The vanishing forests of Jammu and Kashmir are affecting the State's environment and economy. LUV PURI writes of the urgent need to stop the rampant deforestation.
AS the tourists from India and abroad throng Jammu and Kashmir this summer, little do they know that the State is sitting on an ecological minefield. A clear hint will come during the monsoons when landslides on the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway 1A a recurring feature now block the routes. This may be a short-term solution to a more serious problem. But for people living away from the urban centres or even the National Highway 1A, no temporary remedy is in sight. For instance, Mohammad Bashir a Gujjar tribal living on the western side of the Ladha Dhar range finds it difficult to feed his livestock, the only source of his livelihood. So, he is planning to sell a part of his flock.
Bashir is a victim of the fodder famine. In Jammu and Kashmir where dairy farming is still a subsistence activity, feed and fodder forms 60 per cent of the production cost. The pitiable condition of many on the higher reaches away from the spotlight is a symptom of an impending crisis and can affect the foundation of state's economy, if unchecked. This is a direct consequence of the merciless deforestation of the remote areas for decades, leaving several remote hamlets bereft of green cover.
The State has already lost more than 13 per cent of its forest area in the last four decades. Going by official figures, on an average, the State has lost 74.37 sq.km. of its forest area every year in the last 40 years. In a State where 48 per cent of the rural population is directly or indirectly dependent on forests, the economic consequences could not be long delayed. The forest wealth of the State includes trees like Deodhar, Blue Pine and Silver Fir. A normal Deodhar tree is 120 feet tall and is worth over Rs.1,00,000 in the market. This has borne the main brunt of exploitation. More than 40,00,000 Deodhar trees were extracted from the dense forests, directly affecting the livelihood of poor households.
Even in pre-1947 era, the abundant forest wealth was one of the main sources of revenue for the State. The state not only met its own needs but was also the main source of raw material of wood for northwestern India before Partition. It was also responsible for the spiralling growth of the industries mainly the sports and furniture established in 1920s. The Chenab flowing through the area was a vital means of transportation of timber from forests.
But after 1947, high altitude areas of the segment, once a green zone, fell victim to ruthless deforestation and poor planning. Partition did not decrease the demand for timber; it continued to increase. The State Forest Minister Ghulam Mohi-u-Din Sofi says, "As per the law, only dry trees can be cut and we have banned the export of high quality timber outside the State. But the demand of the timber even within the State is increasing every day, making people break the laws."
The State falls on the unstable geological formation of the rising Himalayas. Deforestation is described as the root cause of various ecological problems, whether landslides or shrinking water bodies. Retired Chief Conservator of Forests and well-known environmentalist, Sohan Singh, says, "The Jammu-Srinagar National Highway 1A was constructed by cutting the hilly areas without planting trees along the sides, which made it susceptible to frequent landslides. Thus soil erosion started and the areas were no longer suitable for cultivation. The village economy was no longer self-sufficient and some areas close to the highway were even washed away, particularly in the Ramban belt midway on the highway."
Several remote hamlets are bereft of green cover.
Checks devised by the authorities failed to prevent the illegal timber extraction in the remote areas. The State Government granted licenses to the forest contractors to fell trees. Trees were felled and later sold in the open markets. Ironically, the forest contractors settled in towns owed their economic prosperity to the timber trade, while the local population in the forest rich belts remained steeped in poverty. The local involvement in the timber trade was restricted to manual labour and shifting timber sleepers after they were cut.
In 1979, increasing criticism led the Government to nationalise the sale of timber. Only the State Forest Corporation was allowed auction the timber. The forest contractors were allowed only to extract the trees, which were then deposited in the forest depots and sent to the urban centres for public auctioning by the State Forest Corporation. A triangular nexus between the contractors, bureaucracy, and local politicians defeated the entire exercise.
The forest contractors sold part of the timber in the illegal markets, while the checks failed to crack down on this illicit practice. Every year, fire in the Government timber depots has become common resulting in huge losses to the State exchequer. Sohan Singh says, "Every one knows that most forest depots are set on fire to cover up the shortfall of the timber in the official records."
With the onset of militancy post-1989, even the symbolic checks disappeared. The forest guards would not go into the remote areas controlled by militants and plundering of forest wealth began, particularly in Doda district, by paying off the militants.
Irreparable damage was done and consequences are not hard to see. Uncontrolled deforestation of several decades in the upper reaches directly hits at the centuries-old livelihood of the Gujjars and Bakerwals now declared as a Scheduled Tribe by the Central Government. Gujjars are the main suppliers of milk and milk-related products in the State, while the Bakerwals rear sheep and are dependant on products like wool and meat. The estimated cattle population of Jammu and Kashmir was recorded as 31,75,000 according to the 1997 census. The State's milk production is 6.66 metric tones and there is no room for increase with the decline in grazing area. The high-valued milk-related products like Cheese, Kaladi (similar to Dutch Cheese) are already in short supply.
Besides the decrease in fodder, the inhabitants in the hilly areas are also losing other means of livelihood. For instance, the expensive Gooshhis, a type of mushroom sold for Rs. 3,000 a kg in the open market, and natural herbs found in forests belt were abundant in the Siraj area of Doda district, but are no longer found easily. Anju Kumari, a resident of Siraj says, "I used to collect three kg of Gooshhis but this season I have only been able to collect half a kg."
The impact of deforestation is visible in urban areas too. Besides the mushrooming of hotels and residential places around some of the lakes, silt washed from the mountains during the rains is described as the main reason for shrinking of the lakes. While water bodies are shrinking, some have just vanished. For instance, the Neelnag Lake in Pulwama District and the Sanasar Lake in Udhampur District have disappeared, despite the State Government's efforts to revive them. The impact on the tourism was immediate. The total area of the Wular Lake came down to 65 sq.km. from 279 sq.km., a reduction of 20 per cent. The State Government estimates that it will need Rs.178 crores to protect the water body. The Dal Lake has shrunk to 13 sq.km. from 20 sq.km. in the last 100 years and attempts to revive it have been far from satisfactory.
The declining forest belt has also left its mark on the wildlife in the State. For instance leopards and tigers found in the higher reaches are feeling the pinch. Recently there were two incidents where tigers intruded into populated areas, a clear indicator of the impact of the declining forests. Absence of any grassroots movement to save forests may have pushed the issue under the carpet, but the State's rural and subsistence economy demands immediate intervention. Not only does the governance need to improve to stop further plundering of the forest, people's participation is the key to save the greenery of this hilly state.
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