Moratorium on mega “developmental” Projects Only way out to save forests and Agriculture land in J&K

Dr Raja MuzaffarBhat
Every year thousands of forest trees are axed and uprooted in Jammu & Kashmir to pave a way for so called “developmental” projects. Even fruit bearing trees and crops in agricultural fields are destroyed. Not only are the fully grown trees like Deodar , Kail and Fir chopped off but large amount of forest land is being officially transferred to be used for construction of dams , tunnels , roads , highways , electric towers and power projects. I can say with authority that around 10,000 forest trees are axed every year under the garb of development. If this continues, I believe after some years our state will face a severe environmental disaster. Our meadows, alpine lakes , gushing water bodies, wetlands are under severe threat. The water-bodies and lakes are already shrinking due to massive urbanization and unplanned constructions. Our state is heading for massive floods and droughts in the coming years.
Who gives these permissions?
The J&K Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) is empowered to give permission for transfer of forest land plus axing of trees during execution of developmental projects in demarcated forest areas. The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) has been constituted under the J&K Forest (Conservation) Act, 1997. FAC is headed by Chief Secretary. Other members of this committee are Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), Director Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing, Chief Wildlife Warden, Director Social Forestry etc. Several administrative secretaries especially Secretary Forest , Finance , Planning and Revenue are also important members of FAC. There are many special invitees at 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 Ltd (PGCL) or senior functionary of any other agency in whose favour forest land is to be transferred. In majority of the cases FAC gives NOC to the proposed projects and in each meetings at an average 300 to 500 kanals of forest land is transferred and orders are issued for axing of forest trees as well which number is hundreds and thousands . During FAC meetings , the forest and wildlife officers plus environmentalists do speak in favour of not going ahead with axing of trees or transfer of forest land for development projects but who cares ? They have no say in the FAC meetings. The bureaucrats do what they have been asked to do ? FAC meetings do not last for more than an hour. How can serious issues like forest land transfer and cutting down of hundreds of trees be discussed and deliberated within one hour ? I believe FAC meetings are held mere for a formality as everything is pre-decided.
Disaster or development
Under the garb of development, private infrastructure companies are causing disasters across nook and corner of Jammu & Kashmir . In July this year a private power producing company uprooted and axed around 500 forest Kail and Fir trees in Ichoo area of Anantnag district. The private company has been allotted the contract for construction of small hydropower project of 5 Megawatts in the area whose estimated cost is around Rs 50 crores. This project is undertaken under Build Own Operate and Transfer (BOOT) model wherein the company constructs the project on its own cost and then sells the power to Government for 35 years and after 35 or 40 years the project has to be transferred to the Government. From last several years dozens of hydropower projects under BOOT model have been undertaken across J&K. In Branwar area of Budgam 7.5 MW project was commissioned several years back. During construction of this project from 2005 to 2009, hundreds of forest trees were axed in Yusmarg and Branwar forests of PirPanjaal forest division (Budgam). There was loot and plunder but not even a single FIR was registered against the company workers as forest officials were themselves involved in this crime. When a Srinagar based reporter spoke to Chief Conservator of Forests Kashmir (CCF) about destruction of forests in Ichoo Anantnag by the hydropower company, CCF said “I will get the facts checked and as per my knowledge, the constructing agency had sent a revised proposal for seeking a NOC to the Forest Advisory Committee, which has not been cleared yet. I will constitute a committee and send a team on spot to see if some trees have been chopped without the consent from our department”. Two months have elapsed nobody knows what action has been taken by the Forest department against the firm executing the work on the mini hydroelectric project ? Even the Director of Fisheries had assured to investigate into the issue as local nallah was getting polluted and fish population was under threat. But Fisheries department too seems to have not at all acted
We are not only losing forest land but even our agricultural land is also being forcibly acquired for highways and railways. In return the affected people are denied fair compensation , rehabilitation and resettlement. I have been continuously highlighting this issue , but there is no response from Government. In the month of June this year, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi inaugurated a semi-ring road projects in Jammu / Kashmir. The 62-km highway in the Kashmir valley will connect Pulwama in South Kashmir with Ganderbal in Northern part of central Kashmir. This highway will also ease the movement of army vehicles heading towards North Kashmir ,Kagril and Ladakh areas. The highway passes through Budgam and some parts of outer Srinagar as well. Again more than 7000 kanals of agricultural land has been acquired by National Highway Authority of India (NHAI). In Budgam district alone 4800 kanals of land has been forcibly acquired. More than 5000 fully-grown apple, walnut, plum and other fruit trees would be axed in the upcoming months when the work on this highway will be taken up. Irony is that land acquisition for this project is not being undertaken by NHAI under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013 (RFCTLARR Act 2013) , which is applicable in all the states of India except Jammu & Kashmir. J&K Government still follows the J&K Land Acquisition Act of 1934, which was promulgated by last Dogra ruler of Kashmir Maharaja Hari Singh around 84 years back. Pertinent to mention that Government of India in 2013 repealed its Land Acquisition Act of 1894 after severe agitations by farmers and activists. Under 2013 land law affected farmers have to be paid four times the market rate of land during acquisition. As this law is not applicable in Jammu & Kashmir , NHAI is paying us mere “stamp value” of the land plus 15 % Jabirana (solatium) which is even less than the actual market value of land. Every year we are loosing hundreds of kanals of agriculture land to create various infrastructure projects. In addition, we are losing Forest land as well as mentioned above. If our state Government and Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) continues to sacrifice forest and agricultural land , J&K state which is already a land deficit state will have nothing left for future generations. There is an urgent need to put a moratorium on the mega developmental projects like installing new transmission lines, building hydropower projects , construction of new highways and railway lines etc. Enough is enough now, let us safeguard our forest wealth and protect state’s agricultural land.