President Pranab Mukherjee expressed concern on Monday over the forest fires in Uttarakhand that gutted vast Himalayan jungles as police arrested four villagers for allegedly starting blazes.
Mukherjee’s letter triggered swift action from governor KK Paul who first briefed the President, then Prime Minister Narendra Modi and finally environment minister Prakash Javadekar on the steps taken to douse around 100 fires across 13 districts blazing for over a week. The hill state is under President’s Rule at present.
Uttarakhand additional chief secretary S Ramaswami said cases were registered against locals under the Indian Forest Act and the Indian Penal Code for burning forests as fire-fighting personnel struggled to control the blazes ravaging wildlife and vegetation in the hill state.
In the state’s Chamoli district, a 25-year-old police constable was killed while dousing a forest when a rock fell on him. Police were also asked to investigate the possibility of the timber mafia setting forests deliberately on fire. “We are investigating all possible reasons, including the timber mafia’s involvement,” a police officer said.
The blazes have razed over 2,900 hectares of lush Himalayan forestland in the past three months and killed at least four people, besides inflicting injuries on countless fire-fighting personnel. Vast tracts of the badly hit Garhwal region are engulfed in thick smoke.
Uttarakhand HC also questioned the state forest department on preparations for controlling the calamity. Under section 30 of the forest act, persons found guilty of burning forests can be sentenced 7 years imprisonment or penalty of over Rs 1 lakh. “Villagers are culprits, cases have been lodged against them,” BP Gupta, chief conservator of forest (CCF) and nodal officer, told HT.
More than 6,100 personnel and three IAF choppers have been deployed in Uttarakhand to extinguish hundreds of forest fires. But many local personnel have complained they were pressed into service without adequate gear, resulting in mounting injuries.
“The department is giving us away as fire offering. We don’t have fire fighting uniforms that could save us from blaze,” said Ramesh Kothiyal, forester Gohri range.
Summer forest fires, sometimes deliberate, are not uncommon as local residents start blazes to have new vegetation after the rains.
But villagers may have started the fires early this year — weeks before the mid-May predicted rainfall — because of a forest fodder shortage triggered by drought conditions in 11 districts, including Pauri and Pithoragarh that are the worst-hit regions.
State disaster management department said the situation will be brought under control soon as firefighting is taking place on a war footing. Officials said an IAF MI17 helicopter carrying 5,000 litres of water made 25 sorties on Sunday and Monday to douse fires in Almora and Srinagar areas.
The fire also spread to J-K and Himachal Pradesh, where summer blazes in grasslands and forests caused 378 incidents, mainly in the low hills, and destroyed flora and fauna in over 3,000 hectares. “As per the latest information, fire has been contained. Situation is under control now,” minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju told reporters in Delhi.
(With inputs from agencies)