Mizoram: India’s Bonfire
While the country seethes with the disastrous second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, a forest fire has been raging in the hills of south Mizoram, spreading to towns and villages of two neighbouring districts, Lunglei and Lawngtlai.
Spreads like wildfire
The fire first broke out between 6 and 7am on April 24 at the Saisih forest area on the outskirts of Lunglei town, spreading within the town the following day. The fire had been mainly concentrated in uninhabited forest areas surrounding Lunglei town and had spread to many village council areas. According to a satellite data assessment by the Forest Survey of India (FSI), there were as many as 2,671 forest fire points in the state between April 20 and 26, with over 400 points on Monday alone. According to officials, forest fires have broken out in nearly 70 areas in five districts with an estimated 100 hectares of forest area being set ablaze.
Cause of Fire
Mizoram is no stranger to annual reports of forest fires. But this kind of widespread massive fire has never happened before.
The Mizoram police has constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by a Sub Divisional Police Officer (SDPO) of Lunglei district to probe into the wildfire in Lunglei district as it was suspected to be man-made disaster. The team has already launched an investigation and no suspect has been detained till Wednesday.
While there is no certainty as to the root cause, experts suspect the long dry season due to less rainfall, jhum (shifting) cultivation and possibility of human activity have all been underlying factors.
Jhum cultivation has always been a huge contributor to the forest fires in the north-eastern forests. In 2020 around 1,300 forest fires were reported in the state of which around 1,090 incidents were caused due Jhum cultivation, others due to natural causes. The slash-and-burn method of farming involves clearing a piece of land and then burning it, in a bid to make it more fertile for cultivation thereafter. Many times, the wind carries inflammable material to adjoining areas, which causes them to catch fire.
A major part of rural Mizoram practices Jhum cultivation, which is the major occupation and the main source of income of the marginal farmers (Jhumias). At present, about 54% people, living in the rural areas, are engaged in practicing it.
As per the Forest Survey of India (FSI), Dehradun, forests of the Northeast and central India regions are the most vulnerable areas to forest fires. Forests in Assam, Mizoram and Tripura have been identified as ‘extremely prone’ to forest fire, with these regions being markedly home to shifting cultivators.
The fire had not only affected 10 village council areas within Lunglei town, but also spread to three rural development blocks of Lawngtlai district.
In localities such as Zotlang, Serkawn, Chanmari in Lunglei town, flames reached some buildings, but could be contained and doused before it caused any major loss to property.
However, there have been reports of damage from Lawngtlai district. In Bungtlang South, the fire completely consumed 12 houses and partially destroyed two. No persons were injured but livestock perished. Though the forest fire damaged vast tracts of land in several places, the good news is that there is no loss of live. Apart from the loss of some standing crops, there has not been any major damage to human settlements
The district administration dispatched officials and immediate relief supplies to the village.
However, all is not well. There are still reports of small fires in some non-settlement areas of some villages. The situation is unpredictable, and the flames could flare up again due to winds and dry weather.
Administration vs the Fire
As the fire had spread close to human settlements, the administration had evacuated residents of the area. Firefighters from the state government, with the help of Assam Rifles and Border Security Force personnel and local volunteer groups have been trying hard to put the fire out, authorities said.
On Sunday evening as the fire continued to burn, the Indian Air Force — requisitioned by the Mizoram government — deployed two Mi-17V5 helicopters, equipped with specialized Bambi Buckets, to control it.
The AIF chopper carried out a bambi operation for two days- Tuesday and Wednesday,
on the raging fire at Phawngpui tlang, the highest peak in Mizoram, located in the state’s southernmost Lawngtlai district. Although situation seems under control for now officials have said that they will again call in the AIF chopper if need be.
At present, there are 14 fire stations across the state and the government is making efforts to set up new fire stations in three new districts- Hnahthial, Saitual, and Khawzawl, Lalthanmawia said.
Nature’s call for help
The wildfire shows that we are not doing enough to protect eco-sensitive regions. This particular fire will be hard to douse quickly as the state is already facing a water scarcity during the pre-monsoon phase and COVID-19 has monopolized most of its resources. The advancing flames will have severe impact on tree population, biodiversity and wildlife. Forest fires are one of the major causes behind our depleting green belt. The loss of human and animal lives, plant species, and animal habitat are all caused more often than not by man-made causes and negligence. These need to be curbed. We can see a marked decline in the green cover in the North-Eastern states and a massive contributing factor to that is the shifting cultivation process, which has been going on these regions for centuries. Unlike the forests in the mainland region of the country which are dry forest highly susceptible to natural burning, forests in the northeast are characterized by their humid conditions, which should have made forest fires a rarity. But the sky-high rates of wildfires in these regions is a big red flag to the detrimental lifestyle of the native population, and should be reason enough to warrant a revisit to the forest policies.
Sources: HT, Indian Express, Times Now, Republic India, Journal of Mountain Science (Jhumming stats)
~ Devangi Sharma