For the timber smugglers the summer of unrest, a boon

Srinagar, Jan 16 (ANI): In Kashmir behind the smoke-screen of the continuing unrest beginning in summer last and continuing for a few months, timber smugglers have been working overtime to loot as much of green gold as they could.

This is not the first time. Sources say that when militancy broke out and gathered momentum in the nineties, it was pretty much the same scenario.

The spread of their operations is vast according to reports. Lush forests in the Kothar range, Shopian-Pulwama, Doodganaga range, Rithan range, Beerwah range, Googaldhara area in Tangmarg, Rafiabad, Doabgah range and Kandi range of Baramulla are affected zones.

The forests are no doubt spread over a wide expanse across the valley. Vigilance naturally cannot be water-tight even though there are laws in place and an entire department is dedicated to it. But whatever the systems and mechanisms had been prior to the summer of unrest in Kashmir, it simply fell apart.

Timber smuggling actually means the process, the entire chain of events to reach the timber to the market. Illegal felling is what starts this process. At every step, there need to be checks and technically they are there.

It is just that the entire region was engulfed by the cycle of violence, that the system quite literally froze. Thus giving a free hand to the criminals.

"I believe the extent of damage done to the forests in these areas during these three months has taken forest damage back to the levels of 1990s when militancy was at its peak and the timber smugglers were having a free run," confessed a senior officer of Forest department on conditions of anonymity.

Forests are an open and not a locked treasure; so one can expect illegal felling anywhere and at any time, but in the current unrest even the official monitoring mechanism has fallen apart which has only contributed to the increased illegal activity," he added.

It would however be na‹ve to assume that it was due to the power-vaccum alone that the rampant felling of trees and smuggling of wood took place or at any rate heightened its pace. No activity concerning the 'commons' can be conducted without the knowledge if not the tacit approval of the local community.

It is now an accepted fact that impoverished communities contribute to the destruction of the forests, often by turning a blind eye to their exploitation by outside parties. So has been the case in this beautiful vale. The plunder of forest then gets into another gear that of actual transporting the loot through a maze of check-posts established by the Forest Department.

According to the forest officer , these are lax which leads to safe passage to these jungle smugglers. He attributed this laxity to the excessive red-tape plaguing the Forest Department. .

"We are still relying on and using techniques which are already outdated and obsolete while the demand of the hour is that these need to be changed." For instance, the Forest Protection Fund meant for the protection of the forests is same as it was in 1989, which obviously needs to be increased.

The hands of the Forest Officers are also tied. They actually need to be co-opted into a network which would work to bust the smuggling rackets. But sadly there is no such plan on the anvil, nor any funds available to action it. This actually would be an effective counter-move to combat the network of timber smugglers and illegal fellers.

In such a scenario, the connivance of the local authorities or some elements within it is a given. Locals of Tangmarg area of North Kashmir's Baramulla district allege that "not only are the timber smugglers involved in the game but the Special Operations Group (SOG) people are also involved."

"The SOG people ferry illegal timber in their official vehicles during night time," alleged Abdul Hamid Wagay of Chandilora, Tangmarg. The losses meanwhile are mounting.

The Chief Conservator of Forests, Molvi Shafat Ahmad admitted that illegal felling of trees and timber smuggling had increased over the months of unrest but claims that the situation has normalised.

He says the damage to the trees at the moment is more localised and not part of a larger design by the illegal traders. " Now situation is under control as most of our forest staff is back to their job" That the Forest Department needs to tighten its belt is a foregone conclusion. But the issue needs to be seen in the wider perspective.

Yes environmental degradation is a live issue across the country where the Ministry of Environment is taking stringent steps to bring defaulters to book whether they be connected with the mining industry, residential townships or SEZ's. These measures should put a halt to the designs of land profiteers or industry barons who have their eyes set on plundering the area.

In Kashmir, there are different dynamics at work. The eruption of conflict throws a spanner in the process of environmental protection by the state. This has been demonstrated during the recent months as well as the previous phase of militancy.

The systems of checks and monitoring established by the government stand compromised during the period of unrest. The Charkha development news service underlines that this needs to be addressed. Even if we go by the claims of the Forest Department that once the unrest subsides, it is back to normal, there still is a need to be vigilant, to have a system in place which would not allow the green-gold of Kashmir to be compromised again and again. By Zeenat Zeeshan Fazil (ANI)

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