Undertake Forest Audit in J&K

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
This summer I undertook several treks in Pir Panjaal mountains. Our first trek was taken up around June 25th for 3 days, then 2nd one in July mid for 3 days and third one in August mid (3 days). Infact we went for a 1 day trek recently around Yusmarg as well. During all these trekking programmes we took the DoodhPathri route, except the last one day trek. On August 14th 2020 we trekked to Bargah meadow from DoodhPathri. It took us 11 hrs to reach there. In-fact it is only 8 hrs trek or even less but I along with a group of 6 trekkers including my 9 years son were lost in the dense forests between Lidder Mud and Bargah. Our Poney-walas had taken another route from Lidder Mud forests and we failed to chase them on the way. Finally, just before the sunset we found a shepherd namely Manzoor Ahmed Chopan from Payar village of Pulwama inside a deep forest. Manzoor was like a messiah for us. He guided us towards Bargah meadow and we pitched our tents just adjacent to his hut (kotha). Manzoor comes to Bargah every year with his flock of sheep and his family.
Towards Trusar
Next day August 15th we trekked Trusar (Three Alpine lakes) from Bargah located at an altitude of 4200 meters (13779 feet). Trusar is located just adjacent to Tatakoti glacier and there is a mountain pass called ChotiGalee which leads to Poonch district. It would have been easier for us to trek Trusar via Chas KaniNaad wherefrom Doodh Ganga passes, but anyway the long trek from Bargah was also beautiful. We got to know about the new trekking routes and topography of the area. From Bargah it took us 9 ½ hrs to reach Trusar and back
Destruction of Forests
On our return from Bargah to Doodh Pathri on August 16th 2020 , we had lunch at Frasnag meadow. When we left the meadow , I was eager to hear the gushing voice of Doodh Ganga. When I reached the small valley , I found only huge rocks and nothing more than that. I had heard that Doodh Ganga has been diverted in the upper area of Yusmarg around Metch Khanainmeadow for a 7.5 MW Hydropower project located at Branwar, but this time I witnessed the destruction very clearly. It was highly impossible to cross Doodh Ganga around Frasnag even in winters as there was tremendous flow of water in this area, but during my trek I crossed this “ex -river” without even taking out my shoes. Even my 9 year olds son crossed it jumping over the rocks. The river is completely dry from MechKhanain ,Frasnag to Branwar . Trout fish in this entire 5 kms patch have vanished and it looks like a desert with no flora and fauna. For constructing this project hundreds of forest trees were axed around 2008 to 2010.
Ironically the Forests around Frasnag which falls under Doodh Ganga forest range have also not been spared. The damage caused to Kail (Kairoo) trees is tremendous and this has increased during the last one year post 370 abrogation when there was severe lockdown across the valley and timber mafia had a good time to axe as many trees they wanted. From March this year till August , the timber smugglers again vandalized the forests around Frasnag and Charjin areas. They took undue advantage of COVID 19 lockdown as forest officials hardly attended their duties. Those who were present, many of them had an understanding with timber smugglers. Several Forest officials are working hand and glove with the timber mafia and those who are honest prefer to remain silent fearing they might be harmed physically.
Modus operandi
Timber smugglers axe mostly kail (kairoo) trees as the timber from this variety of trees fetches them good money. Most of the times the local forest guards and other officials are taken into confidence. There is a chain as the money taken from smugglers reaches to higher-ups as well. The forest officials especially their casual employees and class IV officials are tasked to burn the tree stumps so that it looks like an old axed tree. In addition to it black-tea , acid and m-oil is also used to destroy the evidence after trees are chopped off. Local migratory population in Frasnag and other areas of Doodh Ganga range told me that timber smugglers from areas like Kellar and Sangarwani areas of Shopian were causing most of the damage to forests in Doodh Ganga range. During my 3 days trek I hardly saw any Forest officials in that vast area ?
Patrolling in Forests
Forest officials say that due to lack of manpower and weapons they are not able to protect Forests in the upper part of Yusmarg. This is almost like surrendering before the criminal elements. But can they justify the damage being caused around Surasyar forest block which is located much below Yusmarg and Frasnag as smugglers from Kellar and Sangarwani have no access in this area ? Can the Forest Department explain how the damage has been caused in DaerenBatwodder ,LaengNaad, Yusmarg Top , YusmargKhann and HapatBanjar areas which are located just around Surasyar ? During the last one year dozens of Kail and Fir trees are said to have been axed in these areas but FIR has been registered for only a few? No recovery of axed trees has been made and it is alleged that on some occasions old fallen trees or even fresh trees are also axed to show the recovery. The horses of smugglers are hardly seized. Illegal Dokes are being allowed to be constructed. Forest officers are taking huge bribes for allowing such illegal construction. Let there be a probe into this as well . How can destruction of forests continue even in the 21st century when we have access to a lot of technology to prevent timber smuggling. Why can’t Forest officials use horses for patrolling ? I have never seen them patrolling on horses ? If Sheep or Animal husbandry departments can have their camps in forests why not the Forest department ? They have to be visible all the time. Why can’t the department install CCTVs in vulnerable areas ?
Forest officers get very huge salaries. On an average a Range officer gets Rs 1.20 lakhs salary per month. A Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) gets Rs 2 lakhs or more , a Forest Conservator gets Rs 2.50 lakhs and a Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) is paid Rs 3 lakhs every month. Unfortunately most of the time these officers sit in their offices, which is totally wrong. The officers have to be active in the field. During last 2 years I haven’t heard any Conservator of CCF visited Doodh Ganga forest range which is not far from Srinagar. Now imagine about those places which are located near LoC ? It should be mandatory for at least a Range Officer and DFO to be present at once a week in some forest area of their area of jurisdiction. Why are large number of officials attached in the Range Offices ? They should be deputed for field duty instead. A proper roaster should be prepared for CCF, Conservator , DFO’s and RO’s by the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF). Lastly a detailed forest audit should be undertaken by an independent agency to assess the damage caused to forests in J&K during the last 30 years.
(The author is Founder & Chairman of Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement)