With the summer having begun quite early and fiercely this year, several parts of Chhattisgarh are engulfed by forest fires.
According to state government data, 8,022 incidents of forest fire have been reported in the last 45 days across Chhattisgarh, affecting nearly 20 sq km of forested area. The state normally records the forest fire data between February 15 and June 15 every year.
During summers, forest fires become a major concern across Chhattisgarh, the northern part of which is home to Hasdeo Aranya, central India's largest un-fragmented forest, and the southern part of which has Bastar's lush forest region.
Forest department officials, however, have claimed that they're minor 'surface fires'. Activists, on the other hand, say that they could have severe ecological impacts and have termed the current situation grave.
"We have deployed nearly 4,000 fire watchers across the state. We have cut the fire lines and cleared the forest areas to stop the fire from spreading further. Our workers are using modern fire-fighting equipment, like fire blowers."A Forest Department official
Forest Department Ground Staffers' Strike Worsening the Situation
The ground staffers (beat guard, forester, deputy ranger) of Chhattisgarh's forest department have been on an indefinite strike since 21 March, deepening the forest fire situation further.
The strike was called over various departmental grievances, like salary, pension, promotion, and other issues.
"The economic loss that the government is currently incurring due to the forest fire is much more than what it would take to fulfill our rightful demands, which include a salary hike, pension hike, establishment of a training institute for forest guards in Bilaspur, among other things. But they have not accepted our demands yet."Bhupendra Yadav, a forest department worker in Chhattisgarh
However, Rakesh Chaturvedi, Chhattisgarh's Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF), said, "Forest ground staff (Beat Guard, Forester, Dy. Ranger) strike has made the task of fire fighting difficult, but range officers, sub-divisional forest officers, and divisional forest officers have been actively doing the fire fighting work with the help of fire watchers and local villagers. The situation is under control."
Forest guards on strike claim that the losses due to the forest fires this time might be much higher because of the severe rise in mercury across the state and also because the field workers who actually douse the fire are on strike.
Activists Claim Forest Fire Situation Is Worse Than It Appears
"It's not bad, it's critical, it's dangerous, and it's going to wipe out a lot of forested areas and would impact the regeneration potential of the forests. This is because the fire season has started very early and there are still three more months to go."Meetu Gupta, member of State Wildlife Advisory Board
Many believe that the forest department is facing a shortage of ground staff and the strike will only hamper the ability to put out forest fires.
"It is impossible for the forest officers to work without the ground staff. There is already a shortage of field staff in both protected as well as territorial forest areas in Chhattisgarh. And this time, with the available ground staff on strike, the situation is more severe," she added.
Some activists claim that the state government is not prepared despite forest fires being a recurring phenomenon in Chhattisgarh.
"Why do we have to talk about this every year? Are governments and their machinery sleeping? Why didn't the government allocate resources at the village level? When they know that between February and June forests are plagued with fires, why don't they prepare? There is a simple solution to it, and that is the infusion of people at the local level, disseminating the responsibilities under Community Forest Resources to the gram panchayats and communities, and in turn, empowering them."Alok Shukla, convener of Chhattisgarh Bachao Aandolan