burning of agricultural fields adjacent to forests and accidental spread of fire in forest during control burning due to negligence of staff.
Natural fires are extremely rare. The report says that the natural fires, if at all, they occur, they occur due to lightning, rolling stones and rubbing of branches. But the most prominent cause continues to be destruction of forests by man-made causes. According to the report, those behind forest fires may be getting what they want but the forest-fires have been causing serious adverse affects on the health of Forest-ecosystem.
They cause damage to vegetation cover and loss of natural regeneration and damage to mature Chir-Pine trees. Repeated fires weaken the boles of trees which get fallen during winds. Many chirpine forests in Jammu region suffer from heavy wind fall of mature trees. Due to the incidences of recurring Forest fires coupled with unregulated grazing about half of Chir-pine forests have either very poor or no regeneration.
Absence of young recruits and damage to mature crop pose real challenger towards the health of chir-pine forests. About 50 percent of the chir pine forests have slipped into degraded category. Burning of Forest floors and vegetation in the understory degrade the habitat of Wild animals. Many herbivore and birds species lose their homes. Change in behaviour of wild animals lead to enhanced incidence of “Man-animal” conflict in such forests.
Jammu Shivalik region of late is facing serious problems due to Man-Animal conflict and damage to crops by Wild animals. The affected areas face problems of enhanced temperature, loss of water-resources and bad ambience around habitations. The overall living conditions in and around such affected areas deteriorate in quality and smoky conditions enhance the respiratory diseases amongst locals and contribute to high atmospheric pollution.
Due to burning of flora, there is severe loss of biodiversity in such areas. The burnt forest areas, in the ensuing months get profusely invaded by weeds like Lantana (panchphoolie), Parthenium, Agereatum and Cassiatora. The invasion by weeds badly impairs the natural regeneration. The thick growth of weeds like lantana has been one of the main causes of Forest fires in these Forests.
Fires damage some important None-Timber Forest Products (NTFPs) species on which local people depend traditionally for their livelihood. Thick smoke generated by Forest-fires, add high concentration of GHGs into atmosphere, adding to the problem of Global Warming and Climate Change. Burning of vegetation seriously reduces the carbon sink resource. It is pertinent to mention here that India has international commitment of enhancing the carbon sink 2.5-3 billion tons of CO2 equivalent by 2030.