Government Axes Apple Trees, DivCom Says Will Look Into It

by Yawar Hussain

SRINAGAR: The Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department has started axing orchards in areas of Pulwama and Budgam districts to “retrieve the encroached forest land”. The Sangarwani belt located on the periphery of Budgam and Pulwama districts has reported chopping off of a large number of fruit trees.

Locals alleged that almost 15 days ago the department issued eviction notices to people citing that their orchards fall under “encroached” forestland.

“They have cut down our trees. We had planted them very long ago. It takes almost a decade to have a good fruit-bearing orchard,” one resident said.

In a similar incident, the Forest department has also started to cut down apple trees in Kanidajan area of Budgam district. Residents alleged that the Forest department without seeking any explanation from them just started to chop down their trees.

“The department did issue eviction notices but till we could reply, they came and destroyed our trees,” locals from Kanidajan said, adding that their forefathers had planted these trees.

They said similar notices have been issued in Budgam district’s Jabbad Branwar, Nagbal, Yusmarg, and Darwan villages.

Tribal and forest dwellers have been in news across Jammu and Kashmir as the government is carrying out eviction drives to retrieve “encroached” forestland.

On the other hand, Tribal people argue that they have been living in forests regions across Jammu and Kashmir for centuries.

Last month the government had razed down Dokas (residential huts) of the Gujjar community in Pahalgam region leading to an uproar.

A local Gujar from Pahalgam said that they have never been harassed in the past even if somewhere they were living on forestland.

“These drives to harass us and take away our land are happening now. We never faced such intimidation from the government. We have protected the forests,” he said.

Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement last week held a protest in Budgam against the steps being taken by the government to evict forest dwellers from their ancestral land in many areas of Jammu and Kashmir.

Chairman RTI Movement Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat said the action by the Forest department was an open violation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA-2006) as the said law provides “legal protection” to forest dwellers like Gujjars, Bakarwals, Chopans, and even Kashmiri or Dogri people living in the forest areas for more than 75 years.

Chief Secretary BVR. Subrahmanyam recently presided over a meeting for implementation of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act and Rules, which became applicable in the union territory post the enactment of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganization Act, 2019.

The government spokesperson while divulging the details of the meeting had said that the departments of tribal affairs and forest, ecology and environment have started to work on its implementation in October this year.

“It may be pointed out that the Forest Rights Act of 2006 provides for granting of rights to forest dwellers across the country,” the spokesperson said.

This Central Act was, however, not applicable or implemented in Jammu and Kashmir in the last 14 years. It became applicable only after October 31, 2019.

Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Pandurang Kondbarao Pole said that the eviction drives across Kashmir division are against encroachers only.

“It is not under my notice that any orchards are being cut down,” the Divisional Commissioner said. “I will look into these incidents in Pulwama and Budgam districts.”

Deputy Commissioner Budgam Shahbaz Mirza and Deputy Commissioner Pulwama Raghav Langer didn’t respond to phone calls from this reporter even after repeated attempts.

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