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SC slams Uttarakhand for ‘lackadaisical’ approach in controlling forest fires

SC slams Uttarakhand for ‘lackadaisical’ approach in controlling forest fires

New Delhi: The Supreme Court has expressed its dissatisfaction with the Uttarakhand government’s efforts to control forest fires, describing the state’s approach as “lackadaisical”. The court has summoned the state’s chief secretary to appear in person on May 17 to provide explanations, including on the use of funds and vacancies in the forest department.

The court, led by Justice B R Gavai, has ordered that forest department staff and vehicles should not be used for election purposes or other events such as the ‘Char Dham Yatra’. The bench, which also includes Justices SVN Bhatti and Sandeep Mehta, criticised the state for failing to implement action plans to control the fires.

During a hearing on the ongoing forest fires in Uttarakhand, the bench questioned why only Rs 3.41 crore of the Rs 9.12 crore sanctioned by the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) for forest-related activities in Uttarakhand in 2023-24 was used. The court also questioned why the remaining funds were not used for forestry.

The bench highlighted the issue of significant vacancies in the state’s forest department. It also questioned the state’s complaint about the delayed disbursement of the national disaster management fund or state disaster management fund, noting that it is the state’s responsibility to distribute these funds.

The court pointed out the contradiction in the state’s claim of lacking resources, such as manpower and vehicles, while maintaining a large number of vacancies. The court has asked Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati to provide information on the disbursement of funds for the financial year 2023-2024.

The court noted that CAMPA funds are with the state and should be released for work carried out by the forest department. It also noted that the Election Commission has already exempted forest department officials and vehicles from election duty and other activities.

The court has ordered that forest staff and vehicles in all states should not be used for election purposes or other events like the ‘Char Dham Yatra’. It has also asked the central government to clarify its position on the timely disbursement of the national disaster management fund and funds under centrally sponsored schemes.

The chief secretary of Uttarakhand has been directed to explain why only Rs 3.4 crore of the CAMPA fund was released for the financial year 2023-24 when the central government had sanctioned Rs 9.12 crore.

He has also been asked to clarify whether the funds are being used for purposes unrelated to forest activities.

The chief secretary will also need to explain the steps being taken to release the state disaster management fund, the number of vacancies yet to be filled, the timeline for filling these vacancies, and the measures proposed to prevent fires caused by highly flammable pine needles.

He will also need to confirm whether forest personnel were deployed for election duty despite the exemption granted by the Election Commission.

The court acknowledged that senior advocate Rajiv Dutta, who has filed an application on forest fires in Uttarakhand, has reported that the Army is using pine needles in Ranikhet for power generation. Advocate Neha Singh is assisting Dutta in this matter.

The court emphasised the need for the state to make concrete decisions on these issues. During the hearing, the state’s counsel informed the court about the forest fires and the actions taken to control them.

However, the court observed that the positive picture presented by the state’s counsel at the previous hearing was not accurate.

The state’s counsel suggested that the court could form a committee, including representatives from the Central Empowered Committee, the central government, the state, and others, to propose a comprehensive approach to address the issue.

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