Development at the Expense of the Environment is No Development

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Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Disaster through “development “is one of the burning issues and themes I have been putting a spot light on since the past l several years. I am not only getting details about the same using the tool of Right to Information Act (RTI) but I also keep expressing my anger through my regular columns on the subject.
In the recent past I explained how 440 KV DC Samba Amargrah transmission line caused disaster in the forests of Pir Panjaal around the districts of Budgam ,Baramulla , Shopian , Reasi , Poonch , Rajouri and Samba. More than 40,000 Deodar , Kail , Fir and Cheer trees have been axed mercilessly by the transmission company. In return, not even 25 % of the compensation has been realized by the Forest Department from these companies. It has been a nexus between the top officials of these two organizations. Through this piece I would be explaining how the Srinagar –Jammu – Delhi road widening project on National Highway (NH-44) is causing disaster to our forests and water-bodies especially the rivers that flow along this highway from Banihal onwards.
When one travels from Srinagar to Jammu or vice versa , we might have observed how much environmental disaster has taken place around the national highway (NH-44) . One can only see water-bodies (rivulets and rivers ) and gorges filled with silt , soil and muck. Is this development?
Last year, I found that a huge area of Devika River has been encroached by a private construction company near village Moudh near Udhampur. A massive stone crushing plant has been set up on the river bed thus choking this nallah.
To get exact information on this issue, I filed an application under Right to Information Act (RTI) in the office of Deputy Commissioner , Udhampur. The information was initially denied for a long time but after intervention of State Information Commission (SIC) , some details were provided by the Additional Deputy Commissioner (ACD) who is the designated Public Information Officer (PIO) in the office of DC Udhampur under J&K RTI Act 2009.
Information provided under RTI
I had filed a complaint before State Information Commission (SIC) against the Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC). Before the case was listed for hearing at the SIC office Jammu on Dec 19th last year, the PIO cum Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC) Udhampur mailed some information via speed post / email. The information exposed the District Administration particularly the local Revenue officials who have themselves paved a way for illegal land grab by a private construction company. Information reveals that only 10 marlas of Government land was allotted to the company for setting up of the stone crushing unit on the banks of Devika river but the company in connivance with local Revenue Department officials have occupied a huge chunk of land near the river bed and around the adjoining forests.
Information sought ?
Through my RTI application, I sought exact amount of land allotted to a private construction company M/S Gammon India Ltd by DC office Udhampur? This information was not provided by the ADC the designated PIO. The Additional Deputy Commissioner (ACD) Udhampur instead of responding to me directly , asked the Assistant Commissioner Revenue (ACR) Udhampur to provide the information. ACR who happens to be the Collector land acquisition for NH 44 road widening treating RTI application as an administrative matter and transferred it to Tehsildar, Udhampur and asked him to provide the information.
The Tehsildar further forwarded it to Naib Tehsildar and finally the RTI application landed before Patwari of village Moudh. The Patwari denied the information saying the details were not available with him. I got irritated and agitated. I , accordingly , filed a complaint under section 15 of State RTI Act before State Information Commission (SIC). The case was listed before the commission in Jammu on December 19th 2018. After getting a notice from theSIC for personal appearance, the ADC Udhampur in the meantime before the case hearing dispatched some information. It revealed that mere 10 marlas of land were allotted to the company Gammon India on which a mega stone crusher has been set up. I could not believe as I have seen the area several times. The land in use is much more and the same is illegally occupied.
SICs intervention
The Additional Deputy Commissioner (ADC)Udhampur was finally summoned by the State Information Commission (SIC) at its Jammu office on Dec 19th 2018. I attended the hearing from SIC office Srinagar through Video Conferencing . The ADC along with Assistant Commissioner Revenue (ACR) attended the hearing before the SIC. During the hearing ADC / PIO was bit confused. He said that Information Commissioner Mr Mohammad Ashraf Mir during the case hearing that some land has been leased out to the company for establishing of staff quarters, machines and other plants. This was mentioned in the RTI reply as well but the reply did not specifically mention the land acquired by the company from local residents for setting up the Stone Crusher.
In response to another question the PIO/ ADC informed that company has acquired 10 marlas of land on rent basis for establishing Mobile Stone Crusher Plant (200 TPH) in village Moudh. These two replies were contradictory to each other and this was taken seriously by Hon’bleInformation Commissioner. Vide RTI reply dated: 15.11.2018, the ADC Udhampur / designated PIO informed me that 45 kanals and 16 marlas of land have been occupied by the company for establishing of Mobile Stone Crusher Plant. On this, I argued that during hearing that if only 10 marlas of land were given on rent to the company, how the agency grabbed 45 kanals and 16 marlas of land? T he ADC had no answer and accepted the fact that something wrong had happened. I also wanted to know whether the District Administration Udhampur had permitted the company to occupy 45 kanals of land or not ?
Conclusion
The SIC directed the officer to submit a detailed report within a month, but until recently the report has not been submitted. The case is now listed at SIC office Jammu on Feb 4th 2019. From last several years’, The river bed of Devika is being encroached around NH-44 in Udhampur. There are several stone crushing units established not only on the banks of Devika but on Bischlari nallah around Banihal, Chenab river at Ramsoo and Ramban as well. The left-out construction material, muck and silt is being dumped inside these water-bodies by construction companies. This is causing a disaster around these rivers. Ironically Municipal Council, Udhampur, is also dumping all its municipal solid waste on the banks of Devikaand adjoining forest area only a few kms outside the town. Similarly Municipal Committee Ramban also dumps its municipal waste near Chenab river bank just outside the town. The district administration of Ramban and Udhampur are mute spectators to all these violations. The Pollution Control Board (PCB) is also not at all acting. All the agencies private and Government are adamant to destroy our ecology and environment and its best example is destruction around National Highway 44. It seems our institutions who are supposed to protect environment have got crumbled by getting involved in corruption and nepotism.

—The author is the Founder & Chairman of the Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. He can be reached at: bhatrajamuzaffar@gmail.com