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SC slams Uttarakhand for “lackadaisical” approach in controlling forest fires, calls chief secretary

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NEW DELHI, May 15 (PTI) Slamming the Uttarakhand government for its “lackadaisical” approach in controlling forest fires, the Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the state’s chief secretary to personally present himself before it on May 17 to give explanation, including on utilisation of funds and vacancies in forest department.

Terming it a “very sorry state of affairs”, the apex court said the state was just trying to find some excuse or the other.

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A bench headed by Justice B R Gavai directed that the staff and vehicles of the forest departments of states shall not be requisitioned for election purposes or any other purposes like the ‘Char Dham Yatra’.

“We are at pains to say that the approach of state of Uttarakhand in controlling the fires is, to say the least, lackadaisical. Though action plans have been prepared and finalised, no steps are being taken for implementation of the same,” said the bench, also comprising Justices SVN Bhatti and Sandeep Mehta.

The top court was hearing a plea on raging forest fires in Uttarakhand.

The bench said when funds from the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) were available and also sanctioned by the central authority, it saw no reason as to why only Rs 3.41 crore out of the Rs 9.12 crore was utilised for forest related activity in Uttarakhand in 2023-24.

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The bench observed it also saw no reason as to why the balance amount was not utilised for forestry.

“Another issue that needs to be addressed is with regard to huge vacancies in the forest department of the State of Uttarakhand,” it said.

The bench noted that one of the grievances raised by the state was regarding failure of timely disbursement of the national disaster management fund or state disaster management fund.

“We fail to understand as to how state could have grievance with regard to the disbursal of state disaster management fund in as much as it is within the domain of the state to disburse the said funds,” it said.

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“It is further pertinent to note that at one hand, the state contends that the resources, that is, manpower and vehicles are not available, and on the other hand, keeps large number of vacancies…,” the bench observed.

It said taking into consideration the importance of controlling forest fires in Uttarakhand, the apex court had requested Additional Solicitor General (ASG) Aishwarya Bhati to take instructions with regard to disbursement of funds for financial year 2023-2024.

The bench said in so far as CAMPA funds are concerned, it has been submitted that these funds are lying with the state and it was for the state to release them for works undertaken by the forest department.

It noted that as far as exemption of field officials of the forest department from election duty, Char Dham yatra and other related activities was concerned, the Election Commission by various orders has already exempted its staff and vehicles from elections and allied purposes.

“Be that as it may, we direct that in all the states, the forest staffs as well as the forest vehicles shall not be requisitioned for election purposes or any other purposes like ‘Char Dham Yatra’,” the bench said.

It also directed the Centre to explain its position with regard to timely disbursement of the national disaster management fund and funds under centrally sponsored schemes.

“We direct the chief secretary of state of Uttarakhand to personally remain present in this court on May 17…,” it said.

The bench said the chief secretary shall explain as to why CAMPA fund of only Rs 3.4 crore was released for financial year 2023-24 when the Centre had sanctioned Rs 9.12 crore.

“It shall also be explained as to whether the said fund is being utilised for some other purposes which are not related to forest activities,” it said.

The bench said he shall also explain what steps were being taken for releasing state disaster management fund and how many vacancies were yet to be filled.

It said the chief secretary will explain within how much time the vacancies in the forest department would be filled and also the measures that the state proposes to take for preventing fires on account of highly flammable pine needles.

The bench said he would explain whether forest personnel were deployed for election duty in spite of the specific exemption granted by the poll panel.

It also noted that senior advocate Rajiv Dutta, who has filed an application on  forest fires in Uttarakhand, has submitted that the Army was using pine needles in Ranikhet for power generation. Advocate Neha Singh is assisting Dutta in the matter.

“We find that the state needs to take some concrete decisions in that regard,” the bench said.

During the hearing, the state’s counsel apprised the court about forest fires and action taken to control them.

“On the last date (of hearing), the rosy picture you depicted was not correct,” the bench observed.

The state’s counsel said the apex court can constitute a committee comprising representatives of the Central Empowered Committee, the Centre, state and others which can suggest a holistic approach to deal with the issue.








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