From once a self-sufficient timber producer to a major importer, Kashmir’s forest tale has many chapters written in red. Shakir Mir reports the gulf between production and consumption in the backdrop of Kashmir’s conflict-ridden past
During a sodden September afternoon of 1994, Abdul Samad Dar, 40, of Banyari in Bandipora journeyed to Hajin in search of a wedding trousseau for his would-be bride daughter. On his way through the woods, he saw two gunmen axing willow trees mercilessly. Out of compassion, Dar reached the duo and made a feeble appeal against the cutting. Furious at his “audacity” to question them, one of the gunmen Bashir Yar, a counter-insurgent, drew his pistol and shot a flurry of bullets at Dar who staggered for a moment before falling off from Hajin Bridge. From the final dregs of strength left in him, Dar tried to struggle his way up the river but was shoved by spears back into the water. He died. Curiously, his body bobbed out some 7 km away in Banyari, just a few yards away from his home.
Nearly 25 years later, an RTI request (vide number ADRF/Dev/2015/405) filed by human rights lawyer Parvez Imroz revealed that more than 22 lakh plantations had been damaged by the “undesirable elements” in Banyari. Testimonials from the villagers implicated Ikhwanis, combatants who defected to the Indian side during the insurgency. A subsequent investigation couldn’t make any headway. Officials cited the “rule of unidentified gunmen” which created a fear psychosis in the village preventing the eye-witnesses from testifying. The case was closed.
Incidents like Dar’s death aren’t the only factors, which symbolize the wider malaise affecting forest management.
There are many. “Several factors including illegal felling, rapid urbanization, and political turbulence have strained forest more than they can withstand,” says Sheeba Hafiz, an environmental engineer.
An estimate reveals that J&K lost a staggering 6625 sq km of green cover between 1999 and 2013. Currently, the forest area in J&K is 20,230 sq km which is just 19.95 per cent of its total geographical area. The minimum desired across India is 33 per cent. However, in the Kashmir valley, the percentage of area under forest cover is over 50.
Before 1985, J&K had a robust forest cover and most of the timber requirement was satisfied through local extraction. Things, however, started to worsen when it underwent a drastic decline allegedly due to carte blanche extraction by private forest lessees. “They were private contractors who arbitrarily uprooted trees with impunity,” says a forest official wishing anonymity.
“When the government realised that they have nibbled away more than they should have, it swung into action.”
Subsequently, authorities banned the export of timber thinking it might give a fresh lease of life to the shrinking forest cover. Later in December 1996, the Apex court restricted the export of timber only through the State Forest Corporation, an arm of the forest department.
During the same period, the political insurgency virtually led to the breakdown of the administrative system. With barely anyone to watch over, forest resources became vulnerable to exploitation. It is believed that major denudation of forests took place during this period.
“But these are not the only reasons,” says Carin Fischer, a German-American consultant formerly working with the ministry of tourism J&K. “Many illegal timber fellers are locals who do this out of penury. When they have no employment, they resort to smuggling timber which sustains them.”
Fischer had been working diligently across hinterlands of Kashmir to counsel timber smugglers. She has trained at least 60 such smugglers as trekking guides while providing them means of alternative livelihood.
Officially government maintains that the status of timber smuggling has drastically come down. During 2010-11, a total of 3847 cases were registered which came down to 3499 in 2012-13. But observers dispute government claims. “Timber smuggling has not decreased, it has merely shifted from one place to another,” says Carin. “If you go to the upper reaches of Rafiabad, it looks like a graveyard of stumps. The area has become prone to landslides.”
But while Carin had some success in Rafiabad, a tough time awaited her in areas like Drang and Tosamaidan. Due to the better road connectivity to the higher reaches, she says, these areas become easily accessible to trucks and other heavy-duty vehicles. “With such easy access to forests, the timber fellers need no middlemen to carry out the job. They would make Rs 8000 per night as smugglers,” she says. “It was very difficult to provide them with an alternative livelihood.”
Carin says that the smugglers in these areas turned out to be very “nasty” compared to those she counselled in Rafiabad. “On many occasions, I was attacked by them,” she says. “In 2010, in Pulwama, an Australian journalist was severely thrashed while reporting on the issue and her belongings were snatched including the camera.”
While the felling in Rafiabad has somewhat come to stagnation, it is picking up in areas like Lolab in Kupwara. “There is a huge nexus of forest officials in Sopore-Baramulla belt,” says one former timber feller, who pleaded anonymity. “The barons in this industry are well-connected rich businessmen.”
This timber-smuggler-turned-tourist-guide says in these areas the army is not directly involved in the felling, but at checkpoints, they would let go vehicles, carts and ponies laden with an illegal timer once they are given a “certain percentage.”
During ’90s though, he alleges, the army stationed in far off villages in areas like Kupwara and Safapora, had erected sawmills to process illegally felled timber. “This timber would get transported to Indian cities like Nagpur and Bangalore,” he alleges.
Identifying the Rot
Apart from smuggling, the encroachment of forest land for construction has added to the attrition. “People in want of land often lay claim on forest areas,” say experts. “In absence of proper patrolling and demarcation in upper reaches, they erect structures without any fear of reprisal.”
Pertinently, an area of 13312.75 hectares of forest land is currently under illegal encroachment. Authorities managed to wrest control of only 47.25 from encroachers in 2013. Making matters worse, more than 950 hectares of forest land was diverted the same year. The figures for the year 2014 weren’t immediately available.
All these factors have cumulatively led to a situation of over-exploitation and degradations of eco-systems, says Professor G M Bhat, a geologist at Jammu University. Notably, the FSI -2011 report has revealed that almost 64 per cent of J&K forests have dense to moderately dense forest cover. It concluded that the rest 34 per cent of forests were degraded.
“These degraded forests are not feasible for harvesting,” says an official from the Forest Department. “Some good forest areas were included in wildlife area which made them out of bounds for timber extraction. This affected the overall productivity of forests.”
As per Supreme Court’s order (1996), state forest department is authorized to extract a maximum of 2.24 lakhs cubic meters of timber every year from state forests out of dried, diseased and fallen material only.
The average production of timber from the past many years has been around 80,000 cubic meters, according to official data.
Whereas the aggregate annual demand, officials say, stands at 21 million cubic feet or 6 lakh cubic meters. To meet the rest of the deficit of 5.2 lakh cubic meters between consumption and the supply of timber, the department relies on sources such as Trees out of Forests (TOF), and timber brought from other states and imported from foreign countries. The average import of timber from the last three years has been over 1 lakh cubic meters.
The exports have drastically come down while imports skyrocketed in the wake of massive urbanization and construction boom. “With the increase in purchasing power, a horizontal urban expansion has taken place which led to an aggressive demand for timber,” explains Hafiz.
Currently, J&K exports some 0.2054 thousand cubic meters of finished timber, mostly utilized to produce gun butts and cricket bats.
Another issue gnawing at the productivity of forests is the grazing pressure. Even the government acknowledges it as one major source of forest attrition. Annual Administrative Report by the Forest department last year expressed concern over the increasing cattle population. “Grazing pressure is becoming a major problem now and is affecting the grasslands,” says a Forest official.
The livestock census -2007 estimated that there are 109.9 lakh livestock population in J&K. Another estimation reached by the ISFR-2011 said that around 30.2 lakh livestock population is dependent on forests.
“Out of the total forest, not more than 50 per cent is available for grazing,” the official says. Assuming that 30 lakh cattle graze in the forest areas, the grazing intensity is more than three cattle per hectares, making it at least six times the permissible level, the Forest report maintains. “Currently we produce 17.8 lakh metric tons of fodder per day,” says Naveen Shah, Conservator Agrostology.
There is a yawning gulf between the demand and supply of annual fodder. Though officials say the demand is met by the agricultural crop residue but nonetheless, the grazing pressure, experts maintain, has had its impact on the forests. The conifer forests of the state are understood to have become deficient in regeneration. “To mitigate the crises, we are laying down fencing line each year on the open tracts of forests to restrict grazing,” an official said. The forest department on average lays down more than 20 lakh running feet of barbed wire fencing.
But fencing did not come without costs. A wildlife official speaking on the condition of anonymity tells Kashmir life that every year there are numerous cases of animal injuries due to barbed fencing. “Most impacted is the Asiatic Black Bear. It becomes a serious problem when bears are injured because the injury is difficult to be established considering their thick black fur. Ultimately the sores do putrefy and they die of infection,” he said.
“I think we need to have a sound forest policy that takes a holistic approach,” he says, relating to the recent news reports that a new forest policy was on the anvil. “Otherwise we would be perpetually crying horse over one thing or the other.”