Srinagar: For over two decades, forests in Kashmir have been mercilessly chopped ever since political turmoil gripped the region in the 1990s. In the absence of any monitoring, the timber-smuggling industry, involving ministers, their relatives, bureaucrats and smugglers has thrived in the Valley.
As a result, large patches of coniferous forests simply vanished from Kashmir's landscape.
While the government says it has succeeded in curbing the illegal felling of green cover, the forest department is now confronting another challenge of an even bigger magnitude — every year, hundreds of hectares of forest land are lost to infrastructure building.
The vanishing forests
According to data accessed by the author, 13,902 hectares of forest land have been diverted to government departments for infrastructure projects over the years. This diversion cost around 17 lakh trees including deodar, chir, kail and fir. In the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the chief secretary-headed Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) would approve the use of forest land for non-forest purposes.
A former member of the committee described the diversion as the "slow poisoning" of green cover. "We know it is happening, but we can't do anything to stop it," he said, "It is a compulsion since we can't overlook development requirements."
Under the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Conservation Act, which stands abolished after the implementation of the Jammu and Kashmir Re-organisation Act of 2019, along with the FAC, the departments taking over forest land had to fund compensatory afforestation. The Act provided that fresh plantation be carried out outside the forest in an area equal to the green cover lost to a project or on twice the area diverted outside the forest.
But, a report by Comptroller and Auditor-General of India in 2015 revealed that funds allocated for afforestation were spent on decorating offices of bureaucrats and ministers with furniture and gadgets including LEDs, air conditioners etc.
Also, the non-availability of state land to compensate the forest area lost was resulting in gradual shrinking of the once-thick forests. "In reality, we keep losing the forests, but strangely the title of the area lost to infrastructure boom remains that of the forest," said the official. The chief conservator of forests, Kashmir, Farooq Geelani acknowledged that the forest area diverted no longer remains part of the forest. But he said the land approved for non-forest purposes was "minuscule".
According to Geelani, the department was taking measures for the long-term conservation of green gold, and to back his claims, he referred to the latest study by Forest Survey of India which showed an increase of 371 square kilometres in the erstwhile state's forest cover.
"This is the sign of healthy forests in Jammu and Kashmir," said Geelani. The study, however, doesn't mention the loss of forest area.
The development pressure
The deforestation is largely driven by an ever-increasing demand for housing and infrastructure development as a result of the population explosion and expansion of villages and towns.
The data shows the forest area lost has increased five times between 2010 and 2019. In 2019, a record 961.93 hectares of forest land was diverted for construction of roads, water reservoirs, laying transmission lines and optic fibres, setting up new hydropower projects and military installations.
It involved chopping down 4,735 trees and "un-enumerated" felling of trees in Kishtwar forest for the 1000-MW Pakal Dul power project and 3-MW power project in Daksum forest of southern Kashmir.
Interestingly, days before it was abolished, the FAC rushed to allow the diversion of 728.7 hectares of forest land in just four meetings between 18 September and 21 October.
The forest area lost in 2019 was more than double the 474.06 hectares diverted in 2018; the figure stood at just 282.03 hectares in 2016.
Conservator of forests, northern Kashmir, Irfan Rasool Wani said the forests cover 47 percent of the total land in Jammu and Kashmir, which is higher than the national average of 33 percent.
"We don't have land banks or wasteland left anymore for compensatory afforestation outside forests," said Rasool, describing it as the reason for the department focusing on fresh plantation within forests only. Over the past decade, as the government has focused on the exploitation of Jammu and Kashmir's vast hydropower resources, more proposals to build power infrastructure deep inside the green cover are vetted silently.
In 2015, the FAC quietly approved two proposals for chopping more than 60,000 forest trees on 523 hectares of forest land to pave the way for setting up two transmission lines.
The 414-kilometre Samba-Amargarh transmission line, connecting Kashmir with Jammu and beyond, cuts through forests in eight districts of the former state. It cost 373 hectares of forest area and 40,035 trees. The 330-kilometre Kashmir-Leh transmission line led to the chopping of 14,600 conifers, 3,500 poles, saplings and bushes on 150 hectares of forest area in Kashmir. The power corridor aims to improve the power scenario in the cold desert.
While the projects led to the large-scale plundering of the forests, they were approved without any detailed survey, an official disclosed.
Last year, 17.7 percent of the total forest area diverted was used for building new power infrastructure.
Although the forest land lost in Jammu and Kashmir over the years is only 0.68 percent of the total 20.19 lakh hectares or 20,194 sq kilometres, it is the ever-increasing demand for expanding human habitation and building new projects that is costing the region its green cover.
Since 2016, land diversion proposals have gone up from 44 to 351 last year.
Threat of encroachment persists
While the national forest policy lays focus on maintaining around 60 percent forest cover in the hilly regions, Jammu and Kashmir has much less — 19.95 percent tree cover of the total 42,241 square kilometres of geographical area, according to the 2017 Economic Survey by the Jammu and Kashmir government.
Encroachment has substantially eaten into the forest area. The government told the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir Assembly in February 2018 that 50,459 acres of forest land have been encroached upon in different forest divisions across the erstwhile state. In its report, the CAG said encroachment grew up to 82 percent between 2002 and 2014. During the same period, Jammu and Kashmir's forest department spent more than 85 percent of its total budget on administrative affairs, leaving negligible funding for conservation programs.
The expanding housing sector has also triggered a rising demand for timber. Between 2015 and 2018, at least 95 lakh cubic feet of timber was extracted from the forest to meet the growing demand for timber in the housing sector.
The maiden study
Experts argue while completely doing away with the environmental cost was impossible, the damage, however, could be minimised. The environmental impact assessment ordered before clearing projects is mostly driven by the need to fulfil procedural requirements rather than the protection of the forests. Waking up to the challenge, Srinagar had ordered a survey to assess the impact of the power lines, which cut through forests, on fauna and flora.
"The power development department may engage consultants/experts such as those from the Wildlife Institute of India for the purpose," read the minutes of the 117th FAC meeting.
This will be the first study of its kind to assess impact of transmission lines on the wildlife. In 2017, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court had pulled up the government for damage to Hirpora wildlife sanctuary, known for endangered Markhoor, in southern Kashmir's Shopian district during the construction of the Samba-Amargarh line.
The Wildlife Trust of India, an NGO has been working on a project dubbed 'Markhoor Recovery' in the sanctuary. Riyaz Ahmad, the project head, said transmission corridor has led to fragmentation and "liner intrusion" of Markhoor's habitat. The trust has found that the sanctuary suffered more damage when mountain slopes were cut for construction of roads to ferry material deep into the forests. This "unpardonable act" led to the vanishing of many species of vegetation and forced migration of wild animals.
The power line running through the sanctuary creates high-decibel noise which has disturbed the habitat of the wild animals and birds like the vulture and golden eagle.
"This noise is so loud that even humans can't tolerate it," Ahmad said, adding the focus of project executing agencies remains on "saving time and money" and less on minimising the damage, due to a lack of monitoring by the concerned departments.
Geelani, however, said there was no study available to prove any long term impact of infrastructure building on wildlife inside the forests. He, however, said the study was ordered as an "additional safeguard" after certain concerns were raised by experts on the impact of the power lines on fauna and flora.
"Only a detailed study will bring to the fore if there is any impact," Geelani said.
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Updated Date: Jan 07, 2020 15:16:06 IST