Theni forest fire: a trek that ended in tragedy

Theni forest fire death toll mounts to 11; forest officer suspended, tour guide arrested

A victim is being carried by a rescue team from the Kurangani hills in Theni district in Tamil Nadu on Monday.

A victim is being carried by a rescue team from the Kurangani hills in Theni district in Tamil Nadu on Monday.   | Photo Credit: G. Karthikeyan

A tour guide who led the 36-member trekking group was arrested on Monday night, say police.

A forester named Jayasingh, posted to the Munthal section of the Bodi range, was suspended on Tuesday by the Forest Department.

He allegedly knew about the trekking expedition of the 12-member Erode-based group at Kurangani in Theni district.

This is the first disciplinary action by the Forest Department following the wildfire on Sunday, which resulted in the death of 11 people.

According to department sources, the expedition organised by the Chennai Trekking Club was carried out without permission from anyone in the Forest Department.

A senior official in the department said that a member of the Erode-based trekking group had directly contacted Jayasingh, who allegedly made the group transfer money to his bank account for allowing their entry.

“Jayasingh should have passed on the information to senior officials and ensured that the group did not trek in an unauthorised route,” a senior official involved in the inquiry told The Hindu.

The only permitted trekking route in the area is from Kurangani to Top Station, which is managed by the Eco-tourism Management Committee, involving department personnel and locals. An entry fee is collected for this, a senior official explained.

“Even if both the trekking groups had paid this entry fee, as they now claim, that gives them permission only for Kurangani to Top Station trek and not to Kollukumalai (where they were trapped by the blaze),” the forest official said. Trekking on any other route must have approval from the District Forest Officer of Theni Division.

Though a statement by the CTC on Tuesday claimed that they paid a fee and were issued an entry pass, the official said the claim was false. D. Monisha, one of the survivors from the CTC-organised group, said that she did not pay money to the group for obtaining permission from the Forest Department.

She also said that the group did not encounter any Forest Department officials during the entire trek.

“I presume that if it was not permitted, forest officials must have blocked somewhere,” she had said.

R. Divya, 25, of Erode, an assistant professor at a Gobichettipalayam college, who had sustained 90% burns died on Tuesday.

She had gone for the trek with her husband Vivek.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 9:57:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/theni-forest-fire-toll-mounts-to-11-forest-officer-suspended/article23228254.ece

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