Forest fires in Uttarakhand have caused over Rs 14 lakh worth of damage (File).

New Delhi:

The Supreme Court has summoned the Uttarakhand Chief Secretary to explain the state’s lackadaisical approach to handling forest fires. The top government official must appear before the court on Friday.

The stern demand comes after the court this morning took the centre and state governments to task – asking searching questions over a lack of funding and the diversion of forest guards to election duties – as the hill state struggles to contain hundreds of active wildfires. The forest fires – over 1,000 have been reported across 1,145 hectares since November – have caused an estimated Rs 15 lakh in damages.

Slamming the “sorry state of affairs”, which includes the state reportedly being granted only Rs 3.15 crore – against a demand of Rs 9 crore – to deal with the fires, the court also hauled up the centre for insisting forest officials be given election-related responsibilities. “Why have adequate funds not been given? Why have you put forest employees on poll duty amid fires?” the court demanded.

Uttarakhand’s five Lok Sabha seats voted in the first phase on April 19.

Questions over the re-assigning of forest department officials to poll-related duties were asked earlier too; activists criticised the state of downplaying the serious nature of the wildfires, and claimed the few firefighters available often had to douse blazes without proper equipment.

In the last hearing, the under-fire state said forest officials assigned to polling booths had since been returned to their primary roles. “Chief Secretary instructed us not to put any forest officer to election duties anymore. We will withdraw the order now…” the state’s legal representative said this afternoon.

An unimpressed top court shot back: “This is a sorry state of affairs. You are just making excuses,” a bench of Justice BR Gavai, Justice SVN Bhatti, and Justice Sandeep Mehta declared.

The court warned the state against further deploying forest officers or vehicles for election duties.

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has pulled up the state over its failure to combat forest fires.

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Last week the court – hearing a petition seeking direction to the ruling BJP to do more to put out fires – said authorities could not “depend on rain gods or cloud seeding”, or on the Air Force’s firefighting efforts; earlier this month military choppers dropped 4,500 litres of water on the fires.

The state has claimed that only 0.1 per cent of the total forest cover – which is an estimated 45 per cent of Uttarakhand’s land area – has been affected by the fires. It has also claimed that forest fires are not an unheard of phenomenon in the state, and that it has short- and long-term plans in place.

This, the state has said, includes bans on burning of solid waste near forests.

Officially, five people – including Savitri Devi, a 65-year-old woman who suffered fatal burn injuries while trying to save her farm – have been killed in the Uttarakhand forest fires.

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There was some respite last week after a cloudburst in Almora district extinguished some fires, although the rain also meant roads were flooded and blocked, and crops were destroyed.

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Dhami has said his government is committed to bringing the situation under control, and that action will be taken against those found starting such fires.

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“This is a big challenge for us. We are working on all possibilities… including taking help from the Army. We will take action against those involved in (starting) the fires. Our target is to bring the fires under control as early as possible,” the Chief Minister said.

Meanwhile, a case has been filed against four men – Piyush Singh, Ayush Singh, Rahul Singh and Ankit – under the Indian Forest Act for starting a fire in Pithoragarh district’s Gangolihat forest range.

Last month a fire broke out in a forest near Nainital and reached the doorsteps of a residential colony for High Court judges, prompting swift action from the Army and forest officials.

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