Rafiabad (Varmul), Oct 9: The timber smugglers active in upper reaches here have revealed a nexus with police, army and forests officials in the illicit trade.
Angry with the successive regimes and politicians for failing to provide them means of decent living, the smugglers said the illicit trade is the only option they have for earning livelihood.
"You are from media," inquired Irshad Khan (name changed), a timber smuggler with dusty beard and tangled hair, as we returned from Satarwan where dozens of prized Deodar and Kail trees have been felled recently.
His clothes, a worn out Khan Suit and a sweater, were too loose for his frail body. I was mistaken that all timber smugglers are healthy and wealthy.
"If you will write about timber smuggling you have to include our story too," he said. "We have spent our childhood in this forest and it is as good as our home. I swear by Almighty that cutting trees is not our hobby or job but necessity," Khan said with moist eyes.
"Even if you take my photograph and police arrests me and other smugglers, the felling of trees won't stop. The basic problem is we don't have any means of income here. I have a family of seven,
including four minor kids to feed. We are fed up of this job and want to live a respectful life. But let government give us some job or even engage us as laborers," Khan said as other smugglers seconded.
Abdul Razak (name changed) an aged timber smuggler has been booked under Public Safety Act twice. "Now jail has become second home to me," Razak said.
"At least I earn enough by timber smuggling to feed my family for the time I had to spent in jail," he said with a smile.
Taking a deep breath, he turned serious, frowned, and accused the government and a local legislator of neglecting the welfare of inhabitants of Rafiabad and its adjoining areas. "We only see our legislator with a begging bowl for votes at the time of elections. These water schemes and roads can't earn us livelihood. We were promised employment by government but it has been now denied to us. To be frank we are fed up of smuggling and are ready to work as laborer in any part of the state. But is the government interested?" Razak asked as he rushed into the forests with his men.
Khan said he and other smugglers had seen a ray of hope when the government decided to engage them as tourist guides. "When the program was launched most of the smugglers had aborted felling of trees. Unfortunately, the Army played spoilsport to the program because it would have hampered timber smuggling and subsequently their commission. Later the continuous curfew and subsequent events hampered the program. We were on the verge of starvation so we had no option but to revert to smuggling," they said.
The timber smugglers said they give a fair share of their earnings to police, army and forest officials. After felling the trees, the smugglers cut it into logs of different sizes and load them on horses.
Presently wanton felling of trees is going on in Brandub, Braman, Lariangan, Kutru, Naribal, Ladu, Ladoora and upper reaches of Hamammurkot.
"We cut the trees during day and ferry them to villages after midnight. Then we load the timber in various vehicles and in lieu of money nobody stops us. We load the timber in boats through Jhelum and sell it in black market in Sopur and Varmul. The main beneficiaries are the timber dealers. They sell it at market rates and give us peanuts from which we eke out our living."
The smugglers said they don't fell a large number of trees at one spot. "We undertake sporadic felling of trees and later burn the stems to prevent detection by forest officials," they said. However, they blame troops for large-scale destruction of forests in Varmul.
"In early '90s, the Army wiped out whole forests in Brandub and Lariangan. The troopers used to restrict entry of officials and people into the forests citing the presence of militants. They used to detain carpenters and forced them to make furniture out of the felled trees and ferry it outside the state. Only we should not be held responsible for vandalization of forests," they said.