Denuding Kashmir

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Timber smuggling fuelled by a construction boom is causing widespread destruction to the forests in Kashmir in the absence of a coherent forest policy and effective watch and ward. Athar Parvaiz reports.

While the construction boom across Kashmir has provided a ready market for large-scale sale of smuggled timber, encroachment of forest land and its diversion for the developmental projects is also nibbling away at the precious forest resources.

Reliable sources in the forest department disclosed that while diversion of forest land for certain developmental projects becomes unavoidable, “government, as well as the construction agencies most often prefer to divert their projects to forest land rather than the private owned land to ward off any compensation issues.”

The Supreme Court has virtually wrested control of forests from the central and state governments in order to protect them, but it allows the diversion of forest land for essential developmental projects like roads, transmission-lines and power projects. “So it is easy for the government or the construction agency to obtain approval for forest land diversion where such projects are involved,” the sources confided.

The Digest of Forest Statistics for year 2008-09 shows that 813.817 hectares of forest land have been diverted in that year. The encroachment of forests is yet another problem which goes on unchecked and increases with each passing year. As per the statistics shown in the Digest of Forests as many as 18560.39 hectares of forest land have been encroached upon from 2001 to 2008.

“Our Kashmir has mostly a mountainous topography and a lot of people especially the tribal people live near the forests. Since they don’t have any land-holdings, they lay their hands on the forest land,” says Nissar Ahmad, Forest Conservator for Central Kashmir.

On the other hand, timber smugglers are on job and hundreds of trees are axed across Kashmir to fulfil the demand for timber created by the construction boom in the state.

One of the many hotbeds of timber smuggling is the north Kashmir’s Rafiabad area. Felling of forest trees is so widespread here that it has started triggering landslides.

In the summer of 2010 when life in Kashmir was crippled by a prolonged spell of unrest and continuous curfews imposed by the authorities, the sale of smuggled timber was going on as usual, say people living near the forested areas.

“If anybody was able to carry on his job during those days in Kashmir and managed to earn a living – apart from the government employees – it were the well organised and well-connected timber smugglers who worked without facing any hassles,” says teacher Mohammad Ashraf, a resident of Rafiabad. He says that he along with some conscientious citizens work to make people aware about the ill-effects of deforestation.

“Last year we organized a seminar on World Environment Day wherein we didn’t invite any politician or bureaucrat, but only the local people. I believe these are the people who matter; not the politicians or bureaucrats who hardly pay any heed to play a positive role” says Ashraf.

Conscientious citizens like him, might be working earnestly for controlling the loot of green gold, but they seem to be lonely in this, given the failure of the government machinery. People in Rafiabad allege that smugglers continue to “strike at will because of a nexus between them, some politicians and forest department officials”.

“Local smugglers, active in the upper belt, are exploited by the timber contractors who make them to cut trees for a pittance while they themselves make huge money out of it,” says Ashraf.

The timber-smugglers when offered anonymity, readily talk about the illicit trade and give “justifications” for indulging in it.

“We don’t have any other means of income. We simply feed on the forest,” said a timber smuggler, who ferries the timber on his pony. “I know it is not a respectable job, but when I look around I don’t find anything which can fetch me an income.”

The timber smugglers in Kashmir even ignore the risks involved in operating in the forests of a conflict zone where they can be mistaken as militants by the security forces.

In 2005, Farooq Khan, a timber smuggler was killed in Brari Angan hamlet of south Kashmir and another, Gull Kalis, was killed in an army ambush just a year ago in another south Kashmir village, Batafojan.

But in most of the areas like Khag, Budgam and Rajwar, Handwara, timber smugglers operate carefree, thanks to a well-organized network which is believed to be enjoying the tacit support of some politicians and forest officials.

The construction boom is not only feeding on forest wealth, but has also consumed thousands of hectares of agricultural land. According to Nazir Ahmad Qazi, Deputy Director Law Enforcement (Department of Agriculture), more than 10,000 hectares of Net Sown Area of agricultural land in Kashmir has been converted into residential and commercial areas over the past few years.

Another estimate of the agriculture department says that more than 20 percent of the Net Sown Area in and around Srinagar city has been converted into residential or commercial area.

“The concept of horizontal expansion is proving quite disastrous as it, unlike the vertical expansion, consumes additional space and additional construction material including timber” says Central Forest Conservator, Nissar Ahmad while denying that corruption among forest officials was one of the reasons for timber smuggling in Kashmir.

“We are helpless, we lack both infrastructure and manpower,” says his senior, Manzoor Ahmad who is the Chief Conservator Forests (CCF). “Each forest guard has to guard 10 square kilometres of forest without the help of any vehicle.”

His department has compiled a list according to which, the forest department is running short of at least 650 ground level workers and more than 200 forest officers. As of now, the department has 4281 ground level workers against the sanctioned quota of 4931.

The CCF asserts that his department has started several measures to curb forest-smuggling. “We have liberalized the import of timber from outside Kashmir to ease pressure on local sources of timber. We don’t charge any tax for the imported timber upon its entry in Kashmir and allow its transportation within Kashmir without any transit documents,” Manzoor said while adding that the liberalization policy ensured an import of more than 35,000,000 Cubic feet of timber in Kashmir last year.

But the private timber depot owners allege that the forest officials ask for bribes even for the transportation of imported timber. “They charge 25 rupees per cubic feet of timber,” said Ghulam Ahmad, a private depot owner in Srinagar.

While the private depot owners accuse the forest officials of demanding bribes from them, the Forest Protection Force officials say that there is a lack of coordination between them and the territorial force of forest department and that the later even treat them as an “eye-sore.”  But Forest officials seek to debunk this notion. “I think this is merely a figment of somebody’s imagination,” says Nissar Ahmad.

Carin Fisher, a German citizen who has now applied for Indian citizenship, came to Kashmir a few years ago to start a project “Rural Tourism”, sponsored by the union tourism ministry, but she ended up morphing the project into a campaign for saving forests.

“To start with I chose Rafiabad area in north Kashmir for implementing my project. But when I went there, I was shocked to see the incredible destruction of forests,” she said.

“Then I thought I should do something to motivate the timber smugglers to give up axing the trees. So I named my project as Trekking for Trees and managed to convince 50 smugglers to work as tourist guides and identified 20 houses for the tourists to stay in,” said Carin. “In the meanwhile, we also built a trekking centre for giving tourist guide training to the timber smugglers. But we had to suspend the whole operation because I was not allowed to implement my project by a nexus of the vested interests.”

Carin says that she is now working on the same project in Khag Budgam and hopes to start it in April-May this year.  “My point is that you can’t stop timber smuggling by booking the smugglers under harsh laws. You have to go after the kingpins and at the same time you have to give community-based livelihoods to the poor people who actually do the axe-work,” Carin opined.

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