Sitaharan residents may resume timber smuggling, courtesy police harassment

Nayeem Rather

Budgam: Residents of Sitaharan village in Budgam, a notorious timber smuggling hub till 2012, have said that unrelenting harassment by the police might force them to resume the illegal trade.
About 50 people of the village, 36 km from Budgam, have been booked under Public Safety Act in the past 20 days after being charged with timber smuggling.
The police have said the men were booked on the basis of about 100 FIRs filed by forest officials who, however, deny the claim, saying the area is “smuggling free” and they have not filed any FIR.
The villagers told Kashmir Reader that station house officer of Khag police station had summoned the accused men to the station, but fearing arrest they went into hiding.
“If we go to the police station we are arrested and although we are innocent of smuggling charges the police anyways slap PSA on us and release us only after we pay bribes. Sometimes they demand Rs 1 lakh,” village headman Bashir Ahmed told Kashmir Reader.
“If we do not bribe them we end up behind the bars,” he said.
The villagers admit that they have plundered the local forests for the past several decades. Smuggling was so rampant that the police had booked about 750 people under the PSA. But in 2012, the villagers said, they realised the gravity of the loss.
“We formed ‘Jungle Bachov Front’ to protect the forest. We got into touch with all notorious smugglers and told them that loss of trees is our loss in the long run,” said Adil Ahmed Sheikh, sarpanch of Sitaharan.
A volunteer force of about 30 local men was formed to save trees from illegal cutting and also to inform forest officials about smuggling activities. This led to a drastic reduction in illegal timber trade, he said.
To reciprocate the villagers’ act, divisional forest officer Budgam Ghulam Hassan Bhat organised a Lok Adalat in November 2012 to review the 750 PSA cases.
Justice Mansoor Ahmed withdrew all 750 cases against and let the accused off by imposing a small fine.
“The DFO and the judge made us promise not to indulge in smuggling again and we collectively took an oath on the Holy Qur’an that we will abstain from smuggling,” said Bashir Ahmed, the headman.
Bashir said that during the past two years, smuggling stopped and the youth moved to other areas for work.
“We go to Poonch and Sonamarg to earn our livelihood in an honest way but the police come to harass us there too and force our youth to return to the village,” said Feroz Ahmed, a local.
Ghulam Mohiuddin, a former smuggler, said the police and some forest officials do not want them to give up smuggling because the bribes the smugglers used to pay them have dried up.
“Earlier we paid bribe because we were smugglers. We now pay bribes for the sin of having stopped smuggling,” he said.
Sarpanch Adil said the harassment will only force the villagers to resume smuggling if only to “earn enough money to bribe the police”.
When contacted, station house officer Parvaiz Ahmed said the forest department has filed about 100 FIRs against the “smugglers”.
But DFO Budgam said his department has filed no fresh FIR. “The area is smuggling free. I don’t know what the police are saying,” the DFO said.
Forester Abdul Rashid also termed police claim as a “gross lie”.
“The police are trying to implicate the innocent people to extract money from them,” he said.