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Unprecedented Wildfires To Hit Goa

Nandkumar M Kamat

In public interest I  present a simple challenge to the entire Goa state administration, from  governor to ministers, secretaries and collectors to prove that something called good governance indeed exists. Just show us that this year you can all work effectively and efficiently to prevent wildfires- from this week to end of May 2019. Even if you minimize the incidents and losses to environment, properties and crops as compared to previous years then it would be a tremendous achievement.

Government is not interested to invoke the section 13 of The GDD Fire Force act which says this “13 Preventive Measures.—(1) The Government may by notification in the Official Gazette require owners or occupiers of premises in any area or of any class of premises used which in its opinion are likely to cause risk of fire, to take such precautions as may be specified in such notifications.”

Besides under Goa Land Revenue Code and rules, 1968 and the central Disaster Management act, 2005 the Revenue Minister Rohan Khanvate also enjoy powers which could be invoked to prevent wildfires.  CrPC 133- removal of public nuisance was imaginatively used by MGP government to shut down a polluting fertilizer factory in 1977. But this section is seldom invoked to prevent wildfires.

Why take wildfires as a challenge to the government?

Because the season of wildfires has already commenced. More than 20 hectares of plantations at Goa University on Taleigao Plateau got burnt to ash last week. Reports of similar incidents are just trickling in. Their reporting frequency would increase from this week. Add elements of consistent human neglect, administrative apathy to local impacts of climate change  such as 20 per cent deficient South west monsoon rainfall and you can see what lies ahead for Goa in coming months with abnormal rise in daily maximum temperature, low relative humidity, low soil moisture, falling ground water levels, strong landward breeze, thousands of tons of heavy dry, easily inflammable  litter shed by moisture stressed trees. These are perfect conditions for unprecedented wildfires in natural and manmade ecosystems.  On basis of studies of past hot-spots of wildfire in various parts of Goa as reported by local newspapers and fire officers it can be easily predicted that from the present week till the arrival of pre monsoon showers in May 2019 Goa would be hit by historically unprecedented wildfires leading to very heavy losses of natural and manmade resources and assets. Wildfires burning wild grassy vegetation on plateaus, hills slopes, in countryside, along the roads are not new in Goa. These have increased in time, space, frequency and intensity only during past 20 years because there is complete collapse of wildfire prevention strategy and machinery.

From October 2017 to May 2018 more than 200 cashew, mango, banana, sugarcane, areca and mixed plantations were turned to ashes in eight talukas. Pernem, Sattari, Bardez, Bicholim, Salcete, Sanguem, Canacona, Tiswadi were most affected. Farmers suffered losses worth crore and were not compensated.

On January 7 this year I had alerted Revenue Minister Rohan Khanvate after a major wildfire. On February 4 again I alerted him pointing to burning of 2600 trees at Pirna. Another message followed when news of 10000 trees having been destroyed in wildfire was published. On February 5, I brought to his notice that Tiswadi revenue authorities were passive because more than 50 hectares of paddy fields near Santa Cruz caught fire and the smoke had covered the road. Another long message followed on 27 February pleading for action under disaster management act, 2005. On March 1 after news of fire to cashew plantations appeared I asked him- “What disaster management authorities are doing? Losses so far have crossed a crore. Where is the government?” On March 5 in another detail message I brought to his attention the fact that –“60 cashew plantations were burnt in Sattari, Bicholim, Pernem and Bardez talukas in past 60 days” and sent him a video showing plantation fire in Balli, Salcete.

On March 20 in my message I advised him to personally visit cashew and mango plantations spread over two lakh fifty thousand square metres burnt at Bhoma, Nanoda causing a damage of Rs 20 lakhs on March 19. The fire tender could not reach that area. Besides sending video footage of that fire I appealed him to prepare a special assistance package for farmers affected by such wildfires. Such messages were sent till arrival of the monsoon. After end of monsoon recently, on October 15, I sent him a detail note to organise a multi stakeholder meeting before Diwali festival aimed at prevention of wildfires. In my note I reminded him that since October 2006 my efforts with state government to prevent wildfires by timely coordinated microlevel actions have not borne fruits.

It must be now seen  as assured to me how revenue minister Rohan Khanvate manages to prevent the unprecedented wildfires expected ahead by ruthlessly invoking and applying all the powers in his hand to save public and private property. Nobody under our constitution can hold his hand if he moves in that direction in public interest. A major culprit in spreading wildfire is PWD which allows the wild grass and other inflammable vegetation to grow along roads and highways and waits till fires take place reducing their burden of cutting it. The agricultural department is not sympathetic and proactive in rushing to the aid of wildfire prone farming areas. In fact, we are yet to hear any positive statement of the agriculture minister about his commitment to save plantations from wildfires this season. The forest department has not shown any interest to ensure that forest areas won’t have wildfires like California and from forest edges stop the fire front spread in settlement areas.

The GIDC has no systematic plans to remove inflammable grass and dry vegetation in all the industrial estates. Wildfire prone educational campuses like Goa University, Goa Engineering College have been careless too. The civil society would soon read news items of wildfires with very high frequency and wonder whether any elected representative from a panchayat or municipal council or any MLA is interested in taking active lead to prevent such incidents. Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar centered news discourse has completely diverted public attention from real issues like wildfires destroying property and creating heavy air pollution. We are rapidly converting Goa in a state highly susceptible to lung cancers.

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