India is burning.
Well, large parts of it are burning. There have been more forest fires in the first four drought-stricken months of 2016 than in each of the entire previous three years, the Ministry of Environment said this week.
A combination of high temperatures and extremely dry weather – conditions linked to the weather phenomenon El Niño – have turned India into a tinderbox.
At least 20,667 forest fire incidents have already been recorded this year. There were 15,937 fires recorded in all of 2015, and 19,054 the year before that.
"The fires have been the worst in recent history"
Fires raging over the past three months have consumed almost 3,500 hectares of forest in the northeastern state of Uttarakhand. Sphere India, a coalition of humanitarian agencies, says at least six people have been killed from the fires in that state.
Along with weather conditions, some blame the government for failing to respond to the fires before it was too late.
"The fires have been the worst in recent history, more so because the forest department was not concerned when they were starting out, but now they're too big to control," Praveen Kaushal, director of the Society for Promotion of Himalayan Indigenous Activities, told IRIN by phone from the town of Dehradun in Uttarakhand.
Officials from the Forestry Department did not answer phone calls.
The searing temperatures and dry weather have also been blamed for fires in urban areas and villages. Last week, 100 homes were gutted in Kakinada, a town in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh. In the eastern state of Bihar, 66 people lost their lives in fires in six villages over the past fortnight.
The Bihar State government has imposed a ban on cooking in villages between 9 am and 6 pm. Religious ceremonies using fire are also banned, and violators may be jailed.
The heat is unlikely to ease up soon, as May is traditionally India’s hottest month. Temperatures have soared as high as 47.2 degrees Celsius over the past few weeks, and the government says the heat has killed more than 300 people, including 219 in southern Telangana State.
The Central Water Commission reports that major reservoirs are 79 percent empty, and the government has posted armed guards at some to deter desperate farmers from taking water to try and save their dying crops.
The government has been criticised for its response to the drought, which it said has affected about 330 million people in a third of the country’s districts.
Last week, a group of more than 150 leading economists, activists and academics wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying: “The response of central and state administrations to looming drought is sadly listless, lacking in both urgency and compassion."
The signatories noted the devastating effect of the drought on the rural poor.
While conditions have become worse over the past few months, farmers in some parts of India have been dealing with drought for three years. Yet, the signatories said in the letter, the government has done little to implement the National Food Security Act, which would have provided more than 80 percent of families in poorer states with half their monthly cereal requirements.
Years of drought and little help have driven some farmers to despair. This year, 338 farmers have committed suicide in Maharashtra State’s Marathwada region alone, according to the central government’s Relief and Rehabilitation Department.
For those who have been trying to coax a harvest out of the parched earth for three years, many are hoping the drought will end when the monsoon rains arrive in June, and douse the fires and fill the reservoirs too.