When a group of bureaucrats and policemen trekked through dense woods in south Kashmir recently, it was a departure from the usual engagements between insurgents and government forces. Instead, it aimed to stem a sudden upsurge in timber smuggling.
Raghav Langer, the deputy commissioner (DC) of Pulwama, had been “surprised” to see the rapid felling of trees in the Sangerwani forest range.
The team trekked almost 30 kilometres deep inside the forest to get an idea of the illegal activities being carried out. “Some of the locals also informed the DC that no forest official has ever visited the area to curb such activities,” the official statement released by the DC’s office said.
The fact-finders admitted that during the field visit to the Namblan and Anderwali forest blocks of the Sangerwani belt, they saw many felled pine trees.
“What we saw there was a sight of a tree massacre,” an official who had made the trip said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Smugglers have hit us quite badly in this lockdown.” Such is the damage that the authorities had to get drones into action to assess it.
Plunder during the pandemic
Taking advantage of the ongoing lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak, timber smugglers in Kashmir are having a field day. For the past two months, there has been rampant felling of pine trees in different forest ranges, particularly in south Kashmir.
This is not just happening in Pulwama; reports emanating from all other districts of Kashmir point towards a flourishing timber-smuggling operation.
The forest department has struggled to put effective tree-protection mechanisms in place. “At least 50 to 80 smugglers are active in our forest range,” said Mohammad Ramzan, a resident of Kupwara. “Hundreds of horses carrying timber move out of the area daily.”
Ramzan said that smugglers burn the tree stumps to give an impression that the trees have been cut long ago and are old. The locals blame the authorities for what is going on.
“Due to the ongoing lockdown, the police and forest guards aren’t able to guard the forests properly and the smugglers are continuing unabated looting of the forests,” said Mohammad Rizwan, a resident of Kudara in north Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
Rizwan said that even after some guards were deployed in response to many complaints, they were not able to handle the situation by themselves.
Data shared by the Conservators of Forests for the north, south and central circles (Kashmir) of the valley show a sudden jump in the amount of timber seized and smugglers caught.
A total of 1,488.7 cubic feet (cft) of illicit timber was recovered in January and February this year. This rose to 2,058 cft from the start of the lockdown on March 25 till now.
Twenty three alleged smugglers were arrested in the first two months of the year, and 32 first information reports (FIRs) registered in different police stations. Seven vehicles were confiscated along with six horses being used to carry the timber.
Since the lockdown, 130 people have been arrested and 62 FIRs registered; 14 vehicles and 27 horses have been seized. The operation is still going on, according to Tawheed Ahmad Deva, conservator of forests for the south circle.
Some officials say the forest department’s manpower shortage is aiding the deforestation.
“We have a tough range in south Kashmir and we lack manpower to handle it. There are some areas where we need 100 men but we have only 60,” Deva said. He said that a single forest guard had to take care of 3-4 square kilometres.
Due to the spike in timber smuggling, a high-level committee has been formed and asked to submit a report. Once the report is ready, any person found involved in timber smuggling will be punished according to law, even if he is a government official, Deva said.
“We have shifted and attached almost all the staff from the Sangerwani belt. We will take necessary action once the report comes,” Deva told The Third Pole
Deva admitted that during the lockdown people had turned to forests with the intention of smuggling, possibly to boost their incomes. “I must tell you everything is under control,” he added.
Junior employees paint a grimmer picture. “When a smuggler is caught, he’s asked to pay a bribe. If he does not, then he’s jailed. This is what happens most of the time,” said a forest guard from north Kashmir who wished to remain anonymous.
The 2,000 cft of timber that the officials had recovered was a fraction of the amount actually felled during the lockdown, he said.
Officially, the government maintains that it has the situation under control. “Due to the lockdown, our ground staff were unable to be on ground initially,” said Irfan Rasool, conservator of forests for the north circle. “They were denied movement passes but as things improved and when we received many complaints, we ensured that the team is back on the job.”
After the complaints, Rasool said, they increased patrolling and ‘protection forces’ in the forests. He attributed rising unemployment and people sitting idle at home among the reasons for more trees being felled during the lockdown. “They [smugglers] are taking advantage of the people and authorities being indoors for the lockdown.”
The department has taken cognisance of some complaints and action will follow, said Syed Farooq Geelani, chief conservator of forests, Kashmir. He said that these kinds of incidents usually happen when there is a lockdown or any kind of unrest in Kashmir. “Some people take advantage of the situation and resort to looting but our team is always on [the] job and tries to protect the forest wealth,” Geelani told The Third Pole
The conservators in north and south Kashmir, he said, went to the spots themselves and assessed the situation after complaints from residents. “I have also sent a team of higher officials from the department to assess the damage in Sangerwani forest range,” Geelani said.
However, Nadeem Qadri, an environment lawyer and executive director of the Centre for Environmental Law, said the new forest laws under the J&K Reorganisation Act, 2019, passed suddenly in August last year, are ineffective. “Laws in the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir were more robust, as they were based on Maharaja’s principle of natural resource management and conservation,” he said.
As of now, he said, the Indian Forest Act 1927 has not been fully implemented in Kashmir, and “our forests will be more prone to forest clearances and damage”.
“You can see the mismanagement of forests in the northern states of India because of the Indian Forest Act 1927,” Qadri said. “You can get permission to build a dam via email within a day. There is no environment impact assessment in the act, which means disaster for the forests. With the new laws timber smuggling is getting encouraged after August 5 and forest offences have increased in Jammu and Kashmir, where plundering of the green gold is being done with a sense of impunity.”