The blazing forest fires in Odisha’s Simlipal National Park, Asia’s second-largest biodiversity reserve that raged for over 10 days in the latter half of February, went unnoticed until the women of the state decided to take charge.
Akshita Bhanj Deo, scion of the Mayurbhanj royal family was the first to highlight the situation on March 1. Her tweet elicited responses from Dharmendra Pradhan, Minister of Petroleum and Natural Gas; Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; and Naveen Patnaik, Chief Minister of Odisha.
“I think it was around February 26-27 when I came across a few local news reports in Odia about forest fires in Simlipal. I was aware that these fires occur every year, but I thought someone is going to take action. When I read reports revealing 50 kilograms of ivory being found and stories around illegal quarrying, I realised something massive is going on in Simlipal,” she shares.
To douse the burning issue, Patnaik’s office had tweeted that the forest fire was “under control” and there was no loss of lives or any damage to “big trees''.
Beyond its rich biodiversity
Simlipal National Park is spread across a sprawling 2,750 square kilometres, and is known for its tiger and elephant population. According to media reports, there are 94 species of orchids, 55 species of mammals, 304 species of birds, 60 species of reptiles, 21 species of amphibians, 38 species of fish and 164 species of butterflies.
Equating Simlipal to over 500 football fields, Bhanj Deo says it is critical for people to understand the magnanimity of the issue because forest fires are rampant across the state.
“Simlipal is of significance because we share our borders with Bengal. Several rivers flow through the forests that don’t just benefit us but also other states. It is also an elephant corridor and Asia’s second largest biosphere reserve. When I had tweeted, I expected the local authorities or the forest department to respond to the concern. The complete silence left me wondering who actually benefits from the desertification of forests in India”, she says, agitatedly.
Although her tweet led the Odisha CM to take stock of the situation, Bhanj Deo doesn’t seem to understand his statement about “no loss to big trees”.
“How big do the trees have to be? That is such a flawed logic. People were just satisfied that we were finally able to draw the attention of our leaders to the crisis. I think there’s more to it that requires in-depth study,” she adds.
What triggered the flames?
While forest fires tend to be a common occurrence in Simlipal, the latest event is unprecedented because of “increased intensity,” according to Biswajit Mohanty, secretary for the non-profit organisation Wildlife Society of Odisha.
“Previously, we had intermittent summer showers during spring, which would naturally douse the fire. The intensity wasn’t that much, particularly in the Simlipal area. Simlipal has a special microclimate – in February too, there is local rain. This year, there was a complete absence of rain for almost a month, and that’s when the fire started, and spread rapidly in no time,” he explains.
This is a season that also coincides with shedding of leaves in deciduous forests, making them more vulnerable to forest fires, adds Mohanty.
“We can’t ignore the management part; two senior officers of the forest department in Odisha retired on January 31 this year. Since they were retiring, the hypothesis is that there was insufficient attention paid to preparation,” he says, adding that meetings with the local community also didn’t take place until March.
The forest department ramped up efforts only after a media outcry, shares Mohanty.
“The first tweet came in at least 12 days after the forest fire. Despite adequate funds, the forest department isn’t doing much on its own. If they want, they can easily spend Rs 100 crores to fight forest fires,” he adds.
Women: Leading the mantle
Bhanj Deo feels these forest fires must not be “normalised”, even though they have been occurring for over a 100 years.
“We are a disaster-prone state, and people say forest fires are common. They were common a 100 years ago when the population was sparse in the state. Climate change has worsened the situation, making it difficult for animals to survive. The smoke arising out of these fires is detrimental to the health of the people with tons of carbon dioxide being released. Have we become so capitalist in our thinking that everything has to give us returns?,” she says.
Further, she believes that Odisha, relegated to one of the BIMARU states, has always been the “centre” of sensationalist coverage.
“I have been trying my best to change the perception of Odisha in national media. We have so much opportunity, talent, scale, craftsmanship, handloom and handicrafts, heritage, architectural sites, and beaches. There is so much diversity and culture, thanks to the many tribal communities that co-exist. Yet, I have always felt that the media has been very unfair with Odisha. How much have they covered? Perhaps only famines and cyclones,” she questions.
Another woman fighting the good fight over the last few decades, albeit silently, is Sanjukta Basa, chair of local environmental NGO Sangram in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha. She has been working not just for the emancipation of women in the state but also bringing to the fore several issues of importance like illegal mining, poaching and other need-based projects.
Basa along with other women have turned into ‘firefighters’ to help put out the flames with leafy branches.
“Several tribes who are involved in poaching aim to put fire at the highest hill in the jungle. That’s how the wildlife comes out. Moreover, there are tribals who believe that if the leaves aren’t cleared, their lives are at risk. It also makes them feel they have more access to the forests,” she says, adding that forest areas are set on fire to clear dry leaves on ground for collection of mahua flowers.
Associated with the forest department since 1999, Basa has consistently been involved in spreading awareness about the environment. She, along with several women, travel to villages and convey their message through folk dance and music. They also have frequent discussions and discuss strategies to save the forests.
The forest fires may not stop in the years to come; but these women sure have ‘fire in their bellies’ to take stock of the situation, even if it comes at the cost of exposing inadequate governance.
(Edited by Amrita Ghosh)