Uttarakhand forest fires: Forest staff, vehicles deployed on poll duty in violation of orders

Forest staff were exempted from poll duty as per orders of the forest department principal secretary, an SC-appointed panel, and the NGT.

WrittenBy:Hridayesh Joshi
A forest fire in Kedarnath wildlife division.

Forest fires have refused to die down in Uttarakhand for the past 10 days, with four people reportedly dead so far and the Supreme Court set to hear petitions linked to the state government’s role on Wednesday. 

Documents reviewed by Newslaundry have now suggested that the deployment of forest staff and vehicles for election duty – in violation of orders from the state government, Election Commission and National Green Tribunal – affected official preparedness to deal with the problem.

In Uttarakhand, the period starting from February 15 to June 30 is considered a fire season, and preparations to stop it are an annual routine, as part of which forest workers clean fire lines, cut grass and bushes, and control and monitor burning etc. 

Forest staff from all the 13 districts were deployed on election duty. Nainital, Almora, Pauri, Rudraprayag and Uttarkashi are among the worst affected districts. However, district officials who spoke to Newslaundry denied that the forest fires could be attributed to poll deployment.

State govt orders flouted

In letters to all the district magistrates on February 3 and April 5, Uttarakhand principal secretary (forests) Ramesh Kumar Sudhanshu had clarified that the forest department should be kept away from election activities.

The paragraph 18 of the letter on February 3 stated, “Every year, severe incidents of forest fire occur in the state during summer season (from February 15 to June 30). All the officers/employees of the forest department are ready 24x7 for forest fire control/management. Keeping in view the forest fire season 2024, the personnel posted at the field level of the forest Department should be exempted from Lok Sabha election duty. Also, vehicles allotted in the circles/divisions of the forest department should not be acquired during the forest fire season-2024, because during the forest fire season, forest personnel are in great need of vehicles for transportation to control forest fires.”

Similar concerns were raised in the letter on April 5.

Principal secretary (forests) wrote at least two letters asking DMs to not deploy forest staff on poll duty.
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EC guidelines ignored

Citing the 2023 guidelines of the Election Commission, the Central Empowered Committee appointed by the Supreme Court – to advise the court on environmental issues in 2005 and now a permanent panel under the ministry of environment and forests – had also pointed to the same reason to exempt forest staff.

Notably, the guidelines issued by the Election Commission of India are constitutionally binding on all administrative authorities involved in the conduct of the election process under Article 324 of the Constitution of India and the RP Act, 1951.

Orders issued in the first week of March

Documents show that orders for deployment of forest personnel for election duty had been issued starting from the first week of March, even before the election schedule was announced by the Election Commission.

A senior forest officer told Newslaundry, “Many DFO level officers had written letters to the administration asking them not to impose duty on forest workers, but in every district, more than 90 percent of the forest staff were issued orders for poll duties about one-and-a-half month before the elections. And they were freed only a day after the voting on April 19. Due to this, the forest department was left with no time to make the preparations to stop the fires.”

Preventing and controlling forest fires is called forest fire management. 

NGT also mentioned para 18 of the letter written by the Chief Secretary in its order, and said that the “circular needs to be complied with by the concerned authorities”.

No lessons from IMD forecast

It is important to note that for this year, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) had also predicted that the instances of forest fires will be more serious due to less rainfall and above average temperatures. Due to 2023 being an El Niño year, the average temperature remained high, the forest crisis seemed inevitable.

According to official figures, so far this year, about 1,150 hectares of forest land has been burnt and property worth more than Rs 26 lakh has been damaged. 

Another official said, “Fire incidents were expected due to high temperatures and no winter rain this year. When it rains in winter, incidents of fire reduce due to moisture in the forests as seen last year, but this year there was no rain in December-January and despite warnings, orders were ignored.”

Forest fires are not uncommon. Most incidents of forest fires are man-made. If the fire is controlled and limited to a part of the forest, it doesn’t cause much damage. However, an uncontrollably razing fire for several days is not only a threat to biodiversity due to the destruction of forest wealth and rare species of flora and fauna, but due to its pollution and heat, Himalayan glaciers may also be in danger.

‘We deployed very few number of forest officers’

Newslaundry tried to speak to the district magistrates of Uttarakhand’s various districts on this issue. Some of them spoke to us and refuted the charge that the state’s forest fire management is linked to poll deployment.

Nainital DM Vandana Singh said the forest fire has been significantly brought down in her district with “efficient management and active community participation”. On the issue of forest officials’ deployment, she said there were “multiple factors” for this forest fire.  

“I won’t say there was no involvement of the forest department (in the election process). Definitely they were deployed but the number was very limited. In our district, I had received a total of 1,895 names from the forest department for election duty. We deployed only 676 out of them. And around 500 of these were only used for five days, including training and polling. Rest of the people, including the ranger or SDO level officers, were deployed as flying squads who remain in their own area only. They were instructed that if they have some work from their department they can do that also.”

“In 2018 there was no election. Still there was a forest fire. Why,” she asked. 

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