12 Mar 2023  |   07:01am IST

Raging inferno turns Goa’s forests into ashes

A major fire was reported in Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary on Monday. Since then, the fire has been spreading and causing havoc. Such was the intensity of the fire that the government had to request help from the Indian Navy and even the Indian Air Force to douse the flames. Forest Minister Vishwajit Rane has indicated that it is a man-made disaster. Forest fires are not new in Goa or the country. But the high intensity surprised everyone and as usual, the government was caught napping. In the weekly Herald TV debate Point-Counterpoint, AVIT BAGLE finds out reasons for the fire, why the government failed in having proper disaster mitigation steps in place and the way forward for the government
Raging inferno turns Goa’s forests into ashes

Incidents of wildfire in Goa are not new. But this time, the forest fire spread far and wide very quickly. Considering the history of forest fire and the prevailing hot conditions, the government should have known that sweltering heat is a perfect ground for wildfires. Yet it didn't take any preventive steps beforehand.

The Goa State Action Plan on Climate Change (SAPCC) in 2020 itself had cautioned authorities on the vulnerability of Goa’s forests to fires that could get triggered due to climate change by 2040. According to the plan, the temperature rise in the coastal State is predicted to be up to 3-4 Degree Celsius. 

The plan, which was recently approved by the Union Ministry for Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), had proposed a multipronged strategy involving both prevention and timely effective control of forest fires.

Despite all the ominous signs and the SAPCC warning, the administration was caught by surprise. The result is that the fire has now spread far and wide, leaving a trail of destruction everywhere. And when the fire broke out, there was no mechanism in place to extinguish it in time so that it didn’t spread further.

Environmentalist Rajendra Kerkar said that incidents of fire in the forests are 

not new. It has been happening for last many years.

“This year, the issue came to light because too many incidents happened at the same time. Also, the efforts are in full force to bring more forest land under cashew cultivation and other forms of farming,” Kerkar said.

“For the past couple of years, I have tried to warn about it through my articles published in various newspapers. Unfortunately, no one took my words seriously. The people responsible for these fires in the past were arrested, but they were not given a stern punishment,” he said.

“Now, they are not scared and are going ahead ruthlessly with their intentions to grab as much forest land as they can. They think they have blessings of a powerful individual,” Kerkar said.

He informed that for the last eight months, there has been a tremendous rise in fire incidents. Forests at Satre, Darode, Kumthal, Caranzol, Surla and other areas have fallen prey to human greed.

In a meeting of the Disaster Management Authority that happened at Morlem a couple days ago, the authorities ruled out the possibility of human interference and instead, cited reasons such as global warming behind the fires. So, are these  fires caused by natural conditions or are intentional?

“If you see the wildfires in Brazil or other countries in the world, global warming is the reason and to some extent, here as well. However, one tends to become suspicious when such fires take place in moist deciduous forest,” Kerkar said.

Although he said that one cannot rule out the natural factors, the dense 

forests with evergreen trees catching fire is surprising.

“The biodiversity consisting of various trees, reptiles and other animals are getting destroyed. There is no doubt that this fire is man-made,” the environmentalist said.

Former Deputy Conservator of Forest Milind Karkhanis, who has a lot of experience dealing with forest fires, said that the main target of the forest officials used to be detection of fire at the earliest.

“That way, it became easier to control the fire. When I was in-charge of Cotigao wildlife sanctuary in 1988, I had selected a couple of spots which were at a decent height and could be used as watch towers. From there, one could keep a vigil on a large area and pass on the information to the other observation sites. These were effective preventive measures,” Karkhanis said.

Fire does not occur unless it is kindled by something that is definite. 

“Fire breaks out naturally in coniferous forests such as those in the Himalayas. The trees there are standing extremely close and the friction between them causes forest fires. They contain high levels of resin, which makes them highly inflammable,” the former forest officer said.

“These kinds of trees are not there in Goa. Natural forest fires are not possible in Goa, this is purely man-made,” he said.

According to him, people from tribal community who reside in the hilly regions, tend to burn the old grass during the spring season, so that the new ones could grow better and be used as fodder for their cattle. 

“That could be one reason for the fire. The second reason could be that people have many cashew orchards in the forests. Instead of manually cleaning the bushes and weeds, they just ignite the fire and clear out the weeds. Third reason could be, people intentionally igniting fire to claim the land and use it for growing cashew trees etc,” he said.

Karkhanis said that it’s alright when they use these methods. Problem arises when they do not implement preventive measures and in such cases, the fire spreads.

Elvis Gomes, who was a former bureaucrat in the Government of Goa, has seen the functioning of the administration up and close.

The State has the age-old legacy of preserving forests even before the Portuguese era.

When asked about the thought process at government level to preserve forests or to avoid potential disasters, Gomes said, “We have the government, but there is no governance. And that is not the case only with the Forest department but all the other bodies. If we look at disaster management, we do not have a disaster management plan at all. The last time I heard that the disaster management committee was active was during Covid.”

“They would meet, make rash decisions and use clauses for emergency procurements. This leads to corruption. Now, suddenly the Disaster Management Committee has come into the picture due to these forest fires. However, there is no consistent policy to manage the disasters,” Gomes said.

Speaking about Forest Department’s staff, Gomes alleged that they do not have any motivation as such.

“There must be around 500 persons employed as labourers, who have also been given uniforms. Some of them are touching the age of 60 and some are in their 50s. Yet, they have not been regularised. What motivation will they have? When a department goes about doing its work in such a manner, then it becomes difficult to control such incidents,” he said.

“We can never predict what will happen in the near future. So, a holistic approach is required. Most of the disasters in our State are man-made - be it in the forests or the coastal region,” he said.

“If we go to the far eastern side near Sahyadri hills, we can see man-made disasters there as well. Disciplined governance required to stop the enemies of the State, who are out to destroy our nature-rich environment, is missing,” he added.

Mhadei Wildlife Sanctuary was notified in 1999. But the Wildlife Management Plan was never implemented.

“For past 10 years, I have been demanding for the plan to be made public, which they finally did. Now they are just sitting on the plan like a ‘susegad’, instead of implementing it,” Kerkar said.

When asked about any possible link between the fire and the battle against diversion of Mhadei river’s diversion, activist and member of Save Mhadei Movement, Prajal Sakhardande said, “I cannot say for sure that there is a link. But since the Mhadei river basin has a wildlife sanctuary, it is a strong point for us in the court against Mhadei’s diversion. Although part of Goa does not come under world heritage biodiversity (Maharashtra and Karnataka’s does) site, it is very crucial, as the environment conditions like rain cycle depend on it.

“If this region is destroyed, we do not have any valid reason to save River Mhadei. The efforts to destroy Goa’s biodiversity are on every single day,” Sakhardande said.

There were attempts to cut down the trees for building roads and marking plots at Vagheri Hill. Could there be a link between that and ongoing fire?

Rajendra Kerkar said that Vagheri has been given the status of a private forest. The ownership of such forests stays permanent. So, people started to demand for roads as they were intending to build 

hotels. They even obtained house numbers illegally.

“It’s only when I made noise, the government pretended of taking action. It’s been more than a year but there has been no investigation in the matter whatsoever. I asked for the information under RTI. In its reply, the government said that the investigation was underway. However, there has been no progress in the case,” he said.

“The accused RFO in the Vagheri case was suspended only for a month and soon he was reinstated again. There has been no action in the Vagheri case. With this kind of approach, what kind of action can we expect in this case? They are not bothered even if the forests were razed to the ground or the Mhadei’s water dries up,” the environmentalist said.

So, does this mean that the current fires are a step in the direction of destroying Mhadei because they got away with the destruction of Vagheri?’

“Yes, definitely,” said Kerkar, adding, “The authorities have now locked the front gate of the forest entrance. Sometimes police go to inspect and present their own report, which states that there isn’t any illegal activity going on. I appeal to the people of Goa and the environmentalists to demand for an audit of all the activities that are being carried out. Only then they will realise that this is a conspiracy to destroy the forests of Goa.”

He alleged that there are some elements who have been wishing for such an incident to happen, so that a road could be built that would pass through the villages of Satrem and Parvada.

“There is a village named Amyacho Goval, which has been destroyed. I am surprised that a whole village has been destroyed and none of the Goans ever felt like going to the spot and checking the ground situation. Even the opposition 

does not care to raise its voice against this,” he said.

On the efficiency of the junior staff in the Forest department, Karkhanis said, “Our junior staff is very hard working. I have seen since 1976 that the lower staff used to work, patrol and complete all their duties even when there were no quarters.”

He said that the question is not about residential quarters, but the lack of staff. The State does not have enough forest force. Karkhanis harped on the need for the government to recruit more staff.

“Back in 2010 or 2012, former chief minister Manohar Parrikar had assigned me and another officer the work of recruiting people as forest guards and other staff. We worked on it, we made the report, but nothing was done after that. There has been no follow up on it till today and hence, the strength of the Forest staff remains depleted,” Karkhanis said. 

The staff does patrol the sanctuaries, but with the limited capacity, they are handicapped. How are they supposed to cover all the area with such a small staff? 

“The area’s expanse goes into hundreds of square kilometers. The watch towers must be equipped with binoculars and other surveillance equipment. These are currently unavailable,” the former Deputy Conservator of Forests said.

“There is a Planning and Statistics section. There is also a Research division. But in the last fifty years, there has hardly been any research paper brought out by them,” he said.

Kerkar added that there are watch towers, but there is no staff. Same is with the anti-poaching centres.

On the government mismanagement of its resources, Elvis Gomes said that the government understands only event management. “The city of Panjim has been ruined, but the events did not stop. The records state that at least Rs 1000 crore has been spent on Panjim. If we look at the condition of the Forest Department, so much can be done with the help of technology,” he said. 

“Even if there are no people in the watchtowers, technology can be used for surveillance. The fire at Mhadei is on the border of Goa and Karnataka but the neighbouring State has not been involved at all. There should have been a joint action with involvement from the Centre to detect the source of fire with help of technology. But they do not have the willingness to do it,” Gomes said.

“The central government should have been involved by now. The Forest Ministry’s delegation should have been here. They should have come up with a joint action plan. This is not a small fire. It 

has reached the top of the Sahyadri ranges,” he said.

“Western Ghats in Maharashtra and Karnataka region has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Why wasn’t it the case with the area under Goa? Since the time when the Congress-led UPA government was in power, there has been a constant demand for the area to be notified as a tiger reserve. But nothing has happened so far,” he said.

“Jairam Ramesh, Jayanthi Natrajan and even Prakash Javadekar told the government in the letter to recognise the area as a tiger reserve, yet, they did not listen. It looks like the government wants to just mine limestone, mica, iron, and manganese available in the region. They will not feel satisfied even when the State turns into a dust bowl,” Gomes said.

Prajal Sakhardande said that while anti-environment activities have increased, there is no action whatsoever to stop it.

“While the establishment is unable to manage the disasters, on the other hand it continues is not acting against anti-environment activities. Mhadei’s diversion is a great example of this. Centre seems to be hand-in-gloves with the Karnataka government. It's a disastrous situation,” Sakhardande said. 

Karkhanis said that around 25-30 years ago Lt General (Retd) Sardeshpande from Belgaum had come with a group and had warned people that Mhadei was going to be diverted and some kind of action was necessary.

“However our people, especially the government, did not take any action. There is a faction in Karnataka who works to save Mhadei but our own people did not do anything,” he said.

The Forest Department has the privilege of being led by IFS officers, who are in sizable numbers here in Goa. Despite that, what is the reason behind the Department being so lethargic and careless?

Kerkar said that most of the senior officers do not visit the hillocks within the forest areas.  

“They send the lower staff such as forest guards for inspection and file the report and then they sign the report. Now owing to the raging fire, the government ordered the forest officers to go to the spot and review the situation,” the environmentalist said.

“When I went to the spot two days back, the DCF, ACF and RFO were present. This is like digging the well only when one is feeling thirsty. Nobody was there during the first three days of the fire. They started rushing only after pictures of the fire went viral. Controlling this fire seems difficult. Even after succeeding in it, the biodiversity has already been damaged,” he said.

“Nearly 4 sq km of forest land has fallen prey to this fire, with thousands of trees turning to ashes. The government claims that the loss is not major, but I appeal to the people to come with me and see the loss. And if there is no major loss, then the government should respond to the pictures I have released. Hundreds of people come together if one tree in Panjim is slated to be felled, but nobody is bothered when thousands of trees are burning,” he lamented.

Elvis Gomes said that there must be an audit to assess the damage. To safeguard such a huge forested area, a comprehensive master plan is required. Also, the cooperation of all the agencies is necessary if the master plan is to be implemented.

“We cannot look at the Fire and Emergency Services or Forest Department or the Collectorate in isolation. The involvement of all the agencies is needed. The audit must assess the qualitative and quantitative damage caused by the fire. There should be a review of the financial losses incurred by the State. But the authorities do not have the capacity to do all this,” said.

He emphasised on the need for planning. The excuse of not having enough funds won’t suffice.

“If there is shortage of funds, then how did the government get Rs 1000 crore to spend on Smart City project? Government is never short of funds. Neither do they have any vision nor the compassion for the environment,” he said.

The former bureaucrat added that a masterplan is needed to notify this region as reserved in order to avoid human interference. People with bags full of money have destroyed the beaches and now have their eyes set upon the hills.

Prajal Sakhardande said if the Western Ghats passing through Karnataka and Maharashtra could be notified as biodiversity hotspot, then why was the same not done with the forests of Goa?

“There could be some ulterior motive behind this. Environmentalists have been demanding for years that the Mhadei sanctuary be notified as a tiger reserve. But that is also not happening because of those having vested interests,” he said.

With the forests turning into ashes, the habitat for the wild animals has been destroyed. Already wild animals such as Bisons are found roaming in the human settlements and damaging the crops. With their habitat in danger, will the risk of man-animal conflict increase?

Kerkar said that the government has been claiming that there are no tigers in the State since 2002. As per the reply to the RTI application hehad filed, five tigers were killed between 2009 to 2021. People’s logic behind killing them is that the wild cats were killing their cattle.

“Wild animals stray into the public settlements because they do not have anything left in the forests to eat. The anti-poaching division is inactive, which is why there has been a rise in human activity in the wildlife sanctuaries,” the environmentalist said.

Currently there are six tigers consisting of two cubs, their mother, two more tigresses and one fully matured male tiger roaming in the forests of Mhadei.

“We had studied the area, plotted the movement of the tigers and had presented the government map of the same. This entire proposed tiger corridor area is now destroyed. Where do you expect these tigers to go? Leopards are already visiting not just the localities within the forests but even reached the Verna industrial estate,” he informed.

“The wild animals will definitely make their way into the localities and attack humans. It is a defence mechanism,” he said.

What should be the pro-active steps needed to be taken by the forest department?

Karkhanis said that the higher echelons in the Forest Department need to have the will. The staff strength should be increased, they should be provided with the training and necessary equipment. Water and other basic facilities must be arranged.

“The Department should have at least 50 to 60 persons in one sanctuary. They should be provided with accommodation. The funds will not go waste even if they employ 100 people because such is the expanse of the work. The department staff receive their salaries on time, shouldn’t they perform their duties rightfully?” he asked.

It is estimated that the Forest Department suffered losses to the tune of Rs 15,000 cr. Will the administration have to replant the trees to revive the destroyed forest areas?

Sakhardande said that awareness campaigns are always going on. He alleged that the Van Mahotsav is a farce.

“People are always speaking against the government's decisions and incidents like these. The activists are portrayed as villains, regardless of whichever political party is in power. We are not interested in any political party. Whoever is in power, they should do the needful to protect the environment,” he said.

Gomes said that some of the locals in the region are also misled into thinking that if certain government plans are implemented, then their economic activities will suffer.

“To be honest, anything can be implemented by safeguarding the interests of people. If people are told properly, they will understand,” he said.

Kerkar said that the government should take steps towards replantation, reforestation and to safeguard the habitats of the carnivores.

“The government should also train the forest guards to douse the fires and provide them with advanced equipment. All the other states get the alert from the Forest Survey of India, how come Goa does not get it? That must be studied as well,” he asked.

Karkhanis asserted that provisions of the Forest Act have to be strictly implemented, but it is not happening. The concerned officials should pay more attention to protect our environment.