Taking undue advantage of current unrest, timber smuggling in Kashmir has reached alarming levels as reports of felling of trees is pouring in from every corner of the valley.
According to officials there are reports of trees being chopped down in Doodganaga range, Rithan range, Beerwah range, Kothar range, Tangmarg, Rafiabad, Doabgah range and Kandi range, Ganderbal and in some areas of Shopian-Pulwama. The smugglers have become emboldened to the extent that they are openly attacking forest officials.
On July 31 when Forester Mohammed Maqsood Rather took his small team to apprehend a timber smuggler that was tipped to pass through Gujjar Basti Ajas Bandipora, he was in shock to see a huge party of timber smugglers bringing the recently chopped trees. The three member team was overwhelmed by smugglers. "As we tried to stop them, stones and sticks rained on us," said Maqsood. "We were in no match to these smugglers who have become emboldened in the current unrest."
Maqsood along with his casual labourer Muzaffar Ahmad were injured and they had to beat a hasty retreat otherwise there was every possibility of them getting killed. "We are still assessing how many smugglers have become active, but the number is scary," said Maqsood. "Reports are coming from every block about the illegal felling of trees."
In 2005 in a similar incident smugglers attacked a patrol party and killed Farooq Ahmad Wani, a helper working in the department.
Bandipora has forest cover spread over three blocks:Bazipora, Bandipora, Rangnar Ajas and Khrshu Safapora. "We have forest cover spread over an area of around 48 sq kms with unique flora and fauna, but if the current situation persists we are in risk of losing our valuable assets," said Maqsood.
It is not only the current unrest but the Forest department is also plagued with acute manpower shortage hindering their work. In 2002 the department in the district had 23 employees which got reduced to just 11 in 2016. Meanwhile the workload increased substantially as the department was given additional charge of handling man-animal conflict.
"With whatever resources we raid an area to arrest timber smugglers, but at the same time there is often a call to reach some other place to handle an incident of man-animal conflict. So our entire operation to arrest timber smuggling gets sabotaged," said Maqsood. The department had often requested higher ups to increase their manpower and entrust the work of man-animal conflict to wildlife department but to no avail.
The second biggest problem facing the department is the slow disposal of cases in courts and police inability to arrest some smugglers against whom FIRs stands registered. Earlier last month the department had registered FIR against four timber smugglers in Ajas Police Station who are yet to be arrested. "Similarly around 350 cases of timber smuggling are undergoing in courts. A fast track court would be of a great help in speedy disposal of cases and it could become a deterrent to other prospective criminals," said another official of the department.
According to officials the dragging of cases and sometimes minimal sentence doesn't help in curbing the illegal deforestation. "Even the killers of Farooq were given jail sentence of 5-6 years and after release they are again active in timber smuggling," said an official.
Not only pine trees, but Chinar and walnut trees are also not being spared in plain areas. "In addition to other problems, at majority of places we are unable to mobilize our men and machinery due to the prevailing situation. Hopefully once the situation normalizes we will launch a major drive against timber smuggling," said a top official of the department.