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Saturday, January 30, 2010

Yes it’s possible, even after Terra Naomi shed her tears at Gulmarg !
In an ecological massacre, 100,000 conifer trees felled in a Kashmir jungle

AHMED ALI FAYYAZ

ARIZAL, (Beerwah), Jan 30: In clear absence of a political and bureaucratic will, successive governments in Jammu & Kashmir have done nothing substantial to effectively curb the menace of timber smuggling, particularly in Kashmir valley, in the last few decades. Unlike Police and civil administration, equally sensitive Forest sector has witnessed hardly any replenishment of skilled and technical manpower in the last 25 years. Consequently, most of the Valley’s sylvan cover stands exposed to the never-controlled activities of thousands of timber smugglers. SPSP Range of the notorious Pir Panjal Forest Division, in Beerwah area of Budgam district, is a typical example of near-total collapse of the official machinery. YouTube’s American sensation Terra Naomi had shot her latest hit on global warming and ecological degradation in the adjoining Gulmarg range of PP Division in December last.

With an extensive grid in the “liberated zone” of Arizal, a cluster of four particular villages of Sutharan, Chhill, Brass and Drung has emerged as the “Mandi” of timber smugglers in upper Beerwah in the last 20 years. Every second inhabitant here has adopted timber smuggling as profession. Nothing, in fact, without reason. One doesn’t need four eyes to learn that the politicians’ and the officials’ claims of curbing the menace of timber smuggling is invariably for the consumption of few people in the capital cities of Srinagar and Jammu.

Call it surrender or manpower deficiency, Forest Department has a total of eight unarmed officials to check the activities of 300 timber smugglers---all of them armed with lathis, chains and axes--- of Sutharan area. Results are obvious: Over 200 attacks on Forest and Forest Protection Force (FPF) officials in the last 12 years.

Forester Farooq Ahmed of Zanigam was gunned down for taking on the smugglers in 1995. Forest Guard Abdul Rehman of Sonpah village was hacked to death with axes for the same “crime” in October 1997. Hardly anybody has had to suffer for three of such broad daylight murders in the last 12 years. Thousands of reports of illegal felling of trees stand registered in the files of PP Division but few of the smugglers have been arrested. Even the orders of detention under PSA, issued by District Magistrate of Budgam, have been implemented in breach in case of the well-connected smugglers of Beerwah-Khansahab belt.

Bashir Ahmed of Arizal is among the few timber smugglers who were arrested under PSA and detained in a Jammu jail. It took him just Rs 50,000 and two months to return back to the business. Lateef Pathan of Hillmanz hamlet happens to be among very few who failed to get his detention quashed.

For the first time in nearly 20 years, senior Forest officials, led by none other than Minister incharge Forest and Environment Mian Altaf Ahmed, toured through this “liberated zone” in the middle of last year. Residents insist that no PCCF, CCF or CF had ever visited SPSP range ever since the outbreak of armed insurgency in 1989. With the confirmation of departmental sources, they claim that timber smugglers have felled over 100,000 green conifer trees, approximately valued at Rs 1,000 Crore, in different compartments of SPSP range alone in the last 20 years. Rs 3,000 stands as the “rate” for permitting a tree of any size and age in the vast Beerwah-Arizal-Raithan belt. “Just last week, Forest Guard Arshid sold off such a tree in full knowledge of residents, close to Army’s post at Raiyar”, local sources revealed.

Forest Minister Mian Altaf himself spotted ponies carrying loads of illegally felled timber without any fear from the authorities. He got nearly a dozen of the smugglers arrested and their ponies, alongwith timber, seized. Barely 40 minutes after the Minister’s departure, some 200 timber smugglers and their family members, all armed with lathis and axes, stormed the newly created FPF camp, beat the Forest and FPF officials to the pulp, tied them to trees and structures with ropes and got all the detainees rescued. They looted not only the timber seized but also a quantity of what the officials had earlier seized from other areas. Entire drama occurred in close vicinity of a Police camp, specially laid for “protection” of the forest officials.


And when SPSP Range Officer, Aijaz, threatened to uproot the empire of timber smugglers last fortnight, they lost not a minute to teach him a lesson. With 18 stitches on his head, the poor Bollywood hero has been battling for life at Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Science (SKIMS) Soura. None of the senior officers has bothered to even visit him at the hospital.

In days of the murderous attack on RO, Government has ordered removal of the DFO PP Division and posted two “incharge DFOs”---- one at the divisional headquarters at Budgam and another at the “Special Forest Division Tangmarg”. But the “remedial measure” has been patently adhocist. A senior official, posted at Tangmarg, has been put on a substantive vacancy of ACF in the parent PP Division and asked to report to a far junior “incharge DFO” at Budgam. “Government has not created any Special Forest Division at Tangmarg. There is no such DFO or staff at Tangmarg. Tangmarg continues to be the headquarters of Gulmarg Range in PP Division”, said a senior official of Planning department in Civil Secretariat.

“It is not very difficult to take on these timber smugglers. All 400 of them live in four particular villages and operate with nearly 300 horses in the two most endangered blocks of Zoogu and Ringzabal”, said a junior official of SPSP Range. He added: “It is a well connected network. Their money goes to top corridors of power. But, let it be clear that entire network is limited to officers, very senior officers, and, to the best of our knowledge, none of the politicians is a beneficiary, at least in this area”. According to him, transfer of officers every three and six months, without any obvious reason, had “far more between the lines”. Posting of local ROs and Foresters, according to him, was akin to handing over everything to the thief.

“We are running acute shortage of technical staff. PP is one of J&K’s largest divisions spread between Sangarwani in Pulwama district to Khag in Budgam district to Kreeri in Baramulla district. Everybody in the division has four-fold, five-fold responsibility. We still seized 10 vehicles and 325 horses, with huge quantity of timber in the last 6 months of my posting”, outgoing DFO of PP Division Wali Mohammad Ganai said. According to him, skeletal Forest and FPF staff had neither any arms and ammunition nor adequate number of vehicles and communication equipment. There were no funds, either. On the other hand, smugglers are always armed and enjoy support from “powerful people”.

“Forest Department has witnessed last recruitment of Assistant Conservators of Forest and Range Officers 15 to 25 years ago. There is no scope of recruitment of B Sc and M Sc Forestry candidates in the current process of Public Service Commission as it has allowed nearly 10,000 ordinary graduates of different non-Forestry subjects to appear in the competition for 30-odd vacancies of ACFs. FPF was created in December 1996 but no Deputy Directors (DDs) or Assistant Directors (ADs) have been recruited in the last over 13 years”, another official of over 30 years service record observed. He added: “Every incoming and outgoing Forest Minister will keep saying that Government is doing this and that to save our forests. Fact of the matter is that nobody is doing anything. There’s no political or bureaucratic will”. According to him, timber smuggling was “Rs 2,000 Cr a year” business in the state.

END