In a significant development regarding the forest fires in Uttarakhand, the Supreme Court of India passed an order on May 17, 2023, granting certain permits to the state government.
The order was issued in response to an application filed in the case In Re: T N Godavarman Thirumulpad Vs Union of India & Others. The request sought various measures to address the management and suppression of wildfires in the state.
The sentences in the request included permission for the state government to maintain fire lines in forested areas, even if it requires the felling of green trees, and to carry out forest operations in accordance with approved work plans.
The request sought funds from the Central Government and the Compensatory Forest Fund for the preparation of work plans and forest investigations related to the management of forest fires.
The Additional Solicitor General of India informed the court that the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC) had no objection to the requests. The court recognized that maintaining lines of fire and conducting forest operations were integral parts of the approved work plans and accordingly granted the sentences.
The Supreme Court ordered the MoEF&CC to submit its response within six weeks. This aspect specifically refers to the provision of funds under Rule 5 and Rule 6 of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Rules, 2018, for the preparation of comprehensive work plans and forest research covering various aspects of forest management.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, the Uttarakhand government is now authorized to cut down green trees in order to maintain lines of fire in forest areas. The court has also allowed the state government to carry out forest activities, including felling trees and other cultural works, in accordance with action plans approved by the MoEF&CC.
107 hectares of forest cover since January
A data released by the Uttarakhand forest department has revealed that bushfires have already affected more than 107 hectares of forest cover since January this year.
Fortunately, the recent increase in fire incidents has not resulted in casualties among the villagers or forest department staff. Livestock are also not affected by forest fires.
The data further highlights that the Garhwal region witnessed the greatest devastation, with 40.68 hectares of land consumed by fires. The Kumaon region followed close behind with 35.55 hectares affected.
In addition, the forest fires have impacted 31.02 hectares of forest cover in administrative wildlife, a category of protected forest area.
Forest department records indicate that the Garhwal and Kumaon regions reported a total of 40 bushfire incidents this year.
Cause and effects of forest fires
Rising temperatures during hot weather have contributed to the increase in wildfires. Usually, bushfires in Uttarakhand start in mid-February and persist until the start of the monsoon season in mid-June.
The abundance of dry leaves on the forest floor and the increase in temperature create favorable conditions for the rapid spread of fires. Even a small spark can cause a huge conflagration.
The aftermath of these frequent and massive bushfires has resulted in a monetary loss of more than Rs 480,000. Garhwal reported losses of Rs 3.66 lakh, Kumaon suffered losses of more than Rs 1 lakh, and the administrative wildlife area recorded losses of Rs 14,670.
Uttarakhand has witnessed major fires every other year recently. In 2019, the state recorded 2,981 fire incidents and in 2018, the number reached 4,480.
In 2017, Uttarakhand recorded 1,228 bushfires, while in 2016, the state faced 4,433 fires, in 2015, the number of incidents was 701.
The continued occurrence of such devastating bushfires underscores the need for proactive measures to prevent and mitigate the impact of fires on Uttarakhand’s valuable forest resources.
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