A fiery history

Fires in India are today assumed to be almost entirely anthropogenic. The influence of human-caused fires doubtless dates back to the arrival of the first people in the subcontinent. Ethnographers have compared the centrality of the role fire has played in the life and culture of adivasis in the Andamans—and possibly adivasis elsewhere in India—with the role fire has played in the culture of the Australian aborigines. Fire was also important in the lives of the early Aryans and their livestock, with Agni, the fire god, occupying a prominent place amongst their deities.

The long history of anthropogenic fires notwithstanding, the earliest evidence for fires in the subcontinental landscape pre-dates the arrival of the first humans by several million years. It is thought that the Indian subcontinent’s collision with the rest of Asia, which created the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau, also coincided with the strengthening of the Indian monsoon. The development of this strongly seasonal climate seems to have been accompanied by the spread of C4 grasses at the expense of trees, and the arrival of large grazers, between 8 and 5.5 million years ago. Evidence from ocean sediments and fossil teeth of large grazing mammals suggests that these savanna grasslands were probably maintained by a combination of the monsoon climate, large herbivores, and fire.

Contemporary fires and fire policy

Fire continues to be a forest management tool for forest-dependent communities across the country today. This is so even though the Indian Forest Act of 1927 regards the setting of fires to be a punishable offence and makes it mandatory for all forest dwellers to assist in the prevention and control of fires. People burn for a variety of reasons, whether it is to encourage fresh fodder for grazing livestock, or to aid in the collection of non-timber forest products such as mahua and tendu, or to encourage regeneration of particular species. However, because of the prevailing ban-and-punish policy, fires today are often set surreptitiously and can become uncontrolled. There is also evidence that with shrinking forest areas and increased demographic pressures there has been a reduction in fire return intervals over the past century. And increasingly, there has been a breakdown of traditional fire management systems (e.g., in the northeast). All of this further fuels the widespread opinion that all fires are destructive and result in forest degradation. The reality, however, is probably much more nuanced.

The official policy on fire in India has been one of strict fire suppression, ever since the inception of ‘modern’ or ‘scientific’ forestry in the country in the latter part of the 19th century. At a forest conference as far back as 1875, Brandis had declared that for the improvement of Indian forests "there was no measure which equalled fire conservancy in importance”. This emphasis on fire protection attracted skepticism from both local communities, who had long used fire in their management of forests for various purposes, and surprisingly, even from within the forest department. Foresters who had empirical knowledge of the role fire played in the regeneration of important timber species such as sal, teak, and pine, were increasingly vocal about the role of fire. Thus, by 1905 a compromise was arrived at: controlled burning could be used as a silvicultural tool in forest working plans. Yet, most foresters continued to regard the use of fire in forestry as damaging, and—more significantly—as primitive.

This antipathy towards fire has lived on in post-independence India also. Controlled burning remains a tool that the forest department uses for habitat management, or to prevent wildfires, but all other uses of fire are strictly prohibited. (See, for example, The National Forest Policy, 1988; The Pilot Project: Modern Forest Fire Control, 1985-1990; The Modern Forest Fire Control Scheme, 1992-2000; The Integrated Forest Protection Scheme 2002-2007).

Integrating ecological and cultural contexts and consequences

The approach to fire management at the policy level runs counter to the approach to fire management at the level of local, forest-dependent communities. The official position on fire also forecloses any investigation of the possibility that fire is an essential component of ecosystem dynamics in some systems. ATREE's work on fires in Indian forests is set against this backdrop of the divergent approaches to fire at the official and local-community levels.

Our engagement with the Soliga community in the BR Hills has shown that their knowledge of the ecological role of fires is very sophisticated, and that fire has played an important role in their management of the forest. Far from regarding fire as a destructive force, they recognize a number of benefits of fire for the dynamics of the forests. They also recognize the importance of the timing of fire occurrence, distinguishing beneficial early-dry-season fires—for which they have a particular name, the tharagu benki—from the more severe and destructive fires that occur later in the dry season. Given this background, any attempt to manage this landscape, and possibly other landscapes like it, cannot but engage with its fire history.

ATREE has helped to form a collaborative network of people who work on fires in Indian forests . The overall goal of the partners involved in this network is to try and understand the ecological, socioeconomic and cultural causes and consequences of fire in Indian ecosystems, and to see whether there is a way to accommodate the differing forest management goals of a diverse range of stakeholders. Prior to initiating a dialogue on forest management that takes forest fires into consideration in a more constructive way, we need to know more about the ecological impact of fire on different forest types in India, as well as their relation to the supply of ecosystem services at the local, regional and global level. (See and for student theses carried out within the framework of this project.) We have done some preliminary work on developing the tools that could enable us to assess the role of fire in people's management of forests for ecosystem services. (See an adaptation of the Multidisciplinary Landscape Assessment methodology ).

One of the main constraints to investigating the ecological effects of fire on vegetation structure and composition is the lack of reliable fire records that could provide information about past fire occurrences. The availability of MODIS satellite data held out a promise for a solution to this problem, given its high temporal resolution and its free availability online. We have used existing ground-based fire maps from the BR Hills to test the accuracy of MODIS data as a first step towards reconstructing fire histories. Unfortunately, despite the increasingly widespread use of MODIS data in the fire literature, we found very poor correspondence between MODIS-derived fire information and our ground-based fire maps. This could be because the understory fires characteristic of most dry forest environments in India are either not hot enough or not large enough to be detected by MODIS (See summary of MODIS work ) We need to explore other ways of detecting fires that could be applied over large scales.

Engaging policy makers and managers

Today it is estimated that about half of all forests in India continue to be prone to fires of varying frequency annually. (Given under-reporting of fire occurrences, the reliability of such estimates is questionable, however.) In 2007, a national workshop on forest fires was organized jointly by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and ATREE, and attended by senior forest officials from across the country. The overall objective of this meeting was a rethinking of forest fires, given the advances made in knowledge regarding the ecological significance of forest fires over the past century, globally.
Significantly (for a group that primarily comprised forest officials trained to regard fires as detrimental) the participants recognized that fires could be beneficial in certain contexts, whether ecologically or socio-economically. Among the recommendations to emerge from the workshop were those that called for

  1. The need for in-depth research on the ecological consequences of fire in different biogeographic zones and ecosystem types;
  2. The need for in-depth research and monitoring of the socio-economic drivers of forest fires in order to manage fires in a manner appropriate for specific biogeographic zones and ecosystem types; and
  3. The need to raise awareness and sensitize various constituencies to the roles and impacts of fire, both detrimental and beneficial.

The workshop also recommended setting up a fire-monitoring system nationally, recognizing that reliable information on fire was necessary not only for forest management, but increasingly, to equip us with information necessary for our participation in international negotiations pertaining to climate change.

Future plans

We are working towards change in the current thinking and practice regarding fire in ecosystems, so forest managers move away from the present ban-and-punish policies to forest management that regards fires in a more nuanced and constructive light. We will need to back this recommendation with research that better demonstrates the impact that fire has on different forest types in India. We will also need to know the relationship of fire to the supply of ecosystem services at local, regional and global scales.

Ongoing work on fire at ATREE includes systems dynamics modeling that draws on findings from an experimental investigation on the effects of fire on forest regeneration. The experimental work was done within the context of a larger community-based forest restoration effort by the Foundation for Ecological Security in the Sadhukonda Reserve Forest in Andhra Pradesh. The objective of this modeling effort is to explore different scenarios of fire management, to see whether people's use of fire for the management of certain forest products (e.g., fodder, thatch grass, tendu leaves) can coexist with forest regeneration to restore the other services (e.g., carbon sequestration, soil and water conservation) that these forests also provide. Such investigations would be valuable across the numerous other joint-forest management contexts in India, well beyond the bounds of Sadhukonda alone.

Further reading

Also of interest

Team members

Ankila Hiremath, Kiran M.C., Jagdish Krishnaswamy, C. Made Gowda, Madhura Niphadkar, Nitin Rai, Siddappa Setty, Bharath Sundaram