The fire in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve in Karnataka was finally extinguished after five long days of work by firemen, forest department officials and volunteers on Tuesday. Now, activists on the ground have alleged negligence on four grounds by senior forest officials posted in the area.
The fire primarily affected three ranges— Gopalaswamy Betta, Bandipur and Kundikere – and engulfed large tracts of forest land which will take decades to grow back, according to IFS officers and naturalists. While Forest Minister Satish Jarkiholi on Monday said that 2,000 hectares were affected, unofficial estimates peg the damage to close to 7,000 hectares.
Two activists that TNM spoke to have accused authorities of negligence on the following grounds.
1) The primary allegation, especially against the respective Range Forest Officers in the three ranges, is absence of basic fire lines. A fire line is a gap in vegetation or other combustible material in the forest. This gap acts as a hinderance to slow or stop the progress of a wildfire.
An activist well versed with the functioning of the department claimed, “Basic fire lines were not in place – they are the most standard and basic work needed to prevent a forest fire from spreading. This is major negligence that is criminal in nature.”
This was corroborated by a highly placed source in the forest department. The source said, “It has come to my notice. When we went to the jungle, I did not see fire lines anywhere, sometimes throughout vast stretches. This will be thoroughly investigated.”
2) Another major allegation is the lack of adequate deployment of forest fire watchers usually employed by the department in the summer. The activist claimed, “Errant officials often create false bills and pocket the money by using their regular forest guards, and do not employ additional people during the season when forest fires are likely.”
He added, “The funds could have been utilised for putting pump blowers and water tankers in place to take care of emergencies. But we were still using stone age techniques to counter the fire.”
3) Satellite warnings and centralised information systems sent by the Indian Forest Survey were allegedly overlooked by officials. There’s also an allegation that senior fire officials volunteered to help the situation after knowing the development from TV channels, as they were not alerted by forest department.
4) Bandipur allegedly did not have a dedicated field director and was managed by a person holding dual posts who was stationed in Mysuru. A senior IFS officer claimed that this worsened the situation at the time of crisis.
The senior forest officer said, “You can understand what happens if a captain of a team is missing. Managing forests is a very complicated issue. This requires a great deal of management and also earning confidence of the locals.”
“These issues of fire lines and first reaction to the fire may have been dealt better with if there was a dedicated field director. But this is the situation across the state and not only in Bandipur - 112 out of 165 sanctioned IFS officers are in Bengaluru. How on earth can one expect these officers to dedicate themselves in forest protection?” he argued.
It was only on Friday that a field director for Bandipur was assigned after over two months.
Principal Chief Conservator of Forests Sridhar Punnati who was on the ground overseeing the firefighting operations conceded that there were some lapses on part of the department which compounded the disaster in addition to existing natural conditions.
“We will look into all the allegations and take action accordingly,” he told TNM.