Employees of the Uttarakhand forest department are risking their lives while fighting the massive wildfires that have engulfed almost all the 13 districts in the hill state.
Over 6,000 personnel, who have been deployed to control the forest fires, are working without basic protection gear like firefighting uniforms, extinguishers and even medicines.
Thirty-five-year-old Subhash, a daily wage employee with the forest department, received 45% burn injuries while handling the fire at the Gohri range of the Rajaji Tiger Reserve (RTR) on Sunday. His face and legs were severely injured. Another guard reported 20% burns.
“The department is giving us away as fire offerings. We don’t have firefighting uniforms that can save us from the blaze,” Ramesh Kothiyal, Gohri range forester, told Hindustan Times.
Over 2,550 hectare of forest area has been gutted in the forest fires leading to a revenue loss of Rs 2.5 lakh in 1,218 incidents until the filing of this report. Garhwal has been the worst hit where 1200 hectares have been damaged, followed by 800 hectares in Kumaon and 560 hectares in wildlife areas.
According to the department, three people have been killed in the fires and 13 have been injured. However, field workers say the number of people injured is more.
“Every day, at least one of our staff or a daily wager is getting injured in the forest fire. But, officers aren’t reporting it. They have to show only fewer details before the central government takes cognizance of their negligence. I feel Human Rights Commission should rope in the officials for their careless attitude towards the personnel,” RR Painuly, general secretary forest guards association, told Hindustan Times.
With only fire beaters and green bushes to cut fire lines in the burning hills, the guards say they are more vulnerable.
“The department is so aggressive to save green cover that they have made no emergency preparations for us. We move around the forest without medicines and even drinking water,” MS Negi from Chamoli said.
The department has a corpus of Rs 8 lakh from Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) and the state government and has sent a proposal to the Centre demanding Rs 27 crore for buying water tankers and firefighting equipment besides two helicopters for aerial monitoring.
No steps, however, have been taken to provide firefighting uniform and insurance to the deployed personnel.
“We haven’t provided firefighting uniform to the personnel. However, we are seeking funds to provide them salaries and other infrastructure,” Jai Raj, principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF) planning and finance, said.