Mumbai-based environment group Watchdog Foundation had filed a Right to Information (RTI) query which revealed shocking data on forest fires across Mumbai, Thane, Pune, Kolhapur, Nashik and Aurangabad regions from 2015-2019.
In response to the RTI, the Maharashtra forest department said that the city has witnessed 1,100 fires in its forests which have burned down 6,533 hectares, over the five years. The loss of forest resources has been pegged at Rs 90 crore.
Watchdog Foundation, a Mumbai-based NGO, had revealed the data on the query which stated that in Mumbai, fires were primarily reported at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), Borivali, protected and reserved forests from the Tungareshwar wildlife sanctuary up to Tansa, including the Karnala bird sanctuary and Phansad wildlife sanctuary.
Godfrey Pimenta, the trustee of Watchdog Foundation said that the details are shocking as large numbers of fires have occurred but only with information on the damages.
'More than 95% of the forest fires in the state are due to man-made agricultural and land acquisition ventures,' said the forest officials.
Shailesh Tembhurnikar, the additional principal chief conservator of forest (APCCF - Conservation), state forest department, said that the small fires can revitalize the forest undergrowth and recharge soil nutrients, but man-made fires have an adverse effect on plants, animal life and can even lead to soil erosion.
Analysing the damage, after Mumbai, it is Nashik with 525 incidents that have left 4,917 hectares charred and at a loss of 53.48 crores over the five years. Thane and Kolhapur recorded 221 and 115 incidents respectively, with a combined loss of about 20 crores. While Pune has witnessed the least damage with 33 incidents and a loss at 114.5 lakhs. Tambhurnikar said that each of these districts has procured blowers and beaters that quickly extinguish the fire.
However, there has also been a difference in terms of the data acquired. The forest department's data showed a 119% increase in fires from 2015 to 2018 in Mumbai, but the SGNP alone recorded a 309% rise during this time. MK Rao APCCF (West) said that forests like SGNP face a threat from the revenge fires by locals and tribes and that if arrests had to be made for violations or land disputes, fires are prone to become an act of vengeance.
Mukul Trivedi, chief conservator of forest (regulation) said that in terms of quantifying the economic loss in each of the fires, there is no particular method to calculate the monetary loss, nonetheless, the value of charred dry grass, leaves, and shrubs, even timber in some cases, is what is accounted for. The impact on forest resources such as loss of biodiversity, wildlife or soil erosion is not calculated. If these were also considered, the actual amount would be enormous.
He also put across the point that unfortunately, in most of the fire-related cases in Maharashtra, the identification of the accused has been difficult, and more often than not, they are able to get bail from courts in spite of the law being a non-bailable offence.
The Draft National Forest Policy of 2018 that was released by the union environment ministry last year in March aims to deal with this issue. It stated, ‘adequate measures would be taken to safeguard ecosystems from forest fires, map the vulnerable areas and develop and strengthen early warning systems and methods to control fire, based on remote sensing technology and community participation.’
(With PTI inputs)