Burden Of Anti-Timber Smuggling

From carrying the burden of smuggled timber, the seized mules, become a burden to the exchequer in the forest department’s efforts to prevent their recirculation into the hands of smugglers. Kashmir Life reports how anti-smuggling operations transformed from a revenue generating exercise to a necessary burden.

Preventing timber smuggling has created its own mess for the forest ministry in J&K. It has to arrest the smugglers, seize their mules and sell them. Till they get buyers, it has to feed the mules – an unbudgeted process that cost the ministry Rs 25 lakh in two years.

“It is a continuous process. In last three years we issued 142 warrants and actually sent 50 smugglers to the jail besides seizing 153 vehicles and 1620 mules,” Forest Minister Mian Altaf said. “We auctioned the trucks and most of the mules but now there are no buyers for the mules. Last month we put 100 mules on auction and only seven were sold so we have to feed them till we get buyers.”

Initially, these animals were fetching a better price because the smugglers who owned them would send their agents and purchase them. “It took us some time to understand that why these animals seized in a particular area are fetching a good price there and then we changed the policy. If we seize a horse in south, we prefer auctioning it in north,” Shantmanu, state’s forest commissioner said. “These animals are trained to remember the smuggling track and once they shift their base, they are unable to be that much useful to the smugglers.”

Most of these horses and mules of the smugglers that were seized in south and north Kashmir were auctioned in Kangan and Katra. These areas have always an appetite for well-fed horses because of the pilgrim influx. So, while their masters are cooling their heels in jail, their animals are taking pilgrims to the Vaishno Devi shrine.

This is one factor that helped Altaf to control the menace of timber smuggling. The minister had to fight within to get the black sheep identified who were encouraging smuggling. Nexus between the forest officials and the smugglers is so deep that in June an official, Sonaullah Zargar, opposed to the smuggling was killed by his four colleagues apparently at the behest of smugglers. “We have started penalizing the forest guards and the officials on basis of the smuggled timber that we recover, and by now we have recovered penalty of Rs 14 lakhs from our staffers,” Altaf said.

In J&K, forests have always remained a major mobility factor for a section of the society. Smugglers became forest lessees and eventually landed in politics with a stake in policy making. As militancy peaked and the routine systems of control and sanity crumbled, forests would fund the insurgents, counterinsurgents and part of the security grid. Entire compartments were denuded. Till recently, sawmills were operating deep inside the forests as securitymen prevented their sealing and destruction.

Even after sealing more than 1000 sawmills which were operating within the forests or along their immediate peripheries, Altaf said 183 square kilometers is still under encroachment. “Forest Survey of India has suggested that the forest cover has increased by 10 sq kms to around 50% of the total geographic area in Kashmir and Jammu divisions,” Altaf said. While it will take some more time and lot of money to get J&K to the level of making 66% forest cover that national forest policy suggested, there is a lot of change on the ground. “We had three critical forest divisions and I am sure no more smuggling takes places there.”

J&K’s timber marketing is governed by apex court order that prevents the forests ministry from extracting beyond eight million cubic feet of fallen, dead, dying or diseased timber from the state forests. It barely fetches three and a half million cfts of ready to use timber which falls much below the market demand. J&K extracted 18.698 lakh cfts in 2008-09 and 11.821 lakh cfts in 2009-10 and could supply only 7.804 lakh cfts and 12.62 lakh cfts for the two respective years leaving much to be sourced from alternative sources.

Altaf said they are unable to extract the entire dried and fallen timber from the forests of the state. “It is becoming a problem because in certain cases it aids forest fires and we are in the process of approaching the apex court to permit us extract much of this,” said the minister. But this essentially does not mean the forests will have more timber to market. “Most of the forests fall in Doda range and even if we extract we may not be able to get it to the market because it is economically not viable.”

But the lack of local timber in the market could have aggravated the situation and failed Altaf’s crusade had not market forces played its role. India opened its market for foreign timber in 2000 and the massive market appetite led entrepreneurs to start importing.

“Against 79749 logs of timber that locals imported in 2002, it reached 43 lakh sq ft in 2010-11,” a senior forest official said. It changed the entire supply-demand chain and there was least pressure on the highly controlled local timber. Now carpenters in J&K know much about teakwood imported from Africa, Ivory Coast, Sal varieties of Malaysia and Indonesia and the widely accepted Merenti timber.

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