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Uttarakhand forest dept not to burn money on fire-watchers, says excess staff deployed last year

To cut down on expenses, the department has so far deployed two watchers at each of its 1437 crew stations, which are equipped with trained staff to meet fire emergencies

dehradun Updated: Apr 19, 2018 22:07 IST
Nihi Sharma
Nihi Sharma
Hindustan Times
Uttarakhand news,Fire-watchers,Forest dept
After the forest fire season officially began in Uttarakhand on February 15 this year, Pauri district has been the worst hit reporting 271 hectare forest cover loss, followed by Almora with 140 hectare. (HT Photo)

The Uttarakhand forest department has engaged less number of fire-watchers this year to reduce the financial burden borne on this count last year, said officials tasked with tackling wildfires.

In 2017, the department spent Rs 17 crore on 7117 fire-watchers – each got Rs 6,500 per month. The watchers were engaged for four months. In 2016, only 6000 fire-watchers were employed, though the wildfire loss was more -- 4434 hectare forest cover was destroyed compared to 1245 hectare in 2017, official data shows.

Considering the wage burden, principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF) and head of forest force (HoFF) Jai Raj has directed divisional forest officers and field directors not to engage watchers unless necessary.

“What’s the use of employing watchers when there isn’t much work for them to do,” he said. “It makes no sense to me to engage them only to tell people about a fire breakout. I have directed officials to deploy watchers only when it’s needed.”

Fire-watchers monitor fires, and sound an alarm in the event of a blaze. To cut down on expenses, the department has so far deployed two watchers at each of its 1437 crew stations, which are equipped with trained staff to meet fire emergencies.

The monthly remuneration for a fire-watcher has been revised to Rs 7000. The forest department will spend Rs 8.04 crore on 2874 fire-watchers in four months.

A forest official said only half of the 7117 fire-watchers, engaged in 2017, could have been enough to tackle wildfire because of incessant rainfall. He said the surplus watchers became a burden on the treasury.

“We are expecting Rs 12 crore from the Centre for dousing fire. We also get support from Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA),” said Gambhir Singh, PCCF, planning and finance. “There’s no dearth of funds. But we can’t go on engaging people when they are not needed.”

Some officials have reservations about the directive to engage less fire-watchers. “Fire incidents spurt suddenly and officers do not get time to employ more people. This arrangement needs advance planning and of course a backup too,” said a senior forest official familiar with dousing operations.

Officials said showers early this month subsided the number of fire incidents in the hill state, but the situation could worsen.

“The temperature will increase in coming days, and we will require more number of people on the ground to combat the natural calamity,” said Dinesh Pandey, a Haridwar-based activist.

The department has 2600 forest guards against the sanctioned posts of 3650.

Since February 15, when the official forest fire season began, over 540 hectare forestland has been gutted causing an estimated revenue loss of over Rs 9 lakh. Pauri is the worst hit reporting over 271 hectare loss, followed by Almora with 140 hectare.

First Published: Apr 19, 2018 22:07 IST