Almost all the young men of a forest village in Baramulla district indulge in timber smuggling, while the dealers make huge profits they continue to languish in poverty, and ignorance. Waseem Ahad reports
Every morning Mushtaq Ahmad (name changed), 26, takes one-and-a-half hour walk in the Kandi forests of north Kashmir’s Baramulla district with other young men of his Cherihaar village to reach the spot with lot of trees. By afternoon they are back home with logs of hewed timber.
The village does not have any roads and is a two-and-a-half hour trek from the nearest road link of Botingoo in Baramulla district. Customers and timber smugglers from other places come to Cherihaar and take the timber to different villages and towns where it sells at a good price. In Cherihaar it sells a hundred rupees a cubic foot.
Mushtaq earns 300 rupees in a “work day”. After returning from the forest, Mushtaq takes a rest. He does not do other work. He has nothing to do at home.
“There is nothing to do in this village except cutting trees to make a living,” he says.
The people of Cherihaar are the main suppliers of smuggled timber in the area. However, they still are a poor lot. Lack of irrigation does not leave much scope for productive agricultural activity. The apple orchards in the village appear to be withering and people have stopped growing vegetables in the village as irrigation is scarce. The land can only grow hay that stands in blocks in the farmlands of the village.
“Six or seven years ago we would grow beans and other vegetables, but drought has affected everything,” says Abid. “The only work available to us is cutting trees and selling timber.”
Almost all the young men in the village cut down trees in the forest and sell the illicit timber to earn a living. But they all get cagey with the word smuggler and prefer to use timber worker instead.
Abid says, “We know it is like cutting our own legs with an axe. Our environment gets affected. Then we look at our families. Tell me what else we can do?”
The villagers have to trek two-and-a-half hours to reach the nearest village with a road link to buy commodities, which they carry as head load or on horse backs to their village.
“If we go for work in these villages we’ve to walk for five hours. You know how much exhausting it is climbing the mountains every day,” says 28-year-old Zahoor Ahmad.
There are only four government employees in Cherihaar village and rest of villagers are “timber workers’.
The forest department officials over the years have tried various tactics to prevent the men of Cherihaar from indulging in axing trees and timber smuggling. But the department’s efforts such as raids on the smugglers, nakas, and booking them under various laws have failed to control the supply of timber from this village.
Each family in this village has at least two members working as timber smugglers and each smuggler has at least six FIRs against him, forest officials say. They allege that the lackadaisical police action has emboldened the timber smugglers.
“Police picks them up, keeps them in the lock up for ten or twelve days and then release them,” says Range Officer Kandi, Mohammad Ayoob Pandith, “And then they start cutting trees from next day.”
A senior forest department employee blames poverty, absence of development, such as a road, and lack of basic amenities and employment avenues as the main causes behind their continuance indulgence in timber smuggling.
“Lack of education among these people makes them incapable of change”, he said.
The village has a middle school which runs from a two-room building with 150 students on roll and three teachers.
Most of the village children, especially girls, drop out of the school before reaching 8th class. Among the few who pass the 8th class don’t go to a high school as it is too far from the village.
“Everyday children have to walk for hours to reach school so they prefer to stay home,” says Mohammad Rajab who pulled his daughter out of the school after she passed 8th standard.
“You can’t send a lonely girl by this road. Circumstances are not favourable,” he said.
His other daughter, Sajana, is putting up with an acquaintance in Botingoo village, where she is studying in Class 10. There is only one more girl who has studied upto 10th class. Sajana Rajab is one of the two girls in the village who are studying in class ten. The other one is Masrat Nazir, who would take along his brother as a chaperon when she had to appear in the exams.
Six boys of the village have made it to a higher secondary and only one to the college leaving a large number of children and young men uneducated and unemployable.
Women in the village have to travel a kilometere to fetch drinking water. A single water spring outside the village sees a beeline of women waiting for their turn to fetch water.
“It seems we are living in a hell,” said a woman who was carrying a pot of water on her head. “Tell the government we are also human beings. Tell them what we are going through.”
The narrow muddy pathway in the village is covered in ankle deep mud. The lanes carry rainwater and household waste to the nearby stream.
“In autumn the water in the spring is very little and we have to walk long distances to fetch it and in winter the pathways and the trek are muddy and slippery, and the water is dirty,” said another woman.
Almost all the 53 households in the village live in similar conditions.
Former MLA Sopore, Haji Abdul Rashid, had laid the foundation stone of a road that would have connected Cherihaar village, raising hopes of a better future among the villagers. The road was never built.
Locals they say they approached the current MLA of the area, to “re quest him to start the work on the road. “He said, ‘go and worship that stone (foundation stone of the road)’,” says Riyaz, a Cherihaar resident.
The locals are angry with the political leaders.
The government except for the forest department and police seems to be missing in their lives.
“Not a single government official has ever visited this place. There is no health care centre in the village. People have to take their patients to Botingoo or Mundji on a wooden stretcher, which is very tough, especially during nights,” says Showkat Ahmad, a local resident.
The people in Cherihaar village don’t appear to enjoy timber smuggling.
“Who wants to do this job (timber smuggling)? This is not a respectful one. If they (government) shift us to some other place it would be easy for us to do something different,” says Ahmad. Everyone is after us. Forest guards come and register an FIR and some of us are later sent to jail.”
Nazir Ahmad Lone, 36, is the father of six children – three daughters and three sons. In the forest village he is the first, and till recently the only, person to have passed secondary school. He is hopeful that the village will prosper. Nazir has travelled to cities like Kolkatta and Delhi.
All his children are studying, three of them outside the village. He believes that education can get these people out of these miseries. He is looking forward to putting all his children through college.
“After graduation they should be able to get a job in the government, at least under the reserved seats of resident of backward area category,” says Nazir.
As a young man, Nazir had also indulged in timber smuggling but later switched over to fruit business and made good money. His wife is an Anganwari worker.
Most of the people believe that a government job can pull them out of poverty. “By getting a government job they can earn a living, a better one, and they would stop cutting trees,” says local resident Mohmmed Ayub.
The forest Range Officer Pandith, who knows the area thoroughly says that the villagers are poor and can barely manage a square meal but they have to learn to make innovative use of the available land.
“The villagers should cultivate potatoes and beans and vegetables to reduce their dependency on other villages for vegetables and save some money. They can produce milk and meat by rearing cattle,” he said. “If they want to live better they have to help themselves.”
Though he acknowledges the challenges the villagers face and official apathy towards them he says, “People have to evolve their own thinking. If they don’t have water they have to dig a well.”