Kashmir's forests face the axe: Forest Advisory Committee approves diversion of 727 hectares in 33 days

The Third Pole

By Athar Parvaiz

The Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the erstwhile Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir has been very busy in recent weeks. Authorised to take decisions between 18 September and 21 October on approval of infrastructure and other projects passing through forested land, the FAC has approved diversion of over 727 hectares of designated forest land. It also approved the felling of at least 1,847 trees (which includes 1,471 trees inside designated forest areas and 376 trees in areas earmarked for social forestry). Plus, it has approved felling of trees that will be submerged due to construction of the Pakuldul hydro-electricity project and other development projects €" there is no count of the number of trees to be felled.

Over 60 percent of the forest land diversions approvals are to build roads, and 33 percent (243 hectares) for the use of the army and paramilitary forces in Pir Panjal (Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuary), Kehmil, Jhelum Valley, Samba and Jammu Forest divisions, analysis of the official documents revealed.

As many as 198 projects (most for road construction) have been approved by the FAC in four meetings on 18 September, 3 October, 17 October, and 21 October. In comparison to these 33 days of hectic activity, in all of 2018 97 projects involving diversion of forest land were cleared, 101 less than those cleared in four meetings.

Officials in Jammu and Kashmir's Forest Department said that all these decisions had to be taken within a few weeks because of the implementation of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act from 31 October, 2019. This Act leads to the scrapping of the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Act (under which the FAC was formed) of the former state after the implementation of the Reorganisation Act.

Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, in existence for the past seven decades, guaranteed special status to the Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir whereby it was empowered to make its own laws. That article was abolished by the Indian Parliament last summer.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, a member of the former FAC said that many of the projects now approved were in the waiting list for years. They had not been cleared because there were questions from the FAC. Those questions had still not been answered. But the clearances were given "in a hasty manner."

Kashmir's environment in jeopardy

When Kashmiris talk about the significance of forests, they refer to one of the most popular sayings of the 15th century saint and poet Sheikh ul Alam:

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Kashmir's evergreen coniferous forests and snow covered peaks have a direct bearing on the region's agriculture, energy and tourism sectors. Its beautiful lakes, rivers, agricultural plains and meadows owe their existence and economic production to the forests.

Every year, Sheikh ul Alam's advice about these ecological assets has reverberated across the region with speakers at thousands of schools, colleges and public gatherings referring to the importance of forests on such occasions as World Water Day, Earth Day and World Environment Day. Nevertheless, Kashmir's forests have faced acute devastation during the last three decades of violence. An unmonitored construction boom amid political turmoil has led to a significant loss of forest cover.

The effects of degradation of forests are already visible in drying up of perennial water sources at many places, accelerated soil erosion, flash floods, silting up of reservoirs, loss of biodiversity and reduced forest productivity. The armed conflict has made things even more difficult.

Official records at Jammu and Kashmir's forest department reveal that as many as 79 forest officials including one conservator have lost their lives while trying to protect forests. Forest department officials say they have been attacked by both militants and security forces.

Quoting statistics from one of his recent studies, Mohammad Sultan Bhat, who heads Kashmir University's Geography department, said that area under dense forests around the tourist resort of Pahalgam in southern Kashmir fell by 191 square kilometres from 1961 to 2010 with an average annual loss of 3.9 square kilometres, largely due to illegal construction in designated forest areas.

Sparser forest areas, Bhat said, did not fare so badly over the study period, until recently. "From 2001 to 2010, even they decreased in size by nearly 10 percent a year," Bhat said, adding, "this could be attributed to the fact that the dense forests were initially changed into sparse forests and in the later stage these sparse patches were utilised for agriculture and residential purposes."

Are Kashmir's forests recovering?

As per the Forest Survey of India's (FSI) 2017 Report, forest cover in Jammu and Kashmir increased with a net gain of 253 square kilometres in comparison to the forest cover in 2015.

But Akhlaq Wani, an Assistant Professor at the Division of Natural Resource Management, Faculty of Forestry in Srinagar's Sher-i-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) says that out of the 253 square kilometre increase in forest area, 245 square kilometres is in the part of Kashmir under control of Pakistan since 1948. India has always claimed the entire area.

Further, many of the districts that saw growth in forests, according to the 2017 FSI report, actually saw growth in horticulture rather than forests, experts say.

This includes Budgam (61 square kilometres), Baramullah (34 square kilometres) and Pulwama (21 square kilometres) districts. "If we analyse the historic forest cover of these districts, [they] witnessed deforestation as well as degradation in the past decades [as per published research]. But, at the same time, these regions have witnessed a steep increase in area under horticulture. Wani said if there is horticulture in an area above one hectare, it qualifies as forest cover as defined by FSI.

Under such circumstances, he said, it becomes difficult to check how much of the increased forest cover can be attributed to slow growing coniferous forests. And now even those face the axe.

Banner image: Part of a degraded forest in north Kashmir's Bandipora district. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz.

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The Third Pole is a multilingual platform dedicated to promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that originate there. This report was originally published on thethirdpole.net and has been reproduced here with permission.

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