Precious forests should be saved from hazards of fire: Supreme Court

The top court was hearing an application filed by senior advocate Rajiv Dutta on raging forest fires in Uttarakhand

Wildfires across the forest in Uttarakhand's Rudraprayag (photo courtesy: Kalpana Mehra)
Wildfires across the forest in Uttarakhand's Rudraprayag (photo courtesy: Kalpana Mehra)


Precious forests should be saved from the hazards of forest fires, the Supreme Court said on Friday, terming the litigation concerning the recent forest fires in Uttarakhand as "not adversarial". A bench of justices B.R. Gavai and Sandeep Mehta observed that everybody was interested only in "protecting the forests".

Appearing for the Uttarakhand government, solicitor-general Tushar Mehta informed the court about various aspects, including utilisation of funds to prevent and control forest fires, filling up vacancies in the forest department, and providing necessary equipment for fire fighting.

On the issue of equipment, the bench observed, "While statistics are filed, there are images and interviews of your forest guards. They are dousing the fire using banana leaves. It is a fact which no one can deny. We are asking questions from what we have read in the reports with images."

Mehta said, "I am not undermining whatever is printed in the media, but sometimes it may be a little hazardous to completely go by them." He added that some of the photographs shown in the reports were of forest fires in California.

"There has to be a system whereby these equipment have to be distributed in advance. If they are just lying in stocks, what is the use?" the bench also observed.

Mehta said 40,184 pieces of equipment have been provided to field crew teams of 1,429 crew stations in the state. He also apprised the bench about a scheme where villages were no forest fire are reported get some incentives.

Uttarakhand chief secretary Radha Raturi was also present in court during the hearing. The state's deputy advocate-general Jatinder Kumar Sethi also appeared for the state along with the solicitor-general.

The top court was hearing an application filed by senior advocate Rajiv Dutta, who is assisted by advocate Neha Singh, on raging forest fires in Uttarakhand.

The bench noted the solicitor-general has placed on record a report prepared by the chief secretary on behalf of the state. "As has been stated earlier, the present litigation is not an adversarial litigation. The only concern is that the precious forest should be saved from the hazards of forest fires," it said.

The bench noted the solicitor-general has assured that the chief secretary along with other senior officers were personally looking into this issue and trying to find a permanent solution to avoid forest fires and bring them under control at the earliest. "We appreciate the stand taken by the state," it said.

The bench said one of the issues raised earlier before it was regarding utilisation of Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) funds. On 15 May, the apex court had asked the chief secretary to explain why only Rs 3.4 crore was released for the financial year 2023-24 from the CAMPA fund, when the Union of India had sanctioned Rs 9.12 crore.

During the hearing, Mehta said, "It was fully utilised." He said for 2023-2024, Rs 8.96 crore was approved by national CAMPA for various activities related to forest fires and their prevention and control, and the entire money was utilised last year itself.

On the issue of vacancies in forest department, Mehta said as on 1 July 2023, the total vacancies for field staff was 1,709. He said during the last one year, 1,252 front line field staff have been appointed.

Mehta said as of 1 May, there are 942 vacancies of which 715 are for direct recruits, that is, range officers, forest guards etc, and requisition proposals have been sent to the Uttarakhand Public Service Commission and Uttarakhand subordinate service selection commission.

He said over and above the regular staff for the current fire season, an additional workforce comprising fire watchers and other daily wagers have been deployed. He also said the state has notified a policy for electricity generation from pine needles and other bio-mass, and six electricity generation units were established in different districts of the state.

Mehta said for promoting the collection of pine needles, Rs 3 per kg was being provided to local collectors, and the state has entered into an agreement with NTPC where pine needles are supplied and are being used as fuel.

He also answered the court's query about why forest personnel were deployed on election duties, in spite of a specific exemption issued by the Election Commission. He said certain field officials of the forest department were engaged in election duty owing to shortage of government staff in the districts concerned.

Mehta told the court that he, the state chief secretary, additional solicitor-general Aishwarya Bhati, who is appearing for the Centre, and advocate K. Parameshwar, assisting the bench as an amicus curiae in the matter, will sit together and work out a strategy on these issues.

"Everybody is interested only in protecting the forests," the bench said and posted the matter for hearing in September.

The status report submitted by the state said that for 2024-25, of the national CAMPA sanctioned amount of Rs 10 crore, Rs 5.25 crore stood released for firefighting measures and the remaining Rs 4.75 crore is ear-marked for forest fire prevention and control work, to be implemented in winter before next fire season in 2025.

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