INDIA – NEW DELHI: Misinterpretation of a 20-year-old Supreme Court order – first by undivided Uttar Pradesh and then by Uttarakhand – led to a situation where the hilly state had to face frequent forest fires every year with a massive one being reported during February-April last year which even witnessed killing of nine persons in the devastating blaze.
This revelation was recently made by a Parliamentary panel which looked into the entire issue of forest fires in Uttarakhand and neighbouring Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir.
The panel – Parliamentary Standing Committee on science & technology and environment & forests – had during its ground visits to Uttarakhand noticed a lot of fallen chir and pine trees lying in the forests which actually act as incendiaries and enhance burning in case of a forest fire.
When enquired about the reason behind non-clearance of fallen trees, the panel was informed that the Supreme Court had through its 1996 order put a blanket ban on the removal of any tree, including the dead and fallen ones from the forests.
On scrutiny it was, however, found out that the apex court had, in fact, prohibited salvaging of dead and fallen trees from the protected forest areas – National Parks and Wildlife Sanctuaries – only for the conservation of biodiversities in that area. The Court had, in fact, clearly permitted to remove or salvage the dead and fallen trees in any forest area in accordance with working plan as approved by the central government.
Accordingly, the state governments are obliged to make a proposal for removal of such trees and get it approved by the Centre so that it can clear the forests. The state – first UP and then Uttarakhand – had, however, remained under wrong interpretation of the apex court order and preferred to leave the fallen chir and pine trees lying in the forests. In the process, even the forest dwellers had been prevented from doing this on its own – the practice which they had been following for years to prevent fires. This situation led to a number of forest fires in the region in the past several years with the massive one being reported from there last year.
The entire episode that led to the situation of massive forest fire of 2016 is documented by the Parliamentary Committee, headed by the Rajya Sabha MP Renuka Chowdhury. The Committee had submitted its report to Parliament in December, 2016.
In the backdrop of the forest fire that was caused by inaction on the ground, the Committee felt that there was an urgent need to devise a policy with regard to prevention and mitigation of forest fires and recommended that the environment ministry should come up with a national policy on the subject at the earliest.
“The Committee strongly feels that in this background the ball is in the court of the ministry of environment, forest and climate change to plan for removing dead and fallen tree even in the protected forest areas”, said the report.
It said, “The Committee recommends that in the light of Supreme Court order of 1996, the central government is bound to persuade the state governments and approve their working plans for salvaging dead and fallen trees with a view to avoid induced forest fire in future”.
The Committee, in its report, also notes that almost all the state governments have expressed resource crunch and inadequate budgetary allocations to effectively invest in protecting forests from fires.
Observing that the needs of the Himalayan states are distinctly different from the other states, the Committee recommends that the budget of all the states which are in Himalayan region should be demarcated separately from other states, with specific objectives in mind. It recommends that the policies and programmes of Himalayan states should not be clubbed with other states, without taking into account the specific demands of its ecosystem.
Uncontrollable and devastating forest fires during February-April 2016 had caught the attention of the entire country. The frequency of forest fire in Uttarakhand during April 2016 was much higher and widespread as compared to April 2015.
As many as 378 forest fires had broken out in different parts of Himachal Pradesh as well in 2016 summer. Similarly, Jammu & Kashmir also suffered the same problem in a big way. Fire broke out in the forest area of Reasi district of Jammu and Kashmir while other incidents of forest fires were also reported from the Bathuni and Gambhir areas of Rajouri district in the state.