The need for ‘special’ attention

(The Hindu)


From glacier melting to rise in glacial lakes

(Down to Earth)


Fighting forest fires

(The Hindu)

The need for ‘special’ attention

(The Hindu)

Synoptic line: It throws light on issue of special courts to address backlogs.

(GS paper II)



  • Special courts, which have existed in the subordinate judiciary since before Independence, are set up under a statute meant to address specific disputes falling within that statute. Over 25 special courts were set up between 1950 and 2015 through various Central and State legislations.  


  • However, despite being an old means of addressing the specificities of certain statutes and judicial backlog, there seems to be little if any evaluation of how this system works.





  • Nearly four decades ago, a Bench of the Supreme Court gave its judgment in a decision, titled In Re: The Special Courts Bill, 1978 (Special Courts Case), pertaining to special courts and meant to deal with excesses during the Emergency. Here, the court opined on the constitutionality of and the legislative competence with which Parliament could establish special courts.




  • Based on the discussion on special courts in the judgment, a prima facie definition of a special court can be: A Court which was established under a statute, to deal with special types of cases under a shortened and simplified procedure.




  • In December 2017, the Supreme Court greenlit the Centre’s proposal to set up 12 fast-track courts to adjudicate and speedily dispose of 1,581 cases against Members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies.




  • Apart from uncertainties about the adequacy of such a measure, a more glaring issue is that the order conflates two distinct judicial features by using them interchangeably: special courts and fast-track courts. Fast track courts were the result of recommendations made by the 11th Finance Commission which advised the creation of 1,734 such courts to deal with the judicial backlog. They were actualised though an executive scheme (as opposed to a statute of the legislature) and were meant to be set up by State governments in consultation with the respective high courts. 



Special courts



  • The vacuum in research and analysis with respect to special courts has led to inconsistencies in legislation and operation. A look at 28 pieces of Central legislation such as the Special Criminal Courts (Jurisdiction) Act, 1950 to the Prevention of Money Laundering (Amendment) Act, 2012 leaves one with a dizzying set of varied provisions to enact such courts.




  • The Special Courts case clearly uses the phrase “established under statute”, which, in most cases, should imply the creation or establishment of a new court. However, all of two statutes use the term “establish”, while four use “constitute”, two use “create”, eight use “designate”, two use “notify”, and one uses “appoint”. Even the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 uses the words “establish” and “designate” in different places.



  • On a secondary level, 13 pieces of legislation state that the government “may” set up special courts, while 15 say the government “shall”. However, going by the definition, the answer as to whether a law requires a special court or not is a binary: yes or no. In such a situation, leaving options such as “may”, add to the ambiguities. It is also unclear what the legislature intends to accomplish by creating special courts. For instance, there seem to be more special courts under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 as compared to the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 despite data showing the former having a tenth of the number of registered cases as the latter (2015). These points to unclear legislative intent while drafting such provisions.


  • Apart from the Supreme Court addressing their constitutional status, policy questions pertaining to the need and efficiency of special courts have seldom been analysed. As of October 2017, as many as 71 out of Delhi’s 441 judges in civil and sessions court (or 17% of Delhi’s subordinate judiciary) were designated as special courts under 12 statutes.


  • The Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2016 drafts contain a provision for special courts. Therefore, special courts continue to be ubiquitous, despite being under-analysed. There are over 2.8 crore cases in the subordinate judiciary, which is the most out of the three tiers of the judiciary- subordinate, high courts and the Supreme Court.


Way ahead


  • Parameters such as the frequency and number of effective hearings and calculating the number of pending cases need to be developed to study the workings of special courts. Without such inquiries, their number continues to grow. Both organs of state continue to believe that special courts are a panacea for judicial efficiency, despite there being virtually no evidence to support this assumption. Finally, it is important to ask questions and determine whether or not this special courts system is in fact helpful in addressing the judicial backlog.


Question What are Special Courts? Explain how they can be helpful in addressing judicial backlog?


From glacier melting to rise in glacial lakes

(Down to Earth)

Synoptic line: It throws light on the issue of glacier melting and glacial lakes.

(GS paper I)



  • According to results given out by the World Glacier Monitoring Service, the UN Environment Programme declared that glaciers around the world are melting rapidly. One of the impacts of melting of glaciers is the formation of new glacial lakes by accumulation of melt water resulting from the glacier retreat. These new lakes formed due to shrinking glaciers in the Alps, Himalaya, Andes and other mountainous regions have increased the risk of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs).  

What is a Glacier?

  • A glacier can be described as a huge block of ice that has formed from falling snow. Glaciers contain almost all the freshwater present on earth. 


Assessment of Hindu Kush Himalaya region


  • The Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) is home to the world’s greatest areal extent and volume of permanent ice and permafrost outside Polar Regions. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC 2007), climate change is an accelerating process as evident from the rise of global temperature, especially since the late 1970s. Consequently, glaciers, snow and permafrost have undergone significant changes during recent decades.


  • The HKH also has widespread presence of such glacial lakes and many of them are potential sources of flood. According to the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, ICIMOD has done the first comprehensive mapping of glacial lakes of five major river basins of HK- Amu Darya, Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, and Irrawaddy, including Mansarovar Interior Basin. This is the first comprehensive knowledge on the distribution of glacial lakes for the HKH providing baseline data for further investigation of glacial lakes.


  • Survey carried out based on remote sensing (RS) and geographic information system (GIS) reveals that there are a total of 25,614 glacial lakes covering an area of 1,444 sq km within the five major river basins. This includes all the glacial lakes greater than or equal to 0.003 sq km. According to the report, almost 79 per cent of lakes mapped are less than 0.05 sq km in size. The largest lake, with an area of 15.1 sq km, lies in Amu Darya River Basin.



  • Among the 25,614 glacial lakes identified in five major river basins, Brahmaputra Basin has the highest number of glacial lakes (61.1 per cent) followed by Indus (18 per cent), Ganga (14.5 per cent), Amu Darya (4.6 per cent), and Irrawaddy Basins (1.1 per cent).





  • The differences in glacier status exist from region to region in the HKH, there is unanimity among studies that the greatest decrease in the length and area has occurred in the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau.  Hence, it is no surprise that both lake density and area coverage of lakes are much higher in the eastern part of the HKH with much more concentration towards the east of central Nepal.


  • According to the report, there has been a substantial increase in glacial lake area in the eastern Himalaya (Bhutan and Nepal) between 1990 and 2009 and climate change has played a major role in it. More than 50 glacial lake outburst events have been recorded in the HKH but records are available only for parts of China, Nepal, Pakistan and Bhutan. These events cause flooding of pastures, damaging people’s lives and property in the mountains and also in downstream areas, the report points out.


Way forward


  • There is need to assess the downstream vulnerability and understanding dynamics of glacial lakes and the risks associated with outburst floods.


Question Glaciers are receding faster as compared to the past many centuries, and it giving rise to glacial lakes, explain the impact of glacial lakes on the atmosphere along with examples.

Fighting forest fires

(The Hindu)

Synoptic line: It throws light on the issue of forest fires.

(GS paper III)



  • In a recent forest fire case at the Kurangani hill in the Bodi hills of Theni district in Tamil Nadu claimed the lives of around 20 trekkers. The incident brings into focus forest fires in India, over the past few years, it has been realised that these fires are not spontaneous; human beings set off fires. This tragedy raises several other issues of approaches in fighting fires and ways of mitigating damage.





  • When a fire anywhere in the world is detected by NASA’s MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) and VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite) satellites, the Forest Survey of India (FSI) analyses the data by overlaying the digitised boundaries of forest areas to pinpoint the location to the exact forest compartment.




  • The resolution of these satellites are up to 375m x 375m, which means that such fires can be detected if their extent is above half the pixel, i.e. about seven hectares. The FSI relays news of the fire to the concerned State, so that the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in charge of the forest where the fire is raging is informed.




  • A few years ago, the time lapse between spotting the fire and the news reaching the DFO was five to six hours, but this has been reduced to about two hours recently. The frequency of the two satellites orbiting the earth has also been increased from twice daily to once in three hours.



Approaches to fight forest fire


  • There are four main approaches to fighting forest fires, First is technological, where helicopters or ground-based personnel spray fire retardant chemicals, or pump water to fight the blaze. These are expensive methods and make sense when one is protecting a human community, but are usually not practised in India.


  • The second is to contain the fire in compartments bordered by natural barriers such as streams, roads, ridges, and fire lines along hillsides or across plains. A fire line is a line through a forest which has been cleared of all vegetation. The width depends on the type of forest being protected. Once the blaze has burnt out all combustibles in the affected compartment, it fizzles out and the neighbouring compartments are saved.


  • The third is to set a counter fire, so that when a fire is unapproachable for humans, a line is cleared of combustibles and manned. One waits until the wildfire is near enough to be sucking oxygen towards it, and then all the people manning the line set fire to the line simultaneously. The counter fire rushes towards the wildfire, leaving a stretch of burnt ground. As soon as the two fires meet, the blaze is extinguished.


  • The fourth approach, which is the most practical and most widely used, is to have enough people with leafy green boughs to beat the fire out. This is practised in combination with fire lines and counter fires.



  • If combustibles are removed or burnt under supervision, a fire can be controlled. This is why there are usually no deaths from burns among personnel fighting forest fires. The danger is asphyxiation, since a vast quantity of smoke is generated, and the lack of oxygen in the immediate vicinity of tall flames can cause breathlessness.


  • Once a person loses consciousness due to asphyxiation, the danger of being burnt alive becomes real, especially if one is alone. Dehydration is also an issue when fighting flames more than a metre high. The British introduced a system of controlled burning of undergrowth in safe seasons for eg- during winter, so that by summer there would be nothing left to burn. This is an extremely destructive practice, since it wipes out insects, small reptiles, seeds, herbs and bushes.


To control damage


  • There is need to vastly increase the number of firefighters as well as equip them properly with drinking water bottles, back-up supplies of food and water, proper shoes or boots, rakes, spades and other implements, light, rechargeable torches, and so on. They could also be paid better. Seasonal labour could be contracted during the fire season. With adequate training, they would serve to fill gaps along the line. Local villagers would be the best resource.


  • However, there is constrains of funds. Vast amounts of funds are used for frivolous purposes like ‘planting forests’. In practice, they are mostly diverted to corrupt officials and political parties. After more than half a century of planting forests there is little to show for the funds spent on this activity.


  • Instead, those funds would be more than sufficient to cover the cost of a well-equipped and well-paid forest protection force. More Forest Department field staff could be hired to put out fires during the fire season and to patrol the forests during other times. This is the only way to prevent accidents such as the Theni tragedy.


  • Indian citizens require permission to enter reserve forests for recreational purposes, as distinguished from the perfectly sensible need to inform concerned authorities or owners about one’s presence in areas under their charge, whether a reserve forest or a private orchard.


  • The rules preventing entry to the public were intended to stop removal of resources, so that the forests concerned would be held in reserve against contingencies like war, when large quantities of both timber and firewood were required. Since recreational visitors remove no resources, there is no valid reason for them to obtain permission to climb a publicly owned hill in India, which has been entrusted to the Forest Department to protect


Way forward


  • Increasing the field staff of Forest Departments by discontinuing the claimed ‘forest plantations’ would help control forest fires, which in turn would help rejuvenation of fire-stressed forest ecosystems. This would help indigenous forests grow back


Question Discuss the issue of forest fire in India, along with example. Also suggest measures to address this problem.