Tribals Without Timber: Distressed Denizens of Kashmir Jungle

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

UNTIL 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. But in that tumultuous year of 2016, the PDP-BJP coalition government 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 turned 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, many say, had been taken arbitrarily without any consultation with various stakeholders.

Notably, forest officials from the territorial wing claim that they have adequate staff and manpower across J&K as compared to the FDC. Some senior forest officers had claimed that sale of timber through this 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. Also, unbridled powers given to SFC are viewed by many lower rung forest officers as a challenge to their competence.

In fact, the top management in the 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 abrogation of 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 are forced to buy the same from the market as FDC also occasionally undertakes its sale in rural areas.

Experts say that it’s 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, many say, 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 in Budgam district of Central Kashmir 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. For the repair of these huts, people need wooden logs. But the villagers expressed anguish that the forest officials didn’t allow owners of these huts to undertake repairs. Some of the forest officers in the area said that they had clear orders from their divisional office not to give repair permissions to these hut owners.

These forest dwellers are facing this official indifference at a time when a campaign has been started to uproot them from forests — they called home since ages.

In a major crackdown launched against these tribals, the Lieutenant Governor-led administrative machinery last year bulldozed their shanties and hutments across the forest range in Jammu and Kashmir. The controversial step was taken despite FRA giving protection of forest land use rights to these tribals, especially after the abrogation of Article 370.

In Pal Maidan, a huge quantity of timber is piled up by the FDC. This is the mandi where the corporation stores timber for its further transportation to different areas of Kashmir valley.

The local migratory population said that timber had been lying there for the last several years. It was later on transported after the intervention of FDC’s 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.

Time and again, the expert committees suggested that timber extracted from districts be sold in the same area to save time, energy and financial resources.

However, it’s ironic that timber from Yusmarg or Doodhpathri forests is sold in Ganderbal or Bandipora. While both these districts have enough forest resources, the locals are deprived of it.

There’re many cases wherein people have applied for timber from FDC long back, but the corporation is not able to cater to their demands. The indolence, many say, is there for a reason.

But while those living in towns or cities usually get timber from the FDC, denying the same to the people living near forest villages is seen as a discriminatory move further spreading notions about the government’s purported plans to “clear green belts from tribals”.

Gram Sabha Resolution 

The unavailability of timber to tribals has already made winter a season of suffering for them.

The villagers of Basant Wodder, Draggar, Thaz Wodder and Mujh Pathri in Budgam face lots of difficulties on account of timber paucity 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.

This Naya Kashmir jungle jinx is shocking on many counts. While these tribals are struggling for timber, the fallen logs are rotting inside forests right under the nose of watch and warden. However, the administrative grid is not allowing its sale to people on subsidized rates.

In June 2021, a whirling gale damaged thousands of Fir and Kail trees in Doodhpathri forests and the Govt could not extract them for months. The majority of the fallen trees are still there and now the same would get damaged due to snowfall.

The apathy towards tribals is now further bleeding Kashmir’s green gold through subversive activities. Some people owing to poverty get involved in illegal acts of axing forest trees.

Last summer, forests around the Frasnag area of Budgam faced a massive axing. Falling within the Doodh Ganga forest range, Kail and Fir (Budloo) trees of this range had vanished. According to local migratory communities in the area, timber smugglers were responsible for most of the damage to the forest. These smugglers had come from other areas like Sangerwani or even as far as Kellar areas of Shopian.

Kail (Kairoo) trees are the prime target for the timber smugglers—it fetches them good money. Significant damage has been inflicted on these trees, with more than 2,000 trees being cut between March and August last year amid COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, Deodars and Kail trees were damaged in Baderwah Forest Division in Jammu division.

In the face of this wanton green loot, many believe, the forest officers who’re against giving forest rights to tribals must first question their own staff involved in this crime.

The forest officials claim that they cannot protect the trees because of lack of manpower. Local shepherds and tribal populations allege that certain officials are also involved in the timber smuggling as they take money from smugglers.

Many officials are tasked with burning the tree stumps soon after trees are cut down so that they look like old, axed trees. In addition to this, black tea, acid, and motor oil are also used to get rid of evidence after trees are chopped down.

It’s a known fact that unless some officials of the forest department are not hand-in-glove with timber smugglers, not a single tree inside the forest would be felled.

With the enactment of Forest Rights Act, many were hoping to see some order in the jungle. As per the law, if a dweller has a Kotha registered in forest records, he will get the right to repair it.

But the persistent problem itself conveys a sense that the law isn’t being implemented in letter and spirit in Kashmir.

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 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). But in the recent past, some of these rights were annulled by the local administration.

On November 22, 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.

But the reality remains that amidst the unabated forest eviction drives, the 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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