Rightfully Theirs: Subsidized Timber for Forest Dwellers

Under the Forest Rights Act, traditional forest dwellers are protected against forced displacements and have other rights as well. Photo: Athar Parvaiz/Mongabay

UPTIL 2016, the Forest Department was responsible for sale and distribution of timber in rural areas of Jammu & Kashmir. In municipal limits, the erstwhile State Forest Corporation (SFC) used to do this job. In 2016, the PDP-BJP Govt in J&K decided to hand over both, the sale and the extraction of timber, to the SFC which is now known as Forest Development Corporation (FDC) after the abrogation of Article 370.

The SFC (now FDC) is a Government owned Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) that was established under the J&K State Forest Corporation Act, 1978. Many officials of the forest department (territorial wing) and even people in rural areas, especially those living near forests, are not happy with the decision taken to give timber distribution work to the Forest Corporation. This decision had been taken arbitrarily without any consultation with various stakeholders.

Forest officials from the territorial wing claim that they have adequate staff and manpower across J&K as compared to Forest Development Corporation (FDC). Some senior forest officers had claimed that sale of timber through Forest Corporation would lead to crises. That may be true to some extent but there is also a tussle involved in this process as the territorial wing of the forest department had more control over forest resources in the past than forest corporation and giving more powers to SFC is viewed by many lower rung forest officers as challenging their competence. Infact, the top management in Forest Development Corporation (FDC) belongs to Indian Forest Service (IFoS) or J&K Forest Service but at a lower level, there are indeed differences between the two organizations.

Subsidized timber to forest dwellers  

The forest dwelling scheduled tribes or other forest dwellers, even before enactment of Forest Rights Act (FRA) at national level or after its extension to J&K post article 370, had been given certain rights by the J & K Government. They would get subsidized timber from the forest department under the Kashmir Forest Notice or Jammu Forest Notice programmes. However, for almost a decade, this programme has not worked properly in J&K.

People living near forest areas are often denied subsidized timber by forest departments and have to buy the same from the market as Forest Development Corporation (FDC) also occasionally undertakes its sale in rural areas.

It is the right of villagers living near forests to  get the timber at subsidized rates. The non-availability of timber for these people, who mostly belong to economically weaker sections of society, is a matter of serious concern and FDC being a public sector undertaking must take these things into consideration especially at a time when Govt has rolled out Forest Rights Act 2006 in J&K.

Visit to Pal Maidan  

People from Basant Wodder, Thaz Wodder and Draggar forest villages migrate to Pal Maidan in summer months and this has been their tradition for centuries. The local population consists of both scheduled tribe (ST) Gujjars and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) who are all Kashmiri speaking forest dwellers which includes pastoralist Chopans. During last winter, several log huts (Kothas) belonging to these forest dwellers in Pal Maidan had been damaged in heavy snowfall but the villagers told me that forest officials didn't allow owners of these huts to undertake repairs. I spoke to some forest officers in the area and they told me that they had no orders from their divisional office about giving permission for repairing the log huts. Pertinently, for the repair of these huts, people need wooden logs which are not made available to the forest dwellers.

Timber Logs Piled Up

In Pal Maidan, a huge quantity of timber is piled up by the Forest Development Corporation (FDC). This is the mandi where the Forest Development Corporation (FDC) stores timer for its further transportation to different areas of Kashmir valley. The local migratory population told me that timber had been lying there for the last several years. It was later on transported after the intervention of FDCs Divisional Manager in Budgam. The timber extracted from forest areas is not sold in local districts but in many cases the same is transported as far as 100 kms away which involves huge transportation charges. It is suggested that timber extracted from districts be sold in the same area to save time, energy and financial resources.

It is ironic that timber from Yusmarg or Doodhpathri forests is sold in Ganderbal or Bandipora while both these districts have enough forest resources and the locals are deprived of it. I know many cases wherein people have applied for timber from Forest Development Corporation (FDC) long back but they are not able to cater to their demands.  One can understand if people in towns or cities don’t get timber from FDC  but if the same is denied to people living near forest villages then the Govt needs to look into these lapses.

Gram sabha resolution  

The villagers of Basant Wodder , Draggar , Thaz Wodder and Mujh Pathri face lots of difficulties on account of non availability of timber for the purpose of construction and minor repairs of residential houses. Those who afford (5 to 10 % of the population) get the same from the open market. Rest use inferior ply-boards which is so unfortunate and I relate this with an urdu proverb "chiragh talay andhera" (darkness under a lamp). There are fallen timber logs which get rotten inside our local forest area but Govt is not allowing its sale to people on subsidized rates. Because of poverty, some people get involved in illegal acts of axing forest trees. In June this year, fast winds damaged thousands of Fir and Kail trees in Doodhpathri forests and the Govt could not extract them for months. As I write this piece, I have been told that the majority of the fallen trees are still there and now the same would get damaged due to snowfall.

Kashmir Notice

In the past, people would get subsidized timber under the Kashmir Notice programme of J&K Forest Department but that has stopped for a long time. Early this year, it was revived again but there are still challenges. In Doodh Ganga forest range, the local Range Officer is said to be ensuring transparency in providing this subsidized timber to poor and needy but that is a big challenge for honest and dedicated officers as there are a lot of political and other kinds of pressures on them.

On one hand, the Govt claims to have rolled out the Forest Rights Act 2006 in J&K last year but on the ground, forest dwellers are deprived even of subsidized timber under the Kashmir Notice programme.  The Gram sabha of Draggar Panchayat in Khansahib block of Budgam passed a resolution urging Deputy Commissioner Budgam to intervene into this issue but that hasn’t helped them till date.

Conclusion  

Under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), there are several rights of forest dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers on all forest lands. They have Individual Forest Rights (IFR) & Community Forest Rights (CFR). In erstwhile times, the residents living near forest areas would get highly subsidized timber under Kashmir notice and Jammu notice. It was stopped for many years by the local elected Governments. On 22nd November 2018, the then State Administrative Council (SAC) headed by Governor Satya Pal Malik in an order said that concessions given to villagers whose village boundary lies within 5 kms of the demarcated forest boundary shall continue to be granted subsidized timber under Kashmir Forest Notice and Jammu Forest Notice subject to availability of timber. Unfortunately, this subsidized timber is not made available to deserving and disadvantaged families living near forests.


  • Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer 

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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