How long will our forests be ravaged?

After persistently highlighting the destruction of forests in Doodh Ganga forest range through social media posts, opinion pieces, and news reports, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) J&K, directed for constitution of an investigation team to look into the complaints. Vide order No CF/SGR/Estt/PS/425-29 dated 21.09.2020, a four member forest officers committee was constituted by the Conservator Forests Srinagar circle. The team headed by Javaid Ahmad Sheikh, Deputy Director Forest Protection Force (FPF) K-1 Srinagar along with other official members namely, Maqbool Ahmad, Range Officer central forest control room Srinagar, Abdul Shakoor, Assistant Director II Forest Protection Force (FPF) Ganderbal, and Khazir Mohammad Bhat, Forester Soil Range special forest division Tangmarg, were camping in Yusmarg area recently. As per the order the team was directed to listen to our complaint as well. Instead of giving the officers a written complaint we deemed it fit to visit the site and in fact we got a phone call as well from one of the visiting officers who asked us to accompany them to the site where lot of trees had been felled in recent months. The area is not far off from Yusmarg tourist resort.

Site of destruction

On September 29th, around 4 volunteers from Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement, who reside in the territorial jurisdiction of Doodh Ganga forest range, went to the site of destruction along with the visiting team of officers. It took the entire party hardly 2 ½ hours to reach the site. This clearly indicates that destruction in the area could have been easily controlled as it has better connect with Yusmarg. There is even a Kuchha road from Yusmarg to Bakerwal Kabar area, and from that area the site of destruction is mere 40 mins walk. The vandalized site is locally called Charge or Charjin. Hundreds of Kail (Kairoo) trees have been axed in this area, in the valley and on the surrounding hills as well. In fact our team had already visited the site twice, and during one trip I had personally gone to that area. I had made a 3 minute video as well, highlighting the destruction. That video went viral on social media which prompted authorities at helm to probe into the whole issue.

PCCF has to play a role

Recently the Government gave Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Honesty, Integrity & Meritorious Public Service for 2020 to some Govt officers. Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) Dr Mohit Gera was one among them. After getting this award PCCF Dr Gera, who is the head of forest force in J&K has to be more vigilant and needs to act proactively. I appreciate his visit to Branwar forests on September 17th, after a report on illegal encroachment of forest land, by way of illegal construction of Kothas, and timber smuggling was published on the front page of Greater Kashmir. On September 19th he spoke to me as well from his Jammu office and assured to initiate the probe which he did. We are now waiting for the report which was to be submitted within 10 days (Sept 30th 2020). PCCF Dr Mohit Gera also assured me that he would visit the Charjin site personally and I am hopeful that he would fulfill his promise. PCCF needs to get updated about the destruction and devastation of forests. How can a handful of criminals take the entire department to ransom? We have very bright and promising officers in the Forest Department and they should be given the chance to show their worth. The corrupt and deadwood in the department should be taken to task and they must be given severe punishment than timber smugglers. A forest officer is well aware about fallouts of deforestation on ecology & environment, plus he is well paid by the Govt. If he starts taking money from the smugglers and other criminal elements to axe the trees or allow illegal construction on forest land, I believe he is the worst criminal and should be dealt with more seriously.

Protection to whistleblowers

Forest Department and the Police need to protect and encourage the whistleblowers who risk their lives for protecting forests and environment. They are doing a pro-bono job which actually has to be done by the paid employees of forest department. If such good samaritans become target of criminal elements, and of the forest officials, who will then come forward to protect our natural resources? I remember on September 7th 2009 a public spirited citizen from Nagbal Yusmarg, namely Ghulam Mohammad Ahangar, along with his brother and a friend caught 4 timber smugglers in compartment R-1- 28 in Yusmarg block. They seized 24 kail timber logs and 4 horses as well. But instead of getting appreciation, he became target of the timber smugglers and some forest officials who were working in league with them. Ahangar had to migrate to Srinagar for a year or so. In last 2 months due to constant pressure from activists and whistleblowers, plus media highlighting the issue, the timber smuggling in Doodh Ganga range has come down drastically. We are in fact helping the forest authorities, but some of their officers and officials think we are creating problems for them which is not at all correct?

Forest Protection Force

J&K Forest Protection Force (FPF) was created under a Cabinet order No. 12/7 dated December 2nd 1996. This was followed by enactment of J&K Forest Protection Force Act 2001 which provides for constitution of Forest Protection Force for better protection and security of forest property. Section-3(2) of the act says that FPF shall be the department of the Government on the pattern of Police Department in the State. Some more posts were created in 2013. As of now FPF has more than 2400 posts but their existence is not at all seen on the ground. Up-to the level of Assistant Directors FPF makes its own recruitment. The senior officers like Deputy Directors (DFOs), Joint Directors and Director are deputed from Forest Department. The Director of FPF is of the rank of PCCF which is equivalent to DG Police. FPF officials get 2 ½ days extra salary like police and health department officials. In spite of all this the timber smuggling continues to destroy our forests. FPF on the other hand claim that they have no arms and ammunition to deal with smugglers but that should not be an excuse as we don’t having armed timber smuggler gangs in J&K like Virrapan gang, which was active in South India several years back.

Conclusion

Forest officers get a good salary. Their job is to be in the forests rather than sitting in offices like executives working in MNCs or IT companies. Range Officers and Divisional Forest Officers (DFOs) should at any cost spend two to three days a week in forest area of their jurisdiction. More and more pre-fab huts must be constructed in forest areas so that forest guards get better accommodation and perform their duties honestly. Satellite phones be given to officials performing duties in forest areas with no mobile connectivity. Horses seized from smugglers should be provided to forest officials for patrolling. More officials should be posted in the vulnerable forest ranges and blocks. If there is constant destruction of forests in Doodh Ganga range during last 2 years, why has not Forest department deputed enough staff from other divisions and ranges to Doodh Ganga area? Let a detailed forest audit be also undertaken by an independent agency to assess the damage caused to forests in J&K during the last 20 to 30 years. Let people know how many trees have been cut down so that they get sensitized about the loss of forest wealth and Forest department takes measures to stop the illegal timber smuggling. Lastly, let the religious scholars be involved in forest conservation movement. They have a great role but Forest department has never sensitized them through roundtables and workshops. Imams and Khateebs of masjids located in forest areas should be approached and a training module developed for them so that they spread the message among people through their Friday sermons..

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement