Read The Hindu Notes of 9th March 2019 for UPSC Civil Service Examination, State Civil Service Examination and other competitive Examination

The Hindu Notes for 9th March 2019
  • Topic Discussed: The Hindu Notes of 9th March 2019
  • A peace movement is needed

    India and Pakistan must re-imagine the border as a fold of peace instead of as a threshold of hostilities

  • One of the things I miss in the age of TV and digital news is the presence of the storyteller. Maybe it is an old-fashioned need, but I miss the magic of the moment that begins, ‘once there was’. Our sense of peace is desperately in need of myths and storytellers. In fact, as we watch the Pulwama event and after, we sense peace has lost autonomy as a narrative. Peace has been reduced to the lull between two acts of violence, an uneasy interlude. Our sense of war reads peace passively as a cessation of hostilities. Peace is more holistic and comprehensive in a way our current narratives do not capture. It is a different world. While war is anchored on the parochialism of concepts like border, security and nation state, peace has to dig deep into the unconscious of theology, philosophy and civilisation to literally create an alternative world view. India desperately needs a peace movement.
  • Beyond machismo

  • Our present vision of history and politics has become a handicap here. There is an irony to the Gandhian movement in India. Satyagraha as an imagination has inspired exemplars abroad, including Václav Havel, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton and Desmond Tutu, but it has lost its passion and vigour in India. Today the Gandhian movement has died out, while Gandhians still play a role in other battles of resistance, such as the Narmada. Our ashrams are no longer pilgrimages of the imagination. They need to be revived to counter the think tanks of war and a middle class which craves the machismo of militarism.
  • What makes the dyingness of Gandhian ideas even more poignant is that violence and war have become technologically and strategically inventive, creating an acceptable normalcy around genocidal deaths. We read body counts with more indifference than weather reports. It is time peace as goodness challenges the inventiveness of war. As Gandhi pointed out, to be inventive, peace has to be both cognitive and ethical. It has to go beyond moral rhetoric and create experimental possibilities of peace, and it has to transform ethics into a political act that transforms the dullness of current democracy. Second, peace has to be seen as a craft, a lived world of meaning, not as a technocratic exercise. It needs daily rituals of practice where life, livelihood, lifestyle follow the codes of non-violence. For example, food has become a source of violence both as production and consumption. One has to rethink the logic of food as part of the testament of peace. The start-ups for peace have to be more imaginative than the usual start-ups of technology. Food as a cross-cultural imagination can help create the myths of diversity, generosity and justice that peace thrives on.
  • One has to also create a tradition of peace, a genealogy of exemplars and anecdotes, myth and folklore that sustain our everyday sense of life and living. Sadly, while we have many exemplars, we have few paradigms with which peace can confront the arrogance of war. We need a flood of peace hypotheses, efforts of men like Rajni Kothari, Kuldip Nayar, Johan Galtung and the folklore that went with it. Without a folklore of peace, a civilisational store of proverbs and wisdom, a social science of peace would be arid and administrative. The role of the university and civil society becomes critical because one of the institutions India has to dream of is a new University of Peace. The University of Peace was dreamt of by Patrick Geddes, watching the ruins of the League of Nations. He planned a model of peace where knowledge created frameworks of peace. Knowledge was to be a civics of peace. Tagore wove this idea into the idea of Shantiniketan. This other Shantiniketan did not survive and needs to be revived as India’s creative answer to war and Partition. Civil society must take a leaf out of Abdul Ghaffar Khan’s book and create a new vision of the soldiers of peace, the Khudai Khidmatgars. Imagine peace groups working on both sides of the India-Pakistan border in a dialogue of peace. This will help us rethink the idea of the border as a threshold of hostilities, a hinge of war rather than a fold of peace. Today we see people on the border as vulnerable. One needs to give them some sense of agency in creating counter-currents to war. Finally, one needs civilisational ideas on war, where a dialogue of religion creates an antidote to war. The role of religion in peace is particularly crucial as our conventional spiritual leaders have become handymen of the state.
  • No democracy without peace

  • One has to recognise while there is a poetics to peace, there is also a prose to routine. Time and the varieties of time become crucial in understanding peace. Waiting for peace is almost the everyday burden of women in war zones as they wait for their loved ones to come back, and dream of the return to normalcy. I remember Manipuri activist Irom Sharmila once telling me that normalcy meant returning to the possibility of being a woman, falling in love, going for walks untrammelled by army interrogation. Normalcy is such a rare phenomenon in frontier areas where war and insurgency have become endemic. Democracy, in that sense, is an ode to normalcy, to the rhythms of being we call peace. Recently there was a demonstration of Naga students in Delhi. The group did not ask for rights or critique the brutality of the state. All they said was that they were tired of war, tired of waiting for peace. All they wanted was peace in their lifetime, which Indian democracy is duty bound to give.
  • Once one realises peace is a craft, one has to prepare for it. One needs to see dialogue in creative ways. One is reminded of Raimon Panikkar’s definition that dialogue is a pilgrimage where one encounters the difference of the other to discover oneself. India and Pakistan need a dialogue in the sense that Panikkar spoke about. In this context, a dialogue of the people must be accompanied by more specialised dialogues. India has a chance to revive the power of the Pugwash movement. One has to remember that the first Pugwash conference was to meet in India till Cyrus Eaton hijacked it to Nova Scotia, his birthplace. The new Pugwash should go beyond nuclear fiefdoms and challenge the inventiveness of violence. It provides an opportunity for the satyagrahi and the scientist to blend in creative ways. The encounter between India and Pakistan must create wider models for thinking about peace.
  • Guns and culture

  • India as a civilisation, a nation state and a democracy has a major resource to fall back on in the wisdom of our cultures and civilisations. It reminds me of an oft-repeated story from the Nazi era. Once the Nazi Minister for Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, claimed that every time he heard the word culture, he reached for his gun. The fittest reply came from a scholar, a Harvard professor called Alexander Gerschenkron. He replied that every time he heard the guns, he reached for his culture. It is time India goes beyond the grammar of surgical strikes and reaches for its cultures of peace, pilgrimage and understanding.
  • The case for a First Front

    A Third or Federal Front will not be able to confront the challenge the Hindu right poses to India’s secular polity

    The case for a First Front
  • The most remarkable accomplishment of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has been that he did not let Opposition parties close ranks completely against him, though he entered the national political stage as the most polarising political figure in modern Indian history. This reflects more on the ideological nature of Opposition leaders and their concern for secular India than on Mr. Modi’s ability.
  • Coalition failures

  • Since 2014, attempts were made to put together a coalition against him. For instance, in 2017, there was an Opposition gathering in Chennai on June 3, then-DMK chief M. Karunanidhi’s birthday; on August 17, former Janata Dal (United) president Sharad Yadav launched the ‘Sanjhi Virasat Bachao’ (save composite culture) in New Delhi, where many Opposition leaders were invited; at Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad’s ‘BJP Hatao, Desh Bachao’ rally on August 27, 15 parties took part.
  • And this January, Trinamool Congress Mamata Banerjee’s congregation in Kolkata was attended by 22 parties. On February 13, Arvind Kejriwal of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) too held a gathering. A direct relationship, it is often argued, exists between the authoritarian conduct of a Prime Minister and the holder of the most powerful political office, and formation of a pan-Indian coalition against him or her. Examples of Indira Gandhi in 1975-77 or even Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 are often cited to corroborate this hypothesis. Though the coalition against Mr. Modi is far more organised today than it was in 2014, it’s not anywhere close to that of 1977 or 1989.
  • Looking beyond

  • The endeavour by the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) leader, K. Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR), to float a Federal Front may be a non-starter, but in Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party alliance without the Congress raises a valid question: Is there a space beyond the BJP and the Congress in the Indian polity today? Indeed, a vast political space does exist outside their social bases. This is partly because the best days of the Congress, India’s grand old party, are over.
  • It does not imply that the Congress won’t win more seats or even lead a coalition government, but its revival seemingly will be driven more by forces of anti-incumbency. The Congress is unlikely to form a national government on its own in the coming decades. On the other hand, a general disapproval of the BJP’s toxic politics does exist, led by a dominant social coalition particularly in regions where a credible alternative is presented, as was the case with the AAP’s victory in Delhi and later by the Lalu-Nitish Kumar coalition in Bihar in 2015, both at the height of the Modi wave.
  • The TRS is a dynastic party. Therefore, Mr. Rao’s attempt to weave a coalition of other regional dynastic parties would barely pass as a serious alternative ideologically to what the Congress or the BJP have offered already. If Mr. Rao’s adventure worked out, it would be an extension of the dominant populism that prevails today. Parties that do not allow internal democracy cannot be sincere champions of democracy, and the political elites who use dynastic veto to throttle the legitimate aspirations of its new generation of leaders cannot be serious advocates of equality of opportunities. Both run against the spirit of the Constitution and tenets of liberal democracy. Therefore, what Mr. Rao appears to be offering is more a case of old wine in a new bottle.
  • Shift to the right

  • Since 2014, scholars have argued that India has moved right ideologically. Let us not blame Indian voters for this shift because they waited for decades for the non-Congress space to be occupied by a secular coalition. Sadly, none of the coalitions that emerged victorious in 1977, 1989 or 1996 lasted for long. If they had, the BJP might have remained a regional outfit. When V.P. Singh was confronted by the media during the post-Babri Masjid period for his hypocrisy in characterising the BJP as a fascist party — it had backed his government in 1989 — he explained that the decision by the National Front government of taking outside support of the BJP was based on the understanding that the BJP would emerge as a weakened force, as was the case with the Jan Sangh during the 1977 anti-Emergency coalition. As it turned out, it was the V.P. Singh-led political formation that imploded.
  • Scholars will endlessly debate if having the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Jan Sangh as part of an anti-Emergency coalition gave a new lease of life and legitimacy to the Hindu right. But the fact is the Hindu right emerged deeply demoralised in 1980 when the Janata Party coalition imploded and consequently Atal Bihari Vajpayee was opposed to the Jan Sangh’s revival in any shape or form. It was the determination and persistence of L.K. Advani that finally persuaded Vajpayee to come along and help set up the BJP in 1980.
  • The fact that the Jan Sangh was revived under a completely new name indicates that there was a realisation among its leaders that it had lost is brand value. Jayaprakash Narayan (JP), it is worth recalling, did make serious efforts to persuade the RSS to give up on the idea of a Hindu Rashtra and create space for Muslims, though the RSS remained unmoved, which devastated JP.
  • The vote share riddle

  • While the social capital of the Hindu right might have increased today, Indian voters are yet to embrace its extreme agenda to the extent to vote it to power in New Delhi. In 2014, Indian voters embraced the BJP only on the development plank and many have found themselves in a trap. Clearly, instead of a Third Front there is a need for a First Front to confront the challenge that the Hindu right poses to India’s secular polity.
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    Road through Rome?

    Italy’s proposed endorsement of the BRI highlights the dilemmas within the EU

  • Italy’s plan to endorse the Belt and Road Initiative, the first such move by a G7 member, will boost China’s global ambitions. In turn, this highlights the difficulties facing the EU and the U.S. in formulating a concerted response to counter China’s growing might. On its inception in 2013, the BRI envisaged linking about 65 countries along a modern Silk Road, the transformation of China into a high-income economy and the renminbi’s elevation into a global currency. Today, it has expanded to over 80 countries, mostly least developed and developing economies, as Beijing seeks to bolster its Made in China 2025 industrial policy. The lure of the BRI is attributed largely to the informal nature of the deals Beijing negotiates with partner-states, with attractive loan terms and sans political strings. Their opaque nature has spurred criticism that recipients risk being pushed into a debt trap. But the glitches facing some of the BRI infrastructure projects have merely led to calls for renegotiation rather than their roll-back. The BRI has moved forward, along with Beijing’s other venture, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Many Central and Eastern European countries, EU members and aspirants alike, are part of the “16+1” group, which includes China, collaborating in infrastructure ventures.
  • However, Italy, an EU founder-member, will be the first major developed economy to participate in the BRI. Rome’s ruling eurosceptic and anti-establishment coalition has been enthusiastic in signing on. Its timing is seen to have something to do with the difficulties the government has faced in balancing its growth targets with the EU’s stringent fiscal norms. These tensions surfaced in recent negotiations with Brussels that led to a revised Italian budget. Italy is counting on its BRI endorsement to boost investment in it, given recent reductions in Chinese outflows into the EU. Rome is expected to sign an MoU to participate in the mammoth endeavour during a visit this month of President Xi Jinping. Italy’s move comes at a moment of increasing concern in European capitals, especially Paris and Berlin, to counter Chinese mergers and acquisitions of European firms to protect the bloc’s strategic economic sectors. The Trump administration has, in keeping with its America First policy, invoked national security provisions rarely deployed in international trade and targeted Beijing with punitive import tariffs, ostensibly to protect domestic industries. China’s phenomenal economic expansion since joining the WTO in 2001 has almost altered the global landscape. But attempts to block Chinese businesses may prove short-sighted. Instead, Western democracies should strive to live up to their repeated pledges, since the 2007-08 global financial crisis, to eschew protectionism and promote rules-based open and free global competition.
  • Strange turn

    The Supreme Court’s attempt at mediation in the Ayodhya dispute is incongruous

  • Mediation, especially when it is at the instance of a court, is a welcome option for those embroiled in protracted civil disputes. A compromise could indeed be preferable to an order that may leave one side aggrieved. However, it is questionable whether this principle can be applied to all disputes and in all situations. The Supreme Court’s order appointing three mediators to find a solution to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute is quite strange and incongruous, given that all such previous attempts have ended in failure. Further, the case is ripe for final hearing, and not all parties favoured mediation. The dispute over the site at Ayodhya, where a 16th century mosque stood until it was torn down by Hindutva fanatics in December 1992, has remained intractable since 1949. After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the President referred to the Supreme Court the question whether there was a temple to Lord Ram before the mosque was built at the site. The court, in a landmark decision in 1994, declined to go into that question. More important, it revived the title suits and, thereby, restored due process and the rule of law. The present attempt by the Supreme Court to give mediation a chance within a narrow window of eight weeks goes against the spirit of the 1994 decision. After all, it was that verdict that made possible the 2010 judgment of the Allahabad High Court, which favoured a three-way split of the site among Ram Lalla, the Sunni Wakf Board and the Nirmohi Akhara, which is under appeal.
  • A welcome feature of the court-mandated mediation attempt is that it will not consume much time; the same eight weeks are needed for preparation for the final hearing. The confidentiality rule will be helpful as none would want the atmosphere to be vitiated by premature disclosures when the country is in election mode. However, the inclusion of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar as one of the mediators is controversial. In the past, he has made remarks to the effect that Muslims ought to give up their claim and that the failure to find a negotiated settlement will result in “civil war”. It is true that the prolonged problem has had an adverse impact on the body politic and some “healing” is required. But the injury to the country’s secular fabric was caused by fanatical Hindutva groups that launched a revanchist campaign on the plea that some temples had been turned into mosques by invaders. The only way to heal this festering wound on the body politic is to render complete justice not only in the civil case, but also for the criminal act of the demolition. No one must be left with the impression that the exercise is aimed at privileging the faith-based argument that the mosque stood at the exact spot where Lord Ram was born over the legal question on who holds the title to the land.
  • When Bandipur burned

    The forest fire that erupted in Bandipur Tiger Reserve last month devastated hundreds of acres of pristine forest. R. Krishna Kumar and E.M. Manoj report on the mammoth effort that went into containing the fire and the need to upgrade fire-fighting capabilities

  • In the first week of October 2018, as the southwest monsoon retreated from south Karnataka, the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, located 80 km south of Mysuru, was a sight to behold. Nature lovers flocked to take in its endless vistas of hillocks draped in a canopy of green.
  • The Bandipur Tiger Reserve is flanked by the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary in Kerala and the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu. It is home to nearly 570 tigers, according to the ‘Status of Tigers in India, 2014’ report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority. These tigers share the forest with elephants, dholes, leopards and other mammals, making the tiger reserve an ecological hotspot.
  • But this idyll began to change by the end of December. When the northeast monsoon failed, it set alarm bells ringing in the Forest Department. Ambadi Madhav, then Field Director of the Bandipur Tiger Reserve, began to worry. “The forest looks luxurious, but it could become an inferno this summer. The abundance of leaf litter and dry shrubs provides an ideal condition for wildfire,” he said in January. His staff raced against time to clear the dry vegetation through controlled burning in different parts of the forest along what is known as the fire line. A standard practice in all national parks and wildlife sanctuaries across the country, this reduces the amount of combustible material in the forest and minimises the intensity of the fire in case of an outbreak.
  • By mid-December, the deciduous forests of Bandipur filled with dry Lantana camara — an invasive weed that covers almost 50% of the 912.04 sq km reserve — had become a powder keg. It was a similar scenario in Wayanad and Mudumalai too. In both these reserve forests, fewer fire incidents in the last two years had led to an accumulation of combustible material. “The rise in temperature coupled with the dearth of summer rains had turned the entire forest area into a tinderbox,” says N.T. Sajan, Warden at the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary.
  • D. Rajkumar of the Wildlife Conservation Foundation, Mysuru, says erratic weather was a major factor. Apart from rainfall in November/December, dew and mist during winter serve as an insulation against an early outbreak of fire, he says. “The temperature at Gopalaswamy Betta (GS Betta) in Bandipur can dip to 12°C in winter. But there were barely 15-20 days that witnessed such temperatures this winter, as against the average of 40 days. This added to the moisture stress,” says Rajkumar.
  • Contrary to popular perception, most forest fires in India are man-made. They are either acts of negligence or stoked deliberately, says M.S. Ravikumar, Assistant Conservator of Forests, Bandipur subdivision. “Three persons arrested in this case subsequently confessed that they started the fire. They wanted to burn the habitat in the hope that wild animals, especially elephants, would move away in search of fodder and not venture near their villages.”
  • How the fire spread

  • The first major fire was reported around noon on February 21, at Bandipur’s Kundukere range. It was brought under control within hours. But there were sporadic incidents of fire on the night of February 22 as well at Melukamanahalli, after which NGOs and volunteers were roped in to assist the field staff. The severity of the fire incidents increased on February 23. Thanks to windy weather, the conflagration raged on for two days. The forest authorities then asked for Indian Air Force choppers, which were pressed into service on February 25. With help from the choppers, the wildfire was finally contained on February 26.
  • Soumya, a field staff stationed at the Melukamanahalli forest post, recalls the wildfire with a shudder. “A huge wall of fire blazed through the dry vegetation. Withering bamboo stumps exploded and shot up in the air, spreading the flame further. By the time we managed to contain the fire in one patch of the forest, it had spread to other parts.” By February 24, the leaping flames had spread from Melukamanahalli to the GS Betta range, reducing a vast swathe of the forest to ashes. GS Betta, which draws hundreds of tourists during weekends, is prefixed with the moniker ‘Himavad’, an allusion to the cloud and mist that envelops the landscape. But it was fire and smoke that greeted the firefighters and volunteers who approached it in the last week of February.
  • For Shailendra Kumar, Range Forest Officer of the Maddur forest range in Bandipur, wildfires are not a new challenge. “I have battled them almost every year since I joined the Forest Department nearly 15 years ago. But what unfolded in GS Betta was intense, made worse by the thick carpet of dry leaves and foliage,” he says.
  • It was on February 21 evening that Kumar first received information about a fire in the GS Betta range, and since it was a minor break out, it was doused within an hour. But even before the fire-fighting team could wind up their operations, they received an SOS to assist in dousing a massive fire in the Kundukere range, approximately 18 km from GS Betta. This fire gained in intensity before the team could reach there.
  • “Additional staff from the adjoining Bandipur range were deployed. Six teams were constituted. They fanned out. Working through the night, they managed to contain it by dawn,” says Ravikumar.
  • Little did they know that this was only the beginning of a long-drawn battle. On February 22, there were fresh fires adjoining GS Betta. The authorities realised that this was an emergency as a fire atop a hill can travel in no time and hit the valley below. The Maddur range borders GS Betta and the inferno could devastate the core forest of the tiger reserve, if not stopped.
  • The field staff, equipped with sprinklers and jeeps strapped with water containers, began their patrol around Kardikal Betta (which is 3 km from GS Betta) and the road bordering the Maddur range. If the fire crossed the dividing road, then Maddur, and with it the core of Bandipur, could go up in flames. Wayanad, which borders Moolehole, would also be in danger and was therefore put on alert. Though the authorities at the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary appear to have avoided a catastrophe for now, given the drought-like situation in the region, the looming threat of wildfire remains.
  • But in Bandipur it was only getting worse. On February 23, as the team continued its battle against the fire, smoke billowing from the far horizon brought to light signs of fresh fires. So this was not just an isolated wildfire raging on the forest fringes but multiple fires wreaking destruction across the landscape. Clearly, the available manpower was inadequate to contain it. So volunteers and conservation activists were sounded out for assistance. Quickly, about 400-500 of them responded, and were deployed in different ranges to help the firefighters.
  • As the fire threatened to spread to Mudumalai, a similar number of people, including NGOs, joined hands with officials in the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve to contain the fire. They worked round the clock, according to A. Pushpakaran, Deputy Director (Buffer Zone), Mudumalai Tiger Reserve.
  • Help from tribals

  • For the volunteers in Bandipur, the hillocks proved to be a challenge. The steep cliffs and the air heavy with smoke made breathing difficult. Even masks weren’t much of a help. The volunteers could get no closer than 100 metres from the fire, recalls Rajkumar, a wildlife warden in Bandipur. But they wouldn’t give up. Volunteers Nathanie Hill and Arun Kumar are avid travellers who are also interested in drone photography. “Bandipur is a place we worship. When we learned about the fire and the need for volunteers, we decided to put our hobby of flying drones to good use,” says Hill.
  • “The volunteers brought their own set of skills, which bolstered our fire-fighting capabilities. With a drone, we had an eye in the sky to detect smoke in a radius of 3 km,” says B.P. Ravi, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, who was among the senior officials coordinating the operations.
  • However, the first line of defence against forest fires are the tribals, drawn mainly from the Jenu Kuruba, Soliga, and Betta Kuruba tribes. About 400 of them were deployed as fire-watchers, and if not for them, the damage would have been far greater, say officials, underlining the importance of involving local communities in forest conservation initiatives.
  • Windy weather made the task of containing the flames almost impossible. But as the wind velocity subsided a little, volunteers closed in to clear the shrubs. With the help of the tribals, they created a bald patch of land to starve off the approaching wall of fire. “The normal wind speed in the region is around 5 km per hour. But during the wildfire, it was around 15 km per hour, and that was the root cause of the inferno,” says C. Jayaram, who retired recently as the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife).
  • On February 25, the fire team noticed more plumes of smoke drifting across the landscape, threatening to engulf the forests to the west of GS Betta, up to Maddur and Moolehole.
  • By then it had become a do-or-die situation. If Maddur and Moolehole were affected, the wildfire could spread to Wayanad as well. It was then that the assistance of IAF choppers was sought. Two MI-17 helicopters were pressed into service the same day at 2.30 p.m. Between them, they did about 10 sorties on February 25, pouring out nearly 30,000 litres of water, which helped a great deal in containing the fire. The firefighting staff on the ground gained the upper hand for the first time. This signalled a turning point in the fight. “The aerial operations continued on February 26, but were withdrawn after two more sorties as we had managed to contain the fire by then,” recalls Ravi.
  • Despite the manpower and resources deployed, Ravi felt something was missing. He decided to seek assistance of a different kind. He turned to Ameya Gode, Director, Silvanus Earth Observation, Pune, known for his expertise in the analysis of satellite imagery. “Based on satellite data, he tracked the direction of the fire all through the night. He informed us of potential new fire spots based on the wind direction and the nature of the vegetation in those areas. This helped us prepare adequately. We identified the beats where the fire spots were located and organised our forces accordingly,” says Ravi.
  • Damage assessment

  • Satellite images have brought out the extent of the damage caused by the inferno. The National Remote Sensing Centre, Hyderabad, recently released a report based on Sentinel-2 satellite data, which revealed that in Bandipur alone, 15,443.27 acres were damaged by the fire between February 23 and 25. Wildlife Scientist M. D. Madhusudan of the Nature Conservation Foundation estimates that 17,000 acres (or 70 sq km of forest) were affected as the National Remote Sensing Centre did not consider damage in revenue land, which is administratively part of Bandipur. In Wayanad, the fire ravaged nearly 295 acres of forest wealth, while in Mudumalai, officials pegged the fire-damaged forest area at 123 acres. There are no estimates yet of the number of casualties in the fire. Wildlife officials say that while bigger mammals like tigers and leopards may have fled the Bandipur Tiger Reserve and taken refuge in neighbouring areas, reptiles, which are slow-moving, would have borne the brunt.
  • Given the fact that wildfires have been a part of the forest ecosystem, a section of scientists and conservationists say that forest fires are not all that bad since they help regenerate the vegetation. Besides, there is a perception among officials that small and controlled fires may be necessary to reduce the piling up dry leaf, dead and decaying wood, and lantana. If that is not done, the next fire could be even bigger, they warn.
  • These views have sparked a new debate, with conservationists cautioning that frequent and uncontrolled fires could be a disaster for the habitat. A joint report of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change and the World Bank, titled ‘Strengthening Forest Fire Management in India’, released in 2018 observes that “repeated fires in short succession are reducing species richness and harming natural regeneration.”
  • Wildlife biologist Sanjay Gubbi points out that Bandipur and the adjoining forests have a history of recurring fires. “Uncontrolled forest fires over vast areas not only destroy habitats and food sources of wildlife but also kill smaller mammals, ground-nesting birds (such as pipits, lapwings, nightjars, quails), insects, and reptiles. The valuable leaf litter accumulated on the forest floor, which acts as natural manure for trees and plants, is also destroyed,” he says.
  • Studies conducted by the Kerala Forest Research Institute in the fire-affected forests of Wayanad and the grasslands of Parambikulam and Eravikulam validate these concerns. They show that the forest soil receives temporary nutrient enrichment from the burning but reverts to a lower nutrient content than before within a short span.
  • Moreover, forest areas frequently affected by fire show an erosion of soil, floral and faunal diversity. They are also more vulnerable to the spread of alien invasive plants, says S. Sandeep, Scientist, Department of Soil Science, Sustainable Forest Management Division, Kerala Forest Research Institute.
  • In the case of Bandipur, there is a clear danger of homogenisation of the habitat, with fire-resistant species such as Anogeissus latifolia and Cassia fistula taking over the landscape, says Gubbi.
  • A wake-up call

  • At the moment, forest officials in Kerala are most concerned by the prospect of a large-scale exodus of wild animals from Bandipur to Wayanad, especially elephants and gaurs, says B.N. Anjan Kumar, Chief Conservator of Forest (Wildlife), Palakkad.
  • Though migration is common during the months of February and March, forest fires accentuate the process, says Gubbi. Fire engulfs and burns the natural food sources of herbivores such as elephants, spotted deer, and gaur, preparing the ground for mass migration. Lack of adequate natural fodder in the forests could escalate human-animal conflict. Elephants could end up venturing into agricultural fields to devour standing crops, he adds.
  • While everyone takes stock of the damage, they all agree that this year’s Bandipur fire is a wake-up call that underscores the need for a fresh look at our fire-fighting mechanisms. Currently, these are primarily based on clearing vegetation along fire lines during the winter. But what is needed is a template for coordination with outside agencies, including NGOs and scientists.
  • “A standard operating procedure will be drafted to ensure that, in the future, the department is better prepared in terms of men, materials, and coordination,” says Ravi, adding that a fire drill should be held every January, apart from regular interaction with local villagers and tribes on the subject of fire control.
  • “Preventing large-scale fires is more vital,” says Gubbi. “It is better than scurrying around after they break out. Timely and proactive preparation with local involvement much before the fire season starts is crucial.”
  • Meanwhile, unseasonal rains have brought some welcome relief after the fire. But the daytime temperatures are still hovering around 36 degrees. With large swathes of the Bandipur forests still dry, the risk of wildfires will continue to haunt the authorities until the southwest monsoon sets in again. And that’s still a good three months away.