By Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Timber smuggling was once considered to be a great threat to the forests of Jammu & Kashmir. But, things have, just under a decade, changed for the worse. After diligent research and observation, I have now come to this conclusion that the destruction of our forests by timber smugglers has been done in connivance with Forest department. (Such is the scale of the disaster that the damage done during last 30 to 35 years is far less than the plunder and destruction caused to forests during the past decade). I am not exaggerating here; I have official data obtained under the Right to Information Act (RTI) plus access to a 10 years record of the State Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). With the official permission of Jammu & Kashmir State Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) thousands of Kail , Deodar and Fir (Budloo) trees have been axed and uprooted during last two decades in Jammu & Kashmir especially in Pir Panjaal , Chenab and Sindh Forests. The felling of forest trees is a continuous process in the districts of Kishtwar , Doda , Ramban , Rajouri , Poonch , Shopian , Budgam , Baramulla, Ganderbal , Bandipora and Kupwara. The FAC continues to give official permission for axing of forest trees for so called “development”. What is pertinent to note is that the main reason for the destruction caused to forest trees is only to pave way for setting up of Hydropower projects and laying of high voltage transmission lines. But, there neither has been a voice raised against this marauding of our green cover; the reasons are not difficult to fathom: Kashmiri civil society and people, at large, are under stress, chaos and confusion. They are unable to decide upon a course of action ? Will they raise voice against killings or shall they come forward to protest their forest wealth or stop environmental destruction? This is the unavoidable dilemma they face.
Destruction in Chenab valley
With an aim of “tapping” hydropower potential in the districts of Kishtwar and Doda districts of the Chenab valley, the Government of J&K set up a joint venture between J&K Power Development Corporation (JKPDC) , National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and Power Trading Corporation (PTC) . A Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) known as Chenab Valley Power Projects Company (CVPP) was created several years ago. JKPDC & NHPC are the main shareholders in CVPP with 49 % shares each along with 2 % shares of Power Trading Corporation (PTC). Three mega hydropower projects are under construction in Kishtwar. These projects are Pakal Dul which is supposed to generate 1050 Megawatt (MW) of power plus two other projects being established at Kawar and Kiru with an estimated capacity to generate 549 and 624 MWs of power respectively. Hundreds of acres of forest land have already been transferred to CVPP by Forest Advisory Committee (FAC). Thousands of forest trees have been cut down and, in the coming years, many more trees in Chenab valley would be felled for setting up these power projects. There is a huge environmental impact on forests, the Chenab river, wildlife and other local ecosystem.Inpite of all these sacrifices we continue to live under darkness. The power generated from these projects won’t help us at all.
Role of the Forest Advisory Committee
The Jammu &Kashmir State Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is legally empowered to give permission for the transfer of forest land plus cutting down of trees during execution of developmental projects in demarcated forest areas. This legal empowerment, however, does not mean that in every meeting FAC will give permission for axing of trees inside forests and allow destruction of forest land. The FAC has been constituted under the J&K Forest (Conservation) Act of 1997. The committee is headed by Chief Secretary and has several other members from the state bureaucracy, top forest and wildlife officers plus a few environmentalists and academicians. There are many special invitees in FAC meetings like senior engineers of state / central Government organizations, top officials from National Highway Authority of India (NHAI), National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC), Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) or senior functionary of agencies in whose favor; forest land is to be transferred. In majority of the cases FAC gives a No Objection Certificate (NOC) to the proposed projects. In each FAC meeting, during the recent past, at an average, 200 to 300 kanals of forest land have been transferred. Orders are also issued for axing hundreds of forest trees. During FAC meetings, the forest and wildlife officers plus environmentalists do speak in favor of not going ahead with axing of trees or transfer of forest land but their suggestions are hardly heeded to. Finally, the writ of state bureaucracy prevails, who work at the behest of local politicians, the Government of India with active support from the state Government. At the end of the day, the ultimate sufferers are the people of this state. FAC meetings last for an hour or so; the obvious question that arises is: how can serious issues like forest land transfer and axing down of hundreds of forest trees be discussed and deliberated within one hour? FAC meetings are held mere for a formality as everything is pre-decided.
New Transmission line
The Government of India through its Bid Process Coordinator (BPC) Rural Electrification Transmission Projects Corporation Ltd, allotted construction of 440 KV Double Circuit (DC) Jallandhar –Samba – Amargrah transmission line in 2014 . The alternate transmission line which is connected with national grid passes from Amargrah Barmulla via areas of Pattan , Magam , Beeru , Khansahib , Chadoora , Chararishrief , Shopian, Pir ki Gali, Bufliaz , Surankot, Rajouri, Akhnoor, Samba and Jallandhar. A private company namely Sterlite Grid which has been allotted the project under Build Own Operate & Transfer Model (BOOT) has already completed the execution work few months ago through its subsidiary Northern Region Strengthening Scheme (NRSS 29) which is a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for the project. For purpose of accomplishment of this project, the transmission lines have been carried through Pir Panchal mountains and through thousands of hectares of forest and agricultural land. An estimated 45,000 forest trees are supposed to be axed out of which 80 % trees have already been felled. Most of the damage has been caused around Pir Panjaal area especially in the areas of Budgam (Yusmarg belt) , Shopian Herpora, Pir ki Gali . In the Poonch district, the worst affected forest areas are Poshana , Bufliaz and Surankot. The transmission line passes through Rajouri , Nowshehra, parts of Reasi , Jammu and Samba districts also. The compensation paid to Forest department by the company is mere Rs 40 crores which is 8 to 10 times less what they actually had to be paid towards Government treasury . We are following this case and are seeking intervention of some investigative agency. Not only have we lost our huge forest wealth but a great loss has been caused to state exchequer as well in connivance with some corrupt Government officials and officials of the power transmission company.
If the Government continues to sacrifice forests for so called “development” in an ecologically fragile state of Jammu & Kashmir, it will amount to a disaster. The J&K state which is already a land deficit state needs to put a moratorium on the mega developmental projects like installing new transmission lines, building hydropower projects , construction of new highways and railway lines and so on. (Enough is enough!). People living near forests and jungles have to come forward to safeguard their green wealth. A Chipko like movement that began in early 1970s in Uttrakhand’s Chamoli district has to be initiated in Kashmir. The fig leaf under which destruction of our forests is carried out is the conflict in Kashmir. Bureaucrats and politicians take advantage of it; moreover, we don’t have a well-organized civil society movement here . I don’t blame my people: what can they do especially at a time when a dozen Kashmiris get killed every month. Due to the conflict and political uncertainty, people of Kashmir do not even raise their voice against felling of forest trees, because they have other priorities and pressing issues to contend with. They want to get rid of killings, CASOs, arrests and so on. We are economically, mentally and psychologically under stress. The authorities at the helm of affairs, power companies and so on take advantage of the fluid conditions that obtain in Kashmir. The plunder of our natural resources continues. Alas!
The author, a Founder & Chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement, can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org