Ep. 41: In India, Misguided Policies Leave Forests Ablaze

Welcome to the reboot of the Undark Podcast, which will deliver — once a month from September to May — a feature-length exploration of a single topic at the intersection of science and society. In this episode, join freelance multimedia producer Mary-Rose Abraham and podcast host Lydia Chain as they investigate how India’s laws and policy are hindering efforts to prevent and contain deadly forest fires.

Below is the full transcript of the podcast, lightly edited for clarity. You can also subscribe to The Undark Podcast at iTunes, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, or Spotify.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Anu Vidya Muthumalai’s 2020 goal was to climb Mount Everest, but there were plenty of smaller mountains to climb, closer to home in southern India. In March of 2018, she set out from Chennai with a group of mostly young women on a trek in the Western Ghats mountains. They climbed nearly 8,000 feet. It was on their way back down that a raging wildfire stormed up the mountain and engulfed them.

Kasturi Muthumalai: … some 10 persons, 10 to 11 persons were rescued.

Mary-Rose Abraham: That’s Anu’s mother, Kasturi Muthumalai.

Kasturi Muthumalai: We thought she would be one in that. Because she used to go to many treks and all. She would have escaped. We thought like that. She would have escaped. She used to say, death comes everywhere. Even if we walk in the road, we will be facing death. It’s natural only, no? So you don’t think about it. I think she prepared me.

Lydia Chain: This is The Undark Podcast. I’m your host, Lydia Chain. This year, large swaths of our world have been ablaze. A devastating wildfire season in California has caused hundreds of thousands of evacuations and left millions of people without power in pre-emptive blackouts. Millions of acres burned in the Amazon. Burning jungles in Indonesia choked the skies with smoke and soot. Even the Arctic was on fire as forests burned for months in the Siberian tundra. In August, the European Space Agency counted more than 79,000 fires worldwide, five times as many as last year.

As countries all over the world try to find ways to prevent and manage fires, India finds that its own law and policy present a unique roadblock. And the struggle of stakeholders to change things there may hold lessons for residents and officials in fire-prone areas the world over, particularly as a fast-changing climate raises the stakes. Mary-Rose Abraham has the story.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Anu Vidya Muthumalai was 25 years old, and an artist, animal rescuer, and therapist. The group of 27 people was a mix of beginners and very experienced trekkers, like Anu. It was a chance to escape Chennai, with its city traffic and pollution, for a couple days of clean air and quiet in the Western Ghats. This mountain range runs through six Indian states. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a global biodiversity hotspot. Their trek passed through a unique terrain found nowhere else in the world. The Shola forests. It’s a patchwork of rolling grasslands alternating with tropical forest in the mountain valleys. They had climbed up to the highest tea plantation in the world and then started downhill. They ran into another group and sat together for lunch on a grassy slope near a lone pine tree. That’s when the fire surprised them. Anu told her mother Kasturi what happened.

Kasturi Muthumalai: They were happily having their lunch there. They were talking with their friends. From far away, they were seeing some black smoke. That time also they didn’t think about that smoke. Then the smoke, that smoke turned into a black, dense-like thing. Then only they got frightened.

Mary-Rose Abraham: The local media dubbed it the Kurangani Fire, named for the small village where the trekkers started out. That’s where I met up with Mohan Raman. He’s a local adventure tour operator and environmentalist. He knows this terrain. Back in the year 2000, he inaugurated this trekking route with a group of French climbers. And he led the Indian Air Force commandos deployed to the fire rescue mission. Raman says the grassland burns so quickly that dense smoke develops later. It’s the only warning sign, and often too late.

Mohan Raman: Yeah. It’s a wild grass. It’s a wild grass and lemongrass. It’s a mixture. So it’s suddenly combustion.

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: It will just burn up?

Mohan Raman: It’s only flame. It’s not like a stove. It’s the effect like a furnace. It’s very fast. It’s a very dry season. It’s a drought and dry season, no water. No moisture. So it’s very dry times. First the flame. Then only come for the smoke. That is very important. The sound is like. We know very well. First come the flame.

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: What does that sound like?

Mohan Raman: It’s like padabadapada. Like this.

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: Like paper rustling really loud?

Mohan Raman: Yes, paper rustling, yes like this.

Kasturi Muthumalai: Then the guide told them to pack up. They started running at the top. There also, the fire surrounded them.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Anu suffered smoke inhalation and burns over 90 percent of her body. She passed away four days later. Of the 39 trekkers in the two groups, 23 people died.

But this was not an isolated, or unpreventable tragedy. Several systems that could have helped, failed, like a warning from a fire-monitoring satellite system that arrived too late. Indian law and tradition obstruct fire prevention, and some of the country’s environmental goals are actually aggravating the wildfire situation.

India’s fire numbers stand out. For a rough comparison, India is a third the size of the U.S. but has two-thirds the number of fires. And with four times the population, Indians are more at risk from wildfires. A recent Lancet study revealed India is the country with the biggest increase in population exposure to wildfires. Moreover, India’s fire situation is a complicated tangle of policy, underfunded fire prevention, and people living in and depending on forests.

According to Indian government data, the number of wildfires in India has increased by 132 percent since 2015, with more than 37,000 fires reported last year. In the first six months of this year, they’ve already hit 28,000 fires. Other data on the impact of fires is difficult to pin down. It is estimated a quarter of India’s population relies on forests for at least part of their livelihood. The official number for yearly economic damages — $164 million — is an underestimate. A joint World Bank and Indian government report pointed out that it only counted timber value of standing trees. And while the data noted 21 wildfire deaths in 2018, we know 23 Kurangani trekkers died.

Abi Vanak: In this case, there were a group of recreational trekkers.

Mary-Rose Abraham: That’s Abi Vanak. He’s an ecologist at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, in Bangalore. His experience with fire isn’t just academic … he’s helped fight fires during his fieldwork, getting close enough to singe the hairs on his hands as he beat the fire back with palm fronds.

Abi Vanak: But there are also forest-dwelling communities all over India, who are at more regular risk from these kinds of runaway fires. And that’s something we need to keep in mind and try and prevent. Because maybe you might not have so many lives lost at the same time. But even one or two is one or two too many.

Joachim Schmerbeck: Fires are appearing all over the landscape in India. And if your eyes are sharpened for this, you can see it everywhere. And it burns even where I didn’t expect.

Mary-Rose Abraham: That’s Joachim Schmerbeck. I spoke with him during a short break on his motorcycle trip in Europe. Most of the year he’s actually based in India, as leader of the Indo-German Biodiversity Program. That’s an initiative of GIZ, the German government-owned development agency. Schmerbeck is also the co-author of the India chapter in the book “Wildfire Hazards, Risks, and Disasters.”

Experts point to two major flaws in the ways India’s forest departments are handling fires: One, they are missing opportunities to tone down fire severity with controlled burning. And two, they aren’t using enough fire breaks to put space between flammable areas and stop a fire from spreading. Let’s start with controlled burning.

Schmerbeck says lightning-caused fires have been part of the Indian landscape for millions of years, an essential part of many ecosystems.

Joachim Schmerbeck: The problem is that people are not aware about the fact of fire on the landscape. And they don’t know that fire is a constant factor keeping a grassland a grassland. And keeping shrubland a shrubland. That fire is going regularly through this landscape.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Weather, terrain, and the fuel load — like how much dead vegetation is available to burn — all factor into fires. But it’s impossible to think of wildfires as just a natural phenomenon. The single biggest influence is people. Like wildfires globally, India’s are mostly human-caused.

Kasturi Muthumalai: The first word that she spoke. “Amma, we were not responsible for the forest fire, Ma.” She told me like that. “We are not responsible for the forest fire.”

Mary-Rose Abraham: Tourists like Anu’s trekking group are not the main people setting fires. It’s people burning trash. Or stray cigarette butts. Or farmers torching forest to clear it for grazing. These can get out of hand. But not every human-set fire has the same consequences. Of India’s 1.3 billion people, about a million live in forests. India’s forest-dwelling communities have carefully used fire in their environmental management for at least the last 10,000 years. Here’s Vanak.

Abi Vanak: In the Western Ghats, in the BR [Biligirirangana] Hills, the Soliga tribes used to set the cool-season fire to clear the underbrush. Allow for agriculture. But also to allow their cattle to graze. And for non-timber forest products.

Mary-Rose Abraham: But once that burning stopped …

Abi Vanak: … it helped the invasive Lantana camara bush to completely overtake these systems. And so if you go to the BR Hills now, all you’ll see is an understory of lantana.

Joachim Schmerbeck: Fire is basically a tool. You can use fire to modify vegetation. And you can use fire for hunting. And you can use fire to regulate species composition. It’s a tool. It’s like if you’re asking what I’m using a hammer for. There’s all kinds of things you can use the hammer for. And there’s all kinds of things you can use the fire for.

Mary-Rose Abraham: That was Schmerbeck. Vanak says that some of the burning practiced by indigenous people actually served to prevent worse fires in the dry season by using up fuel. It’s a technique not fully explored yet by the government.

Abi Vanak: A couple of years ago, there was a meeting called by the Ministry of Environment, Forest, and Climate Change in Delhi, and Australian fire experts were called in as well. And their message was very simple. They said the cheapest and best tool to fight fire is a matchstick.

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: Is a matchstick? Ok, that sounds completely counterintuitive.

Abi Vanak: Yeah. The idea is that if you prevent the buildup of dry matter, of dry biomass on the surface of the forest by allowing for periodic controlled burning, then you will prevent these really large out-of-control fires.

Mary-Rose Abraham: India’s forest officials are allowed to set controlled burns. But in a survey of forest officials in 11 Indian states, two-thirds said controlled burning was not being regularly performed.

Abi Vanak: They need to come back to what was called block burning. Where, you know, entire blocks used to be burned in a rotational manner, once in every three years, and be done in the cool season when the grass is dry enough but there’s still some moisture in the soil, and it’s also cool so that the fires don’t go out of hand. And these cool season fires are necessary.

Mary-Rose Abraham: And those indigenous groups who had practiced controlled burning for millennia can’t perform controlled burns anymore. In fact, any type of fire in a forest — whether accidental or intentional — is lumped into one bucket. And banned. We need to look at an old law to understand why. The Indian Forest Act was passed in 1927 by the British colonizers who were in power on the subcontinent.

Abi Vanak: Colonial forestry policy in India was to suppress fire, wherever it occurred.

Mary-Rose Abraham: For the British, Indian forests were primarily for the harvesting of timber. So they saw fire as destructive to their economic interests.

Abi Vanak: We have continued to adopt the British way, the colonial way of thinking, and say all fire is bad. And enshrine that in law. So the Forest Act criminalizes burning. What it then does of course is ignore the history of human use of forests. In some way, it is reinforcing that colonial mentality where you’re basically bringing what the British brought into India and re-imposing it on Indian people. And there’s no need for that. Allow people to take control of their ecosystems, that they were managing for a very long time.

Mary-Rose Abraham: In theory, there are ways for forest dwellers to continue their traditional practices, including using fire. One is the similar-sounding Forest Rights Act. It gives India’s forest dwellers restored rights over their traditional lands. But it’s been stuck in legal wrangling since it was passed in 2006.

There is also the Joint Forest Management system, set up in 1990. This is a cooperative agreement that allows forest dwellers to protect and manage their local state-owned forest, such as fire prevention and cattle grazing, in exchange for accessing benefits from that forest. But in practice, these systems have been set up for only about 30 percent of India’s forest area.

And this points to an overall issue with India’s national forest fire policy: it has one only in theory. India’s central government created a National Action Plan on Forest Fire in 2018, but the National Green Tribunal — that’s India’s court system created just for environmental protection – ruled this May that due to the great increase in wildfires a monitoring committee made up of many agencies and the forest chief from each state would be needed to implement it. Until that committee forms, the plan’s action items — such as fire risk mapping and improving ground detection — are stalled.

And the joint report of the Indian government and the World Bank recommended policy changes, more firefighting staff, and more engagement with the local community. They also called for fire breaks, that second major flaw that we talked about earlier. A fire break, also called a fire line, clears vegetation to prevent fire from jumping into the forest. They help to stop accidental fires from spreading out of control. And that was a huge fail-point in the Kurangani Fire. Mohan Raman, who was on the Kurangani rescue mission, is sure there are no fire lines here, by that lone pine tree.

Mohan Raman: This is no fire line. I am damn sure. It’s necessary, mandatory for the forest management, national park, or wildlife sanctuary. We should break the line for fire. At least 1 and a half meter of fire line to prevent forest fire.

Mary-Rose Abraham: The state government of Tamil Nadu — where the wildfire happened — commissioned an official report on the forest fire. It was never made public. But media reports citing sources who read it, said the state’s forest department was mostly to blame — a finding that Raman agrees with.

Mohan Raman: We blamed the forest department, not the touristic.

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: So when you look up at the mountain, does it look like the farmland is right next to the grassland and the Shola forest? There’s no division?

Mohan Raman: No division. That’s why it catches fire.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Raman says the wilderness area has no separation from the cultivated land, which farmers routinely set ablaze. A local would know best. So we headed to the home of Karuppasami. He goes by a single name. He’s the one who rescued Anu Vidya, carrying her more than 4 miles down the mountain in a makeshift sling, hours after she was caught in the fire.

Karuppasami: (in Tamil, with English voiceover) They put her in the ambulance. At that time Anu Vidya caught hold of my hand and she said: “Brother, I don’t know who you are, in fact I don’t even know where my parents are, but I want you to come with me.” And then I reassured her that the doctors are there and she will be well taken care of.

Mary-Rose Abraham: The trekking path passes by Karuppasami’s home. He blames the forest department for the fire. He says they have not cleared fire breaks between the village’s agricultural area and the forest. And how did the fire start? Impossible to know for sure, but Karuppasami says farmers in the area set fire to the forest frequently. It’s illegal, but they use fire to keep wild animals away from their crops, or to clear the area for cattle grazing. And if the forest is burning, it is the forest department’s responsibility to control it.

After Anu’s death, her family came to visit Karuppasami. He burst into tears when he saw them. For two months after the fire, his wife said he could barely eat his meals. The fire affected many in Kurangani village. Chinnathai, who also goes by one name, was one of the few women who visited victims in the makeshift trauma center soon after they came down from the mountain.

Chinnathai: (in Tamil, with English voiceover): Dear lord, they were all charred. I was afraid. Their faces were all burned. One girl called me, paati, grandma, and I took a sari and covered her. Beautiful girls, all very pretty.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Kurangani village has suffered not only an emotional impact. Its economy has been hit too. Since the tragedy, the forest department has periodically closed off access to the trek and an even more popular waterfall nearby. Without the usual steady flow of trekkers and visitors, the villagers are now dependent on agriculture and odd jobs outside the village.

When forest fires are allowed to spread too far, or burn too intensely, it can devastate a family, a community, and a village. But it has massive implications for India’s environmental picture as well, and some of the country’s goals may actually make fires more common and deadly. One looming concern is climate change. Here’s Vanak.

Abi Vanak: I think we must recognize that as our ecosystems are drying up because of climate change, we are going to have more severe fires. We’re going to have fires in ecosystems that have not evolved to have fires in them.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Schmerbeck adds that fires also prevent forests from acting like carbon sinks, to soak up extra CO2 from the atmosphere.

Joachim Schmerbeck: All of these areas even if they are in the very dry parts … they can over the next 50, 100 years sequester much more carbon if they are not burned.

Mary-Rose Abraham: India has also set ambitious targets to increase its forest cover. NASA data shows that China and India have led the world in increasing green cover over the last two decades. China’s contribution comes from conserving and expanding forests. But India’s green cover was largely food crops. From 2015 to 2017, its forest cover only increased by 1 percent.

So India is on a frenzy of tree planting to achieve 33 percent forest cover by 2030, up from its current 24 percent. Ironically, this may also lead to more forest fires.

To understand why, we need to start with something as simple as the classification of an ecosystem. India has a wide range of savanna systems. That’s an overstory of trees with a continuous understory of grasses.

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: Is Kurangani area, should it be classified as savanna?

Abi Vanak: Yes, it is savanna. This is again unfortunately again a colonial hangover. If you look at the vegetation map of India, you will not find the word savanna anywhere. It doesn’t exist in the dictionary of foresters. This is because the British foresters believed that all the grasslands that you saw in India were degraded forest ecosystems.

Mary-Rose Abraham: This misclassification actually leads to the destruction of savanna habitats. India’s afforestation programs target grasslands as places where trees should be planted.

Abi Vanak: By planting trees in these systems is actually going to make them more drought-prone because these trees require water to grow. So these trees, especially in these systems which see fairly little rainfall, these trees are going to be fairly water-hungry as well.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Trees that suck up water can lead to drought conditions which can then lead to a higher risk of wildfires. Vanak believes not only afforestation but much of environmental policy needs to be critically examined.

Abi Vanak: I think we need to re-evolve our systems now because things are changing, things have changed, OK? So let’s do the science properly. Nobody needs to take my word for it or the word of any of the other ecologists who have advocated for this. Why don’t we do the science?

Mary-Rose Abraham, on tape: What’s stopping the research from happening?

Abi Vanak: Forestry in India came from a certain scientific background that was developed in Europe. And then wasn’t necessarily updated as it went along. In many instances, there’s a mistrust between forest managers and scientists. And it’s built up over decades.

Mary-Rose Abraham: He believes it’s just a matter of time to dissolve this divide between science and policy. Especially since India’s scientists are already sitting on global bodies like the IPCC — that’s the U.N.’s climate change panel.

Abi Vanak: The body of Indian knowledge will be too hard to ignore for Indian managers. We are knocking at the doors and that knocking is getting fairly loud. And if we are informing policy at the global level, why are we not informing them at the Indian level?

Mary-Rose Abraham: Managing India’s worsening forest fires will mean changes in law and policy. But this holds little relevance for Anu’s family. Besides the post-fire visit to her rescuer, they have not looked into why or how the Kurangani Fire took away their daughter. Instead, they are intent on keeping alive her spirit. In October, on what would have been her birthday, they opened a shelter for stray dogs, in honor of her animal rescue work.

Kasturi Muthumalai: I am feeling proud of her, I am feeling proud of her. She is showing us the way to live. She has lived for 25 years and she has done everything. In that 25 years, she has done everything. Me and my husband cry a lot when memories are there. Then it’s OK. She is within us, she is here, she is here. We will do whatever she likes, we will do whatever she likes. We live like that.

Lydia Chain: Mary-Rose, thank you so much for joining us on the show.

Mary-Rose Abraham: Oh thank you, Lydia. My pleasure.

Lydia Chain: At one point in your piece, you discuss a joint report between the Indian government and the World Bank, and that report asked for things like policy changes and fire breaks, but also community engagement. What does that look like, and why is it so important?

Mary-Rose Abraham: Yeah, I think the community engagement piece is really big in terms of fire prevention and management. Right now there’s actually quite a lot of animosity going on between forest officials and residents of the forest, forest dwellers. So there have been recent reports of forest officials being attacked, even, by angry residents. And it goes the other way too. We see the Forest Rights Act, which has basically been in litigation in the Indian court system for the last 13 or so years. And it’s supposed to grant rights of residence to traditional forest dwellers, but it’s sort of doing the opposite of that. It’s disenfranchising them. So that’s the reason why it’s still stuck in the court system. So basically without that cooperation between the government and the state forest officials and the people actually living in the forest, they’re not going to be able to manage any sort of fire prevention or management system.

Lydia Chain: We talk a lot in the piece about India’s specific struggles with fire prevention, but are there lessons here other countries could learn from as they are trying to manage their own forest fires in this warming climate?

Mary-Rose Abraham: Yeah, certainly that seems to be the case. Two things jumped out at me as I was reporting this story. The first one was just how the fire situation worldwide is escalating. And I think that having awareness, not just for scientists and policymakers but for the ordinary person, for the ordinary citizen is going to be really important. It’s not just for the people who are living near forests or near fire-prone areas, it’s going to be everyone. Because the effects of fire have a ripple effect. They go through and affect health, they affect our economy. So awareness is definitely going to be key for everyone.

Lydia Chain: Yeah.

Mary-Rose Abraham: And the other thing that jumped out at me from the Indian situation that could be applicable worldwide is that governments need to take a really close look at how their laws and policies are perhaps not working quite in sync with science. And we see that in the Indian situation where the law sort of contradicts the best way to manage fires, so certainly governments worldwide should be looking at how their laws and regulations are best suited to reflect the current and best science and research that is going on, in terms of fire prevention and management.

Lydia Chain: Mary-Rose Abraham is a freelance multimedia producer based in Bangalore, India. Our theme music is produced by the Undark team and additional music for this episode came from Kevin Macleod at Incompetech. I’m your host, Lydia Chain. See you next month.