An Institution of Forestry

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Jammu and Kashmir which is famous for scenic lakes, snow clad mountains, alpine meadows and pastures is also considered as a treasure trove of herbs which have high medicinal and edible value. These herbs are of great significance to the manufacturing of ayurvedic and unani medicines.
The Researchers are doing their bit to explore this green wealth but they still haven’t explored the herbal wealth of Jammu and Kashmir. From last many years a veteran naturalist and forester of Jammu and Kashmir O P Sharma has been trying his best to create awareness about forest herbs and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP). Mr Sharma who recently retired from Indian Forest Service (IFS) has been involved in Information Education and Communication (IEC) programme on environment and forests especially forest herbs from last many years. He calls himself “Van Vidhyarthi” (Forestry student) but I say with authority that he is the master in the field of Forest science especially about the herbs and Non-Timber Forest Products (NTFP). Sharma ji is an asset of Jammu and Kashmir whose services in the Forest Department will always be remembered and cherished.
Idea of Forest Food Festival
Stinging Nettle, known as ” Soyee” in Kashmiri was just a few decades back, used to punish students – Soyee Shalakhh as we all know. Can we imagine this plant has great edible properties as well ? It was only because of O P Sharma that I came to know that one can make soups and tea from this stinging herb. Earlier I had no such idea but after attending several tree talks organized by Mr Sharma I came to know that Soyee has edible value as well. Similarly I had heard about Machran Chai, WopalHaakhand Maple tree from my elders, but had never seen them. But in the company of Sharma ji I saw all these things and came to know about edible value of Machran and Wopalhaakh as well. Around 5 years back (June 5th 2015) I requested Mr Sharma to organize environmental awareness programme at Basant Wodder village in Khansahib Budgam on the banks of Shali Ganga. He would never say no and I knew that. For organizing such programmes Government departments usually spend large amount of money , but Sharma sir did 90 % of his programmes without using even a single penny from state exchequer. Mr Sharma who was of the rank of Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests that time drove with me in my small car without even caring for protocol. He mixed up with the local villagers who had organized a small chakri (Kashmiri folk music) programme. It was at Basant Wodder that I suggested Sharma ji to have a food festival so that our herbs could be explored and people be educated about them. He agreed and said let it be a forest food festival. Luckily Mr Sharma was posted as Director Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing during the same time and when he took over the charge of Director on 26 th of August 2015, on the very first day we had a meeting with him and decided to organize Food Festival at Yusmarg. The then SSP Budgam Fayaz Ahmad Lone and his wife Nusrat Jahanara where also very much enthusiastic about it. They both supported this initiative. We all visited Yusmarg to see the proposed venue. Due to bad weather and other logistical problems in Yusmarg ,we were not able to organize 1st Forest Food Festival there. Finally, we requested the then Principal of Institute of Hotel Management ( IHM)Srinagar to have venue in his institution. The gentleman welcomed the idea and we organized first ever Forest Food Festival on Oct 4th 2015 at IHM campus Rajbagh Srinagar. Before organizing this programme we held several rounds of meeting with IHM officials especially Chef Yaseen who prepared all the dishes from Forest herbs.
Dishes prepared
During this first ever Forest Food Festival in J& K the dishes were prepared only from the locally available forest herbs which include Soyee, Machran Chai, Lissa, Nunner, Pamb Haakh, Wopal Hakaah, Wan Pran, Mawal, Makki Ataa, Bamm Tchoonth etc. We had Mawal cookies, Pudina cookies and Barfi from Makkiatta. Water Chesnutataa was the best. Similarly Soyee tea and Soup plus Wopal Haakh Paranthas were also found to be attractive. The live demonstration by village women making makkirotis on mud choola and village potter ( Kumhar) making earthenware on his wheel was also hailed by the visitors.
During the festival a tourist namely Neelkanth Phadke from Pune, who had come to the festival along with his family told me that he has been visiting Kashmir from the last many years but he never had these things earlier. He said his family hasn’t visited Kashmir to have pepsi, cocoa cola, Aloo Parathaa or dal makhni. About Wazwan he said he couldn’t have being a strict vegetarian.
” We belong to Jain community and we want only vegetarian food, but unfortunately there is no choice available for vegetarian food in Kashmir and after visiting forest food festival I found 30 dishes of ethnic vegetarian food and I would suggest this food should also be available at different tourist places”, Phadke added. After IHM Forest Food festival Sharma ji organized several forest food festivals in J&K. In Yusmarg we finally organized a Forest Food Festival last year in July.
Tree Talk
In an attempt to create awareness about Forest herbs O P Sharma ji has been instrumental in organizing Tree Talks across Jammu & Kashmir. From Gurez to Gangabal ,Poonch to Pampore and Sonmarg to Samba Sharma ji has held more than 750 tree talks during last 10 years that too without spending funds from state exchequer. Foresters need to have passion for Forests which I found in Sharma sir.
“Ann poshiteli, Yeli van poshi” is a famous quote by Kashmir’s 14th century Sufi saint, Sheikh ul Alam. This quote reflects the age-old understanding of the link between forests (van) and food productivity (ann) as forests are repositories of wild relatives of our food crops. Sharma ji would always discuss this quote in his tree talks.
O P Sharma is son of the soil who hails from Ramnagar area of district Udhampur. After rendering 32 long years in J&K Forest Department , Sharma ji finally retired from active Government service last month as Principal Chief Conservator of Forests . His last posting was Director State Forest Research Institute. After serving Forest department in different capacities for more than three decades I am sorry to say that successive Government’s in Jammu & Kashmir couldn’t utilize better services of this zealous and enthusiastic Forest officer. Because of his honesty and simplicity he was never posted on important positions and I blame J&K’s bureaucracy and politicians for this. I am sure after retirement Sharma ji will disseminate his knowledge and skills to others. Sharma ji has a great following among Green Warriors and envo-saviours not only in Jammu or Srinagar but in nook and corner of J&K especially in Gurez , Budgam , Kupwara, Ganderbal, Kishtwar and many other areas. He has a vast experience with him which needs to be transferred to people especially youth. I know Sharma ji would never stop his forest activism. I would suggest Government, International environmental conservation NGOs and Forest Research Institutions to avail services of this great man whom I consider not a man of knowledge but he is an institution of Forestry in himself. I wish him a happy post retirement life.
(The author is Chairman J&K RTI Movement.)