Mian Altaf Ahmad in an interview with Tasavur Mushtaq
Kashmir Life: Does it look odd that Kashmir is importing timber?
Mian Altaf Ahmad: We don’t have any other option other than importing timber because if we use our timber only, it will damage our forests. There is a clear-cut direction from Supreme Court that there should be no green felling. We have to search dry timber as it is available in limited quantity.If we get all the timber in one year, we will be left with nothing. We can’t then move forward in a phased manner. The positive of importing timber is that it has reasonable rate and also people have a choice available in the market. As far as quality of imported timber is concerned we have done a survey in Forest institute Dehradun. We then informed people through media that the quality of timber is fine. Though it is not as good as Deodar but better than Kail and Fir. My experience of being in forest department is that imported timber should come in more quantity so that people feel relieved. Otherwise, they had to be in the long queue and still it is not available on time. Imported timber is beneficial to people involved in construction. If it would not have been there the rates of timber would have been touching the sky. Still, the rate of timber imported by Forest Corporation is high and not easily available.
KL: Is there any possibility of seeing forests as living beings, pruning them, regenerating them and taking them as a complete ecosystem and at the same time challenging theSupreme Court restrictions?
MA: We should not challenge restrictions of Supreme Court. I live in the Jungle. I say if there would not have been restrictions the damage would have been colossal. Then there was the possibility of official damage as well. One is that done by smugglers, and then our officers would also have got the opportunity to do the green felling. Ours is a tourist state, our beauty is importantly because of forests and rivers. As per Supreme Court, we can not even get dry timber from the forest for which we should move an application. There is dry timber in huge quantity lying unattended.
My experience of being in forest department is that imported timber should come in more quantity so that people feel relieved. Otherwise, they had to be in the long queue and still it is not available on time.
To get that we are moving to Supreme Court. At least Supreme Court should consider our request of allowing us to get timber present in wildlife area so that we can give it to people and generate revenue. Regarding development of forests are concerned, it is basically neglected area whether it is at the state level or central level. This time we have the budget of around 40 crore rupees in state allocation plan. Nearly 54 percent forest area we have in Jammu and Kashmir but for the forest, social forestry, soil conservation, research wing we only have 40 crores allocated.
In Government of India, we don’t have any priority sector for forests. We are managing our forests with limited resources.If forests are to be saved, there should be proper funding. This time we have the problem of manpower as well but with the passage of time that can be managed. We have to do fencing of the huge area. In Jammu there was barren land, the government with the help of civil society planted trees and now if you see there is a huge difference. That was ten years before. We could have done better but we have financial implications.
KL: What happened to forests in the last twenty years? Can you quantify that and tell us what is being done to recuperate that loss?
MA: I don’t have those figures with me right now. But definitely, there is damage. One because of smuggling and second due to land encroachments. We lost land and now what is remaining with us we are covering that. Blessing of almighty (Allah) is that wherever we cover the land, trees come there automatically. If you see my area Kangan near Prang is a new patch of land where trees have grown. In Rafiabad also the area we covered, trees have grown. The loss has been huge, no doubt about that. But what we have now is in need to be maintained so that there is no further damage. If we are successful in that I think we can to larger extent recuperate.
KL: Smuggling is a major issue. Your efforts in the recent past have borne fruit to some extent. But can we control smuggling only by punitive measures, or is there a need to work on rehabilitation policy?
MA: We have delegated authority to deputy commissioners and our officers to talk with these people. We will give priority to these people as we have given in past. A positive development is that people themselves want it to stop. There is the participation of people in forest preservation now. I believe smuggling will be no more there and it has to go.
KL: Let’s move beyond forests now. Integrated watershed development part one is history. But part second is your responsibility. What has happened to that?
MA: Project of stage second is with union forest ministry and other concerned ministries in Delhi as we have already submitted it to them. Till this date, we have not received any response so that we can anticipate that funds will be sanctioned. There are no signals to be hopeful. Now that project is old by seven years but initially, we attempted and tried very much but Government of India did not sanction it.
KL: It is said that to get a sanction, a special type of document was to be signed for which the government was not ready. Is this correct?
MA: As far as the state government is concerned they had nothing to do with signing the document. But what had been the problems of GoI, whether they discuss with World Bank or not. We told GoI to discuss the issue with World Bank but we have not got any response that what are the obstacles and what GoI is doing to get them off. We pleaded our case.
KL: But is it not possible for the Government of India to give the money which otherwise was going to come from the World Bank? What is the problem in that?
MA: We raised this issue with the central government. We gave them another project for World Bank to get it from Japanese Bank. That is lying with the forest ministry of GoI. What you said is I think justified that GoI should compensate us if they have any problem in getting international funding. It is the duty and moral obligation of GoI to compensate us and this project is not unaffordable for them.
KL: Wullar restoration is another important issue for which GoI has already sanctioned a project. What is the progress in that?
MA: Funds for Wullar are not available to us yet. We are done with project report, officers have been deputed. In near future, I expect work on that.
KL: You are in the process of creating new structures to implement the project of Wullar. Many people are of the opinion that you are reinventing the wheel. We have one lake development authority. Is it not possible to handle the administrative issue of that body at the cabinet level and give authority to it for implementing the project?
MA: See, the cabinet will decide about it. We are of the opinion that it should not be given to LAWDA. There are technical problems as it involves a lot of forest work which can be done by forest department only. If forest department will handle this there will be the less official hassle. The final decision is of the government. This time our priority is to start work.
KL: For some time now, you are working for Jungle Resort Corporation. What exactly is it all about?
MA: Jungle Resort Corporation is already in some states like in the North East and Bangalore. There are beautiful jungle resorts I have seen in Bangalore. On the same lines we have developed them at few places particularly in Poonch Daira Ki Gali and Kangan and the results are positive. This will be different than what is done by the department of tourism. We are doing it in the same way as the local tradition permits. We won’t be having buildings of cement and bricks.
Now we have beautiful tents available in which there are facilities of the toilet and basic things.We wish to have those in the land designated for them. In the making of jungle resorts, there should be no felling of trees, no metallic roads.In this, we have one more benefit and that is not diverting land. Otherwise, department of tourism has to follow long procedure. We constitute the society of local people and give them the project of jungle resorts. Like in case of Daira Ki Gali which is now complete, a DFO was the chairman of the body of locals, the money for the project was managed by them. Compared to other states Kashmir has more scope of jungle resorts as the area under forest is huge. There are destinations which are unexplored, we can have basic facilities there so that nature lovers can visit and enjoy.
KL: Man-animal conflict is on the rise. You recently took a decision of giving compensation. But is the issue being managed on a long-term and sustainable basis?
MA: This is really a difficult task. This is not tough only for the department but for everybody. The bear population is increasing. There are laws in place that we can’t kill them. It has to be seen first whether that animal has killed someone or not. There is a need to amend laws. I think we have to do something for these man-eater animals. In rural areas, we have to strengthen our department and will surely keep on doing that. We will spread awareness. People should resort to the old tradition of keeping the lighting lamp outside and beating of drums which they used to do for saving their crops.
KL: You talked about encroachments. What about the official diversion of forest land? Do you have a roadmap to stop diversion pressure on forest land?
MA: Forest land is under pressure, there is no doubt about that. The land is being diverted. This time in Jammu province most of the land is being diverted. In that, we are also liberal because, in areas of Doda, Gool Gulab Garh, Mahore, Ramban, there are places where there is no road for long distances. There are connectivity problems, water supply schemes, so we are liberal. We are compensating that by planting trees. In Kashmir, we have put some restrictions as there is no road problem and thus pressure is not that much. We have a policy not to give land for education and health department, we even don’t want to give land to the tourism department. Only in case of roads, PHE, irrigation schemes we are a bit liberal as that is the basic requirement. Also in case of roads, we are talking to departments for re-alignment to minimize the area for diversion.
KL: Kashmir has become the crucible of climatic change. Is the government working on some policy to counter the adversity of change?
MA: See we are working on that. Not only our department but also the University and few NGOs are working on that. We had few conferences as well. But my belief is that this all is in the hands of Almighty. If we will say that we can save glaciers, which we cannot do that. We will do whatever we can but let us pray to Allah for his help.