Paradise lost and regained

Deforestation threatens Kashmir


Illegal tree felling and encroachment of forest land is a major problem in Jammu and Kashmir

Kashmir is known world over for its verdant forests, lovely lakes, snow clad mountains and breath taking landscapes. However, the picturesque valley, described by poets as a ‘Paradise on Earth’, is getting denuded due to massive deforestation over the last several decades.

Apart from felling the trees, the forest lands are encroached upon.

According to a report of Forest Survey of India, 8,128 square kms are under forest cover in Jammu and Kashmir. While  429  sq kms come under very dense forests, 2,599 sq kms under moderately dense forests, 2,320 sq kms under open forests and 2,780 sq kms are non-commercial forests (major portion of which includes Alpine Blanks, pastures and glaciers).

Following massive deforestation, 143.752 sq kms of forest land were encroached upon. In Jammu, 94.976 sq kms are under the occupation of encroachers, while in Kashmir the encroached forest land is 48.776 sq km.

The state government was able to recover 19.19 sq kms. This included 18.65 sq kms in Kashmir and 0.54 sq km in Jammu. The  encroachers cultivated the forest lands or constructed buildings on it.

Seventy five-year-old Munawar Mohammad, a farmer in south Kashmir, is very upset with the loot of the jungles. “In my childhood we could see very dense  forests spread over a vast area. Kashmir  looked  really  beautiful at that time. The large-scale cutting of trees started in the early 1970s,” he said.

Public Safety Act

The farmer added that the timber smugglers, in connivance with some Forest Department officials indulged in illegal activity. “Despite the change of governments, the massive deforestation did not stop. Even stringent action by the state government by booking smugglers under the Public Safety Act (PSA) could not stop the rampant timber smuggling,” Munawar said. Under the PSA, a person could  be jailed for six months to two years without trial by a court.

Manpower, arms shortage

Abdul Gani, a Forest Department official, said his department should not be solely held responsible for the loss of forests. “Surely there are some black sheep in the Forest Department, who indulge in such malpractices. The Department is also short of manpower to protect large  forests and ill-equipped to do so. The smugglers carry sharp-edged weapons and sometimes arms, posing a tough challenge to the officers,” he said.

The state government had set up  a Forest Protection Force some years ago to safeguard the forests.  Now it is trying to strengthen the force to put an end to smuggling forest wealth.

The new Forest minister Mian Altaf Ahmad said the forests have suffered immensely over the years. “Our efforts are to put a complete stop to timber smuggling and save our forests,” he said. Altaf added that efforts are on to evict the encroachers from the forest land.

“The Department has taken various steps to check encroachment. FIRs are lodged against encroachers and special drives undertaken to recover these encroached lands,” the minister stated.

Anti-smuggling

He added that to restore the degraded forests, various schemes have been introduced. These include the chief minister’s participatory afforestation programmes, pasture and fodder development, development of minor forest produce, National
Afforestation Programme, Macro Management of Agriculture, River Valley Project / Flood prone river and Eco Restoration of Degraded Catchments (ERDC).

The forests suffered more losses during the last two decades of political turmoil. in the  border state.  Taking advantage of the disturbed situation, the smugglers had a field day.

With militancy comparatively under check now, the state government intends to deal with the menace of smuggling with an iron hand.

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