A fire broke out in the forest of Nainital district in Uttarakhand on May 06, 2024.

A fire broke out in the forest of Nainital district in Uttarakhand on May 06, 2024.
| Photo Credit: Shashi Shekhar Kashyap

The Supreme Court on Wednesday told the Uttarakhand government that rain gods or cloud-seeding would not douse the forest fires that had claimed five lives in the State.

“Cloud-seeding or depending on rain gods is not the answer. You (Uttarakhand government) have to take preventive measures,” Justice Sandeep Mehta, who is part of the two-judge Bench headed by Justice B.R. Gavai, told counsel appearing for Uttarakhand.

The State downplayed the forest blaze in court, assuring that the emergency was over. The State said only “0.1% of the wildlife cover” was on fire though reports claimed that over 40% of forests in the Kumaon region of the State was burning.

“We don’t know. But we will surely examine if the emergency is over or not,” Justice Gavai replied.

The court listed the case for detailed hearing on Wednesday.

The Uttarakhand government submitted that forest fires were not peculiar to Uttarakhand. “All over the world there are forest fires… There is a peak every four years,” the State counsel said. A share of the blame for the fires fell on pine trees, which shed their needles prompting grazers to burn them, and the British who populated the slopes with them during the colonial times to get turpentine oil and timber for the Railways. The Uttarakhand government said there ought to be a push to repopulate the slopes with indigenous trees.

The British may have introduced them “but now their produce is used by the country… You cannot eliminate these trees nor can they grow in the lower reaches,” Justice Mehta reasoned.

Petitioners argued that fires were used by the land mafia to clear forest and change land use in Uttarakhand.

The State government said it has maintained a high level of vigilance.

According to the government counsel there have been 398 incidents of forest fire since November 2023 and all the fires were man-made. The State has registered 350 criminal cases and 62 people have been named in them. The punishment, if found guilty, is upto two years’ imprisonment.

Petitioner-in-person, senior advocate Rajiv Dutta said the picture was not so rosy as portrayed by the State government.

He said the personnel designated for forest fire work were pulled in for election work.

“The state of affairs is actually pathetic. The rescuers don’t even have proper equipment,” Mr. Dutta said.

He invoked the precautionary principle by which the State was liable to prevent fires. “Huge money was disbursed by the Centre to States to protect forests. Where has it all gone? There is a national policy on forest fires… is it followed?” Mr. Dutta queried in court.