Raging Fires in the ‘Holy’ Forests of Chitrakoot

Angry, orange flames seemed to leap off these screaming headlines in the newsprint less than a week ago, when some of the biggest newspapers circulating in Uttar Pradesh made sure they lost no time in making associations with epics in the ‘big, breaking’ news story.

Almost an annual affair in the jungles of Chitrakoot – known from legend and myths as Devangana, where Ram, Sita and Lakshman spent their exile years – the forest fires this year broke out on March 31st in several of the district’s forests, including Bargadh, Lauri, Marjadpur, Devangana, Siddhpur, Kol Gadhaiya, Simariya Rihutiya Khoh. They spread fast as is their wont, and in under two days’ time, the threats of the fires reaching adjoining villages, kasbahs and even towns became very, very real.

A walk around Semariya Charandasi, one of the villages close to Devangana, is a study in understanding sudden exodus – how its residents have, over the past 24 to 48 hours, prepared for a quick exit. Ajay, the local kiranashop owner, however, told us that it’s been the manic squawking of birds that has been the strongest clue of impending doom these past few days, “They are all fleeing, their eggs have perished,” he said. A curious phenomenon this year has been the spike in people braving the fires for taking selfies and photographs in Devangana – undoubtedly, the result of the headlines!

Mehnunisha, another Semariya Charandasi resident, is worried about strong winds blowing in the directions of their homes. “By the time they send for help, our houses will be razed down to the ground. Sab kuch khaak ho jayega (Everything will turn into ashes).” Mehnunisha, like others in her village, has been living in fear for the past 72 hours. Udhav Prasad Yadav, spoke of the regularity of the “natural phenomenon”, but added that it’s been “very dangerous this time, because our village is right next to the forest.”

In Chitrakoot, the months of April to June have traditionally been peak season for blistering heat waves and mysterious forest fires– mysterious because the causes remain mostly unknown, or rather there are several causes; Rashomon-like, the version you get depends on who or which stakeholder you’re speaking to.

Several off-the-record bytes we compiled during the reporting of this story blamed the impetus of the fire to errant beedis and cigarettes. But R.K. Tripathi, the forest officer, blamed it on local myth and superstition. Between attending to an incessantly ringing mobile phone, he said, “There is a long-standing belief among the people here that if you burn the forests at this time, then the new growth will be newer, better, fresher. So, they start the fires themselves, and they [the fires] go out of control quickly.”

Year after year, according to Tripathi, the locals are unable to connect their acts with the destruction it causes – the obliteration of forest animals, primarily snakes, monkeys, rabbits and squirrels, by the thousands, not to mention the dangers to human life. However, even if that is the case, there have been no awareness drives in the region, or any other form of preventive measures undertaken by the authorities – although the new regime has been the quickest on their feet.

The recently-appointed Chitrakoot district magistrate (DM) Vishakh G. became an overnight sensation when he went on an aerial survey of the forests himself and took a historic call of appointing aerial help. There were deft consolations with the top brass, helicopters were called in and flown over the forests to throw water onto the flames. The ‘prakritik aapda’ (natural disaster) – one of the preferred sensationalist terms used by the local media – was quietened after close to three days of raging and burning. Though the district magistrate office did not wish to comment on the situation, the entire event has been recorded as a well-earned laurel on the shoulders of the young DM. After all, an annual event that has been a sign of possible disaster for many years has been dealt with. At least until the next time.

Naznin, senior reporter at Khabar Lahariya, who has been following the story, and a resident of Karwi, Chitrakoot herself, did not have to second-guess herself when she put down her official byte. “This is the mahua-bhinna season, when the mahua fruits fall. The people who collect the fruits and flowers and sell them, or use them to make sherbet, and/or other profit-making enterprises, gather together dry leaves and twigs and set them aflame. They do this so that there is a clearing in the middle of the forest, where the mahua flowers and fruits can fall, and be spotted easily.”

As she filed the report, the ‘aag ka taandav’ raged on in mainstream news reports – long after the actual fires were doused.

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