Uttarakhand HC takes suo moto cognisance of alarming forest fires
Taking suo moto cognisance of the alarming forest fires in the state, Uttarakhand High Court on Tuesday summoned principal chief convertor of forests (PCCF) Rajiv Bhartari to explain the preparedness of the state forest department and measures that have been taken over the years. The PCCF has been directed to attend the meeting on Wednesday through video-conferencing.
Dushyant Mainali, an advocate, said he had mentioned the raging forest in the state before the HC on Monday, following which the court took cognisance and heard the matter on Tuesday.
“The court said it understands that measures are being taken now, but what about the preparedness and measures taken before the forest fires to check them. The PCCF will have to explain this to the court at 10 am during the hearing on Wednesday through video-conferencing”, he said.
Mainali said he also submitted various documents and media reports, including one by HT, before the court. “The court also expressed its concern over the smoke that is emanating from the forest fires and affecting the locals, especially during Covid times when many patients face breathing problems,” he said.
Mainali said he also raised the issue of the 2004 state government order that had talked about community participation on a major level through van panchayats for checking forest fires in the state.
This is not the first time when the courts have expressed their concerns about forest fires in the state. Taking cognisance of the raging forest fires in the state in 2016, when over 4,400 hectares of forest land had been damaged, the HC had directed the state to appoint at least 10,000 fire watchers to keep a tab on forest fire incidents and check them.
In May 2018, the HC while taking suo moto cognisance of the forest fires in the state, directed the state government to submit the details of the forest fires, the kind of damage and the steps taken by the government to prevent them. In its response, the state government informed the HC that 90% of the forest fires in the state were “manmade”. Surprised, the HC remarked, “We were very shocked to hear the reply of the government. How is it possible when people have migrated from thousands of villages, they have a role in 90% of the forest fires in the state”.
In June 2019, a public interest litigation (PIL) on forest fires in Uttarakhand highlighted that forest fires were wiping out entire species of birds, small insects and animals. The PIL, filed in the Supreme Court by a Tehri Garhwal-based advocate, stated that carbon dioxide emitted from the fires was causing heat in the hills resulting in a faster meltdown of glaciers, besides causing pollution and ecological imbalance.
The PIL sought urgent steps to protect/safeguard the forests, wildlife and birds from the forest fires in Uttarakhand and also efforts to ensure the right to a healthy environment.
Since the beginning of this year, Uttarakhand has reported 1,130 forest fire incidents that have damaged around 1,540 hectares of forest land. Till Monday evening, there were over 85 forest fires raging in the state’s hill districts, that damaged over 165 acres of forest land in the previous 24 hours. Of the 1,130 forest fire incidents reported, the maximum (269) were reported in Pauri Garhwal, followed by 116 in Tehri, 100 in Bageshwar, 94 in Pithoragarh, 93 in Almora, data provided by the state forest department states.
From 2000 to April 5 this year, the hill state has lost 49,231 hectares of forest land to forest fires.
Forest fire activity is generally reported from February to June, with a peak in fire incidence in May and June. Besides man-made, other reasons for forest fires in the state include lightning, friction from falling rocks, among others.