From Mahua Collection to Magra Snan: The Threat of Forest Fires in South Rajasthan

Forest fires have increased tenfold in the past two decades in India
Forest fires have increased tenfold in the past two decades in India

The arrival of March brings with it the looming threat of forest fires in the jungles of India , specially Rajasthan which has the largest forest cover.

The Udaipur division, which boasts the largest forest cover in the region, is particularly susceptible to wildfires that have caused immense harm to the vegetation and animal life in the area. In the most recent of incidents, fire broke out on two hills at Segra and Gugla Magri adjoining Udaipur city area.

Forestor Raghunath Salvi who had led the dousing operations told the media that the flames spread in 5 hectares in Segra and some 3 hectares in Gugla Magra, fortunately, the rescue team contained the fire with the help of local residents .

Forest fires typically break out in mid-March and continue until the end of June when the monsoons occur. However, the frequency of forest fires has increased dramatically since 1995, and they have become more and more unpredictable. The local people believe that a year of heavy rains is generally followed by very dry winters. This lead to the spread of fires. The unusual weather patterns have made it even harder to predict and prevent forest fires.

Deficit manpower and lack of proper equipments are a major  hindrance.
Deficit manpower and lack of proper equipments are a major hindrance.

Fires in the wild are not uncommon in southern Rajasthan. The bizarre tribal customs and indigenous techniques of burning the hills and land to revitalize them pose a significant threat to the dense green forest cover in the area. Last year, more than 400 hectares of grassland were charred in Jaisamand Wildlife Sanctuary when a fire prevailed in the area for more than five days. The Sajjangarh hills also caught flames in April 2022, and disaster fighting teams including an IAF chopper had toiled for hours to control the fire that had spread to a large area.

Tribal Custom Of Magra Snan

Sources claim that the tribal custom 'Magra Snan,' i.e., offering fire to please 'Magra Bavji' or the Hill God upon the accomplishment of any wish, is the foremost reason behind the wildfires that damage the precious flora and fauna. Renowned historian Dr Shri Krishna Jugnu , also attest some rituals prevalent among the indigenous communities in the state . In Udaipur, as per tradition, local tribals go on a forest-burning spree after the Holi festival. This practice of burning forests, which is carried out in tribal areas, has caused major destruction of the green cover. However, forest authorities claim in Udaipur no serious damages have been caused to the trees or animals.

Major fire incidents took place in Rajasthan in 2022
Major fire incidents took place in Rajasthan in 2022

Despite several efforts to sensitize, people in tribal areas continue to offer 'agni snan' being misled by the local 'bhopas' and tantriks. They believe it to be a purification process to ascertain prosperity in their lives," opines retired forest officer Rahul Bhatnagar. Another reason behind the intentional fire is the local belief that if grass is burnt, the ashes supply phosphorus to the soil and enrich its property, resulting in better and softer grass for their livestock. Mahua and honeybee-collecting communities also reportedly set fire in the forest, according to authorities.

Fire makes Mahua collection easier

The practice of setting fires in the forest for various purposes, including the collection of Mahua flowers, is a common practice among the tribal communities in Southern Rajasthan. Mahua is a popular flower fruit among the locals, and its flowers are an important source of food and livelihood for many tribal communities. However, this practice has been a major cause of concern for forest officials and conservationists as it often leads to uncontrolled forest fires that cause extensive damage to the forest cover and wildlife.

Mahua flowers typically fall from the trees in the early mornings, and it is difficult to separate them from the heap of dried and fallen leaves. To make the process easier, tribal communities often collect the leaves and set them on fire so that the next morning, they can easily identify and collect the flowers. However, the problem arises when the fire is not put off, and it continues to spread, leading to a major forest fire.

According to Rahul Bhatnagar, the locals' lack of cooperation has made the situation worse. Earlier, the villagers had a share in the forest produce, and this served as an incentive for them to protect the forest. However, after the amendment in the Rajasthan Forest Act, the villagers no longer receive any benefits, and they have stopped cooperating with the forest officials in fighting forest fires. This has put additional pressure on the already stretched forest officials, who have to fight the fires with a deficit manpower.

Dr. Sunil Dubey, a wildlife activist, highlights the urgent need for proper training and equipment to effectively combat forest fires whenever they occur. Traditionally, forest officials have relied on beating the fires with sticks, but this method is not always effective and can result in severe losses. Dr. Dubey emphasizes that more scientific and advanced methods of dousing the flames need to be implemented to prevent the devastating consequences of forest fires. It is essential to prioritize the safety of our forests and wildlife by providing forest officials with the necessary tools and knowledge to tackle these incidents.

Wildfires in India

A study titled "Managing Forest Fires in a Changing Climate" by the Council on Energy, Environment, and Water (CEEW) discovered that forest fires have increased ten-fold in the past two decades, and over 62% of Indian states are susceptible to high-intensity forest fires.

According to the study, there were 3,082 forest fires in the year 2000, but that number has risen to 30,947 in 2019. Additionally, the study found that 36% of India's forest cover is located in zones that are vulnerable to intense forest fires.

The study identified Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Telangana, and northeastern states as the areas most prone to forest fires.

Natural Reasons for Wildfire

Lightning strikes are a significant natural cause of forest fires, particularly in areas with dry vegetation. These fires often occur in remote locations far from human settlements. Additionally, volcanic activity can also trigger forest fires. Fortunately, technological advancements have made it possible to predict these types of fires ahead of time. Firefighters can create a buffer zone to contain and manage the fires. However, spontaneous combustion of dry vegetation is another common cause of forest fires.

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