Are ghosts causing damage to forests?

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Under an order number CF/SGR/Estt/PS/425-29 dated 21.09.2020 a four member forest officers committee was constituted by the Conservator Forests Srinagar circle on the direction of Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) who is the head of forest force in J&K. The team headed by Javaid Ahmad Sheikh Deputy Director Forest Protection Force (FPF) K-1 Srinagar along with other official members namely Maqbool Ahmad, Range Officer central forest control room Srinagar , Abdul Shakoor Assistant Director II Forest Protection Force (FPF) Ganderbal and Khazir Mohammad Bhat Forester Soil Range special forest division Tangmarg were directed to look into the damage that was caused to forests amid COVID 19 pandemic or even before that.
This author has constantly highlighted the forest loot through my weekly columns, social media posts and blogs. I didn’t highlight this loot sitting in my cozy office or bedroom, but I had gone to the forest area myself thrice this summer season and in the past as well . It was only after I saw the forests being brutally vandalized I started writing about it. I even made a 3 minute video as well deep inside the jungle called Char Jin located in Doodh Ganga forest range this summer. This is the worst affected part where forest looters have axed more than 300 trees in only 5 sq km area. As per the order the team was directed to listen to our complaint as well. Instead of giving the officers a written complaint we deemed it fit to visit the site and in fact we got a phone call as well from one of the visiting officers who asked us to accompany them to the site where a large number of trees had been felled in recent months. The area is not much far off from Yusmarg tourist resort.
Visit to Char Jin
On September 29th around 4 volunteers who reside in the territorial jurisdiction of Doodh Ganga forest range went to the site of destruction along with the visiting team of officers. It took the entire party hardly 2 ½ hours to reach the site. This clearly indicates that destruction in the area could have been easily controlled as it has better access with Yusmarg. There is even a Kuchha road from Yusmarg to Bakerwal Kabar area, and from that area the site of destruction is mere 40 mins walk. The vandalized site is locally called Charge or Charjin. Hundreds of Kail (Kairoo) trees have been axed in this area, in the valley and on the surrounding hills as well. Infact our team had already visited the site twice and during one trip I had personally gone to that area and made a video as well as discussed above. Instead of accepting the fact that many kail and fir trees had been axed the visiting team in order to shield their colleagues prepared a sham report which indicates that damage has been caused in the area much earlier and not during CIOVID 19 pandemic or last year’s lockdown (post 370 abrogation)
Confusing Report ?
With an aim of shielding forest officers the party assigned the job to check the damage in Doodh Ganga range have reported that damage caused in a particular area called Char Jin was caused 2 years back ie in 2018, but in the same para it is mentioned that damage has taken place between August to October 2019 when there was no mobile connectivity in J&K amid abrogation of article 370. If the report says damage is two years old why is it then mentioned it was caused during Aug to Oct 2019 which means the forests were looted only a year back ?
I have shot the videos wherein the bark of the trees is still fresh and that indicates that damage caused to some trees was as fresh as June or July 2020. The report also says our group showed ignorance about damage caused to forests in other areas other than Char Jin , this is completely a wrong statement which I refute.
I have myself seen damage caused in Frasnag and Liddermud areas and as far as Bargah forest as well. The checking party only went with our team on Sept 29th 2020 to Charjin, they should have themselves also seen the other areas like Frasnag and Liddermud ? What were they doing in Yusmarg for 3 to 4 days ? Why didn’t they move around the whole forest area voluntarily ? Is it necessary that people will first complain before the Conservator or Chief Conservator or PCCF and then only Forest officials will act ? The Govt is paying salaries to forest officers , we don’t get any salary or money. We do this good Samaritan work only to ensure our forest wealth is protected for future generations to come , but the way forest officials are working in spite of getting hefty salaries , it seems we are heading for a disaster. It is shameful that forest officers who were sent to prepare a factual report have demanded a road deep inside the Jungle from Yusmarg ? This is completely ridiculous. If forest officers who study ecology and the environment start demanding roads inside the woods what will happen to our forests ?
PCCF has to play a role
Government a few months back bestowed Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Honesty, Integrity & Meritorious Public Service for 2020 to Principal Chief Conservator of Forest (PCCF) Dr Mohit Gera. After getting this award PCCF Dr Gera has to be more vigilant and needs to act proactively. I appreciate his visit to Branwar forests on September 17th. On September 19th he spoke to me as well from his Jammu office and assured to initiate the probe which he did. We had been waiting for the report which was to be submitted within 10 days (Sept 30th 2020). The report was prepared after a month and even after such a long delay the team constituted by the Forest Department has tried their best to shield the officials of the forest department. It seems from the report that ghosts have caused damage in Doodh Ganga forest range.
Forest Protection Force
J&K Forest Protection Force (FPF) was created under a Cabinet order No. 12/7 dated December 2nd 1996. This was followed by enactment of J&K Forest Protection Force Act 2001 which provides for constitution of Forest Protection Force for better protection and security of forest property. Section-3(2) of the Act says that FPF shall be the department of the Government on the pattern of Police Department in the State. Some more posts were created in 2013. As of now FPF has more than 2400 posts but their existence is not at all seen on the ground. FPF officials get 2 ½ days extra salary like Police and Health Department officials. In Spite of all this the timber smuggling continues to destroy our forests.
Forest officers get a good salary. Their job is to be in the forests rather than sitting in offices like executives working in MNC’s or IT companies. Range Officers and Divisional Forest Officers (DFO’s) should at any cost spend two to three days a week in the forest area of their jurisdiction. I again request PCCF and Conservator Forests Srinagar circle to look into the matter. Both the officers are known for their integrity, but that must reflect through actions also. If the department does not act we will be forced to seek legal intervention by way of filing a complaint before the National Green Tribunal.
(The author is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement.)