Dinesh Manhotra& Sumit Hakhoo
Tribune News Service
Jammu, May 12
Though administrative loopholes and greed have been the major reasons for vandalism of forests in Jammu and Kashmir for decades, the onset of insurgency in 1989-90 speeded up illegal felling of trees. Timber smuggling turned into an occupation for many, benefiting both militant groups and counterinsurgents.
Till the late 1980s, influential families close to the National Conference, including the Burzas, Shahdads, Bakshis, Khans of Anantnag, Wanis of Doda and Sarafs and Trehans, had exclusive rights over the timber trade under the lease granted to them in the early 1950s, but the breakdown of the administrative system in 1989-90 following the eruption of militancy left forests open to reckless cutting.
Militant groups and government-backed counterinsurgents — Ikhwanis — were directly involved in felling of trees, which helped them fund their activities in the Kashmir valley.
Visible destruction of forests was seen in the erstwhile Doda district, where thousands of hectares of mountains, having a finest deodar cover, were decimated. The plunder continues to this day.
“Smugglers associated themselves with militants and government-backed counterinsurgents. The spoils were shared as donations for terror groups and counterinsurgents alike. It has now become an organised network with wide political contacts, making it difficult to break,” said a senior Forest Department official on condition of anonymity.
Despite J&K having democratically elected government since 1996, nothing much has changed. The announcement of strict measures against the timber mafia by the successive governments has failed to curb the illegal timber trade.
“Vast stretches of forests have vanished over the years in Rajouri, Poonch, Doda and the Kandi belt. Villagers living around Mughal Road have turned forests into maize fields. As per an estimate, 1.50 lakh trees, mostly in erstwhile Doda district, were felled in the 1990s,” said Hari Krishan, a retired forester.
This can be substantiated by figures provided by the government. Going by the government data, between 2013 and 2016, 1,22,482 cubic feet of timber was seized by law enforcement agencies.
A total of 4,872 cases are registered against the timber mafia in the Jammu region, while 945 cases are registered against with the police in the Valley.
Sources say that though the presence of security forces has brought down illegal felling in Kashmir to some extent, green patches are open to the timber mafia in the Jammu region.
Minister of State for Forests and Ecology Zahoor Ahmed Mir said there has been a lot of destruction of forests in the past around 40 years. The minister said long-term policies were being followed to curb the menace. “Eight persons have been detained under the Public Safety Act for illegal timber trade in the past three years. The government has submitted 37 dossiers to the District Magistrates. This is a long fight against unscrupulous elements,” Zahoor said.
Militancy has also kept Forest Department officials away from dense forests.
Timber smuggling has become a source of employment for thousands of unemployed persons as militancy has affected the economy in the Valley, forcing people to turn to forests and cut down trees to earn livelihood and earn quick bucks.
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