Water and forests are the two important resources of a land mass to sustain living organisms on it. Any country bereft of or deficient in the white gold (water) or green gold (forests) suffers on ecological and the biological front.
Of the total world geographical area of 510.072 million sq. kms comprising 361.132 million sq. km. of water and 148.940 million sq. km. of land, forest cover is said to be 31 percent of the global land area.
Forests are indispensable as they provide important goods like timber, fuel, fodder, paper, offer services as they filter water, protect soil erosion, control water runoff, regulate climate changes, provide space for recreation, stock nutrients, make available habitat for animals and bird species, provide valuable botanical, medicinal and non-medicinal plants/herbs/shrubs, employment etc.
In 1952 India framed the National Forest Policy which recommended that 33 percent of the geographical area should be brought under the forest and tree cover. It also laid down guidelines for their management & protection.
Subsequently a policy decision for involvement of people in the management & protection of forest was taken in 1987. According to India State of Forest Reports (ISFRs) prepared by Forest Survey of India (FSI) the total forest/tree cover in India is said to have increased from 6,92,027 sq. km. (21-05 percent ) of its geographical area of 32,87,263 sq. km in 2011 to 7,12,249 sq. km. (24.56 percent) in 2/2020.
Before abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India on 5-8-2019, for J & K, and its subsequent bifurcation into two union territories of J & K and Ladakh with effect from 31-10-2019, it was the 6th largest State in terms of its GA of 2,22,236 sq .km.
It occupies a vital position in ecological and geographical context by virtue of its strategic location, flora and fauna over time and space. Its climate and pattern of terrain make it a characteristic repository of natural resources and tourism and a region having potential for scientific exploration.
As per FSI report of 2011, J&K had 22, 539 sq. km. of actual forest area and 20,230 sq. km. of recorded forest area which form 10.14 percent and 9.10 per cent of GA. In 2017 as published by FSI, J&K had 4,075 sq. km of dense, 8, 519 sq. km. of moderately dense and 10, 587 sq. km of open forests (forests with poor tree growth mainly of small and stunted trees having forest canopy density of less than 10 percent) aggregating to 23,241 sq. km (10.46 percent of the GA).
District wise, Kargil had the smallest area of 46 sq. km. followed by Leh with 92 sq. km. In rest of the districts Doda had the largest area of 3,819 sq. km with Udhampur highest in terms of percentage of 60.13 to its GA.
Budgam was the lowest in terms of both area of 312 sq. km. and percentage. Minus two districts of Kargil with 14,086 sq. km. and Leh with 45,110 sq. km. of Ladakh having a total forest/tree cover of 138 sq. km. (0.23 percent), J&K remains with recorded forest cover of 20,092 sq. km. making 12.32 percent of its GA of 1,63,040 sq.kms whereas official data is 1,01387sq. km.
In J&K Forest Department was established in 1891 under Mr. J.C. McDonnell the then Chief Conservator of Forests with mandate of, (i) Establishment of Forest Department, (ii) Constitution of Forest Divisions, Ranges, Blocks and the Beats; and (iii) Scientific management of the forests in the State.
J and K has five types of forests namely, (i) Sub-tropical Dry-Green Forests, (ii) Himalayan Moist Temperate Forests, (iii) Himalayan Dry Temperate Forests, (iv) Sub-tropical Pine Forests, and (v) Sub-Alpine and Alpine Forests. Besides the dominant species of Chir, Deodar, Fir and Kail having timber value, other trees like paper-birch, silver fir, pine, spruce etc., also exist in these forests.
As per 2017 report the per capita value of forest produce in J&K is said to be highest with Rs. 25.31 as against less than five percent in other states. According to ISFR. 2019 there is an increase of 371 sq. km. of forest area in J & K which, however, is questioned by the Environmentalists when nearly 50,000 acres of land are under encroachment and about 7,000 sq. km. remain in the state of degradation.
The degraded forests are forest lands impacted harshly by incidents of forest fires, mining and overgrazing which inhibit their re-growth. They include bush lands, barren lands, imperata grasslands and scrublands.
After passing the J & K Reorganisation Act that came into effect from31-10-2019 with appointment of new government, the Forest Advisory Committee set up there under gave clearance to about 198 projects for infrastructural development which involves use of some forest land.
Sans confronting any figures or authority, while travelling along the right side of the river Jhelum from its source Verinaag Anantnag to, Srinagar, Ganderbal, Bandipore, Kupwara and then to the left from Baramaulla to, Budgam, Pulwama, Shopian, Kulgam to Verinaag, the forest areas visible to the naked eye present a disturbing & disheartening situation. Once dense or moderately dense forests are now seen clean shaved of trees with contiguous lands somewhere encroached upon. Trees and plants are seen miles away now sparsely at tops in open forests.
The most renowned Sufi saint of Kashmir Sheikh Noor-ud-Din Noorani popularly known as Sheikh-ul Aalam in one of his popular quotes emphasized the vitality of forests, “Un poshe tele yele von poshe”, which means food is subservient to forests. During 2009 to 2013 the state imported 14.7 million cft of timber from abroad which means Rs.5.88 billion have gone out taking the average price @Rs.400 per cft besides sale of domestic timber of 1.2 million cft.
Growth of population, increase in nuclear family units, lack of white collar jobs, widening of existing and establishing of new roads, political upheavals, delayed & inadequate supply of timber to consumers, less efficient and insufficient implementation of forest management, conservation & protection policies, corruption, lack of demarcation, irresponsible public behaviour and forest lessees’ operations, individual, political and bureaucratic intervention are among factors responsible for the encroachment of forest lands/cover getting decreased and denuded. Interestingly where some protected trees happen to cause vehicular or pedestrian inconvenience, their removal is not possible for being protected trees whereas lakhs of such trees can be grown in the degraded forests.
A plethora of programmes, schemes, projects, policies and regulatory measures stand formulated to preserve, protect and enhance the green gold resources.
Under one such initiative Green J&K Drive 10 million trees were to be planted in 15,000 hectares of land during 2020-21. The prospective outcome only will evince the efficacy or otherwise of all the initiatives of the government with cooperation of the public. Guard the green fold to guard the life.
The author is a former Sr. Audit Officer and Consultant in the A.G’s Office Srinagar.
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.