Margalla Hills fire: Hearing reveals wildlife board’s inability to handle forest fires

IMC officials tell NCHR that board did not have capacity to tackle blaze

Our Correspondent September 05, 2018
PHOTO: APP / FILE

ISLAMABAD: The wildlife management board of the capital had advised the civic authority not to hire seasonal firefighters on daily-wages during the fire season and was then found to be out of its depth when the fires raged on the hills.

This was revealed as the National Commission for Human Rights-Pakistan (NCHR) heard a case on the wildfires which had engulfed the Margalla Hills in Islamabad earlier this year.

During the hearing at the NCHR head office in Islamabad, the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation (IMC) Environment Director Irfan Niazi detailed that the Margalla Hills National Park, spread over 31,150 acres, comprises  three types of land.

These include reserved forest land leased out by the Punjab Forest Department to the Capital Development Authority (CDA), military grazing lands and land acquired by villagers.

Detailing the forest fires earlier this year, Niazi said that the park observes an annual fire season from April 15 to July 15 due to the high summer temperatures, high winds and the availability of combustible material such as dry leaves.

To counter this, he said that CDA’s Environment Directorate deploys around 400, locally hired, daily-wage staffers to prevent and control fire incidents in the park for the three-month-long fire season.

These seasonal firefighters are distributed across 32 pickets erected throughout the area.

Despite stipulations in the Preservation of Wildlife Ordinance 1979 and the Wildlife Management Rules of 1980, the wildlife management board in the capital was not formed until 2015.

The board comprises members from both the public and private sectors and has a mandate to advise and monitor developments.

When the federal government did finally create the board, through the Capital Administration and Development Ministry (CADD), its composition was altered and the number of members was increased.

Moreover, chairmanship of the board was entrusted to a private person who, Niazi claimed, did not have any prior experience of such a body.

After securing the requisite approval from the government, the board engaged some staff.

The NCHR was told that before the start of the fire season earlier this year, the chairman of the wildlife board apparently wrote to the environment director, requesting not to engage the daily-wages staff in the park since it was the mandate of the board and that it had assumed its responsibilities regarding prevention and control of forest fires in the Margalla Hills.

As a result, the daily-wage seasonal firefighters were not hired.

But when fires started raging on the hill, it emerged that the wildlife board neither had the capacity nor the capability to extinguish them.

The environment directorate had to then redirect its staff from urban areas of the capital in addition to staff deployed in the MHNP to tackle the fires.

But by that time, the fire had spread over a large area and had to be put out through assistance from the National Disaster Management Authority, the army and the air force — the latter which ferried water via helicopters.

The Supreme Court SC also took suo-motu notice of the incident and formulated a committee headed by the Federal Ombudsman with a mandate to assess the reasons behind the fire and propose standard operating procedures to avoid such incidents in the future by taking all stakeholders on board.

Niazi further pointed out that the Wildlife Management Board, has proposed certain amendments to the Wildlife Management Rules 1980, which are contrary to the wildlife rules being followed in all the provinces of the country where the respective chief minister or the chief secretary of the province head it with a clear mandate of advisory and monitoring.

In the capital, however, the board wants to take on an executive role. Moreover, it has proposed to CADD that the entire area of the MHNP should be transferred — through mutation — to the wildlife management board complete with the right of disposing of land, Niazi claimed.

The CDA, though, has already challenged these proposed amendments.

After the hearing, the NCHR chairman adjourned the hearing till a later date and when CADD representatives were directed to present their side of the story.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 5th, 2018.

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