The large-scale presence of armed forces in Jammu and Kashmir poses a significant threat to the environment of the region. A study published in “Conservation Biology” shows that out of 34 biodiversity regions in the world, Jammu and Kashmir (Kashmir Himalaya) stands highly threatened because of the ongoing conflict between India and Pakistan.
It is evident from the available data that Siachen Glacier has reduced in area. The reason for this change has been attributed to the continuous shelling at large, military activities, and the dumping of non-biodegradable waste by military forces that has become part of the snow on Siachen Glacier. Various studies reveal that since the presence of armed forces on Siachen Glacier, about 216,000 tons of load have been transported there. According to the report of World Glacier Monitoring service (WGMS), Siachen Glacier is melting at an alarming rate and the primary reason for its increased melting could be the presence of large number of armed forces on the glacier. According to World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) estimates, on the Indian side alone, over 1 ton of human waste is dropped daily into crevasses. Siachen is continuously polluted by worn-out gun barrels, burnt shelters, rotten vegetables, splinters from gun shelling, empty fuel barrels, parachute dropping boards, etc. Siachen has also experienced large-scale loss of animal biodiversity. Habitats of Brown bears, Ibex, Cranes, Snow leopards and few other species are threatened, which has led the World Wide Fund of Nature to designate the entire Tibetan Plateau Steppe, which encompasses the Siachen Glacier, as one of 200 areas “Critical to observation”.
Tosamaidan is a valley full of meadows surrounded by Pir Panchal ranges, 3 miles in length and 1.5 miles in breadth. It is at a distance of 53 km from Srinagar, coordinates 33°55’4″N 74°29’57″E. It is situated in Khag tehsil in District Budgam. The land of Tosamaidan was leased to the Indian Army for 50 years in the year 1964 for setting up an artillery firing range. The lease ended on 14 April 2014. Till 2014, about 3800 kanals of land in Tosamaidan was under control of Indian Army. From mid 1960s this area was used as a firing range by artillery regiments of Indian Army. The firing drills have led to the loss of precious human lives and at the same time caused ecological destruction. In the name of artillery firing, lakhs of trees were illegally felled in Tosamaidan. The forests around Tosamaidan are the greatest victims of the Kashmir conflict. Wildlife has perished from forests of Tosamaidan because of the destruction caused to their habitat. The entire damage to Tosamaidan forests was done during the time it was leased to the army.
During the 1990s, lakhs of trees were illegally felled in Kashmir valley. In any conflict zone, smugglers enjoy the sympathy of politicians and several agencies. During the 90s, majority of the timber smugglers were working in collaboration with Indian agencies as well as politicians. In district Bandipora alone, lakhs of salix trees were illegally felled and smuggled by government-backed gunmen (Ikhwan). During 1989-90, timber smuggling was almost the occupation of government-backed gunmen. Vast forests have vanished in Bandipora district, in Anantnag, Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, Budgam, and the Kandi belt. As per estimates, about 1.50 lakh trees were illegally felled by government-backed gunmen in Doda district.
In the name of militancy, security forces cleared vast tracts of forest land to target rebels taking cover. They also converted forests into military garrisons. The presence of armed forces inside forests affected the wildlife of the state. Giving forest land to security forces for setting up camps is a phenomenon that still continues in Kashmir Valley. In 2019, under President’s Rule, J&K gave up 243 hectares of forest land for army and paramilitary use. Firing of ammunition along the Line of Control has also negative effects on soil fertility.
The presence of armed forces is also affecting the livestock of the region. Restricting grazing lands is seriously affecting the occupation of shepherds. Restricted movement in some highland pastures is one of the major challenges which the livestock industry faces. In comparison to national availability of 1.0 hectares to one livestock, only 0.4 hectares is available in Jammu and Kashmir. Large-scale presence of armed forces, unexploded shells, etc, have led to the loss of valuable highland pastures in Kashmir valley.
The writer is a PhD Scholar at Faculty of Forestry SKUAST-K. [email protected]