By Athar Parvaiz

After 6 August, 2019, when the Government of India scrapped the semi-autonomous status of the former Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir and divided it into two union territories, recent news and statements about the imminent land-use changes in the region have caused consternation among common people and environmental activists. They argue that it would result in “environmental degradation in the name of development.”

As part of abolishing Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status, the union government passed the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act in the parliament, which came to effect on 31, October, 2019 with the appointment of a new government in Jammu and Kashmir.

A review of official data reveals that the new regional government, in a massive land-hunt exercise, has so far identified 120,000 kanals (15,000 acres) of land from 203,020 acres of state-owned land in the Kashmir region for industrial infrastructure development.

Birds taking off at Kashmir’s Hokersar wetland. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz.
Birds taking off at Kashmir’s Hokersar wetland. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz.

Most of this land is ecologically sensitive because it is either part of or close to water bodies.

In Jammu, 42,000 acres of state land has been identified for development, though concerns about environmental degradation have not so far been expressed explicitly by the people of that region.

Forest land for development

In another series of decisions on diversion of forest land and approval for felling forest trees and trees in urban forests, the Jammu and Kashmir government’s Forest Advisory Committee (FAC), which was authorised to make decisions on approval of developmental projects passing through forested land, has approved the diversion of over 727 hectares (around 1780 acres) of designated forest land. It has 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) and felling of un-enumerated trees that will be submerged due to construction of a hydro-electricity project (Pakuldul hydro-electricity project) and other development projects.

As many as 198 projects have been approved by the FAC in four meetings (within 33 days) on 18 September, 3 October, 17 October, and 21 October. In comparison, less than half (97 projects) involving diversion of forest land were cleared in 12 months in 2018.

Most of the 727 hectares of diverted land (over 60 percent) is for building roads leading to smaller villages with population less than 200 people, said a member of the committee who was present during these meetings, speaking to Mongabay-India on the condition of anonymity. According to him, many of these proposals have been pending for a while as some members had suggested that some of these villages be relocated rather than allowing diversion of forest land for building roads for habitations with just 50 to 150 families.

“Some of our forests, for example in Doda, have suffered extensive denudation because of diversion of huge chunks of forested land for roads and hydro-electricity projects,” he said. He further said that projects other than road projects, which were now approved, were on the waiting list for years as there were questions from the FAC.

Those questions, he said, had still not been answered, but the clearances were given “in a hasty manner.”

The process of deforestation could be hastened with the reorganisation. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz.
The process of deforestation could be hastened with the reorganisation. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz.

Conflict as a culprit

Meanwhile, conflict in Kashmir continues to be a reason for the negative impact on the sensitive ecology in Kashmir. Since the early 1990s, when the armed conflict began in Kashmir, forests and water bodies have suffered neglect resulting in their degradation. In the 1990s and early 2000s, forests suffered huge damage as timber smugglers used to get direct or indirect patronage of militants, militant-turned Ikhwanis (renegades) and even security forces.

The effects of degradation of forests are already visible in the 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.

Even water bodies were encroached upon during the years of intense armed conflict in Kashmir and suffered much degradation because of a heavy pollution load, in the absence of proper governance. Using ecologically sensitive land such as forested areas for development of security-related infrastructure and deployment of security forces has been ongoing in Kashmir ever since the conflict started in the region in 1989, prior to which security presence was limited to some areas.

In a written reply to a question in January 2018, former chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Mehbooba Mufti, had informed the state’s legislative assembly that 430,933 Kanals (53,866 acres) of land were under the direct use of army and paramilitary forces in the region.

In keeping with this conflict-related land-use in Jammu and Kashmir, 33 percent (243 hectares) of 727 hectares of forest land was approved for diversion for the use of the army and paramilitary forces from 18 September, 2019 to 21 October, 2019 in Pir Panjal (Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuary), Kehmil, Jhelum Valley, Samba and Jammu Forest divisions.

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 the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act from 31 October, 2019. Implementation of the Reorganisation Act meant automatic scrapping of the Jammu and Kashmir Forest Act under which the FAC was formed.

Environmental activists like Raja Muzzafar, who is also an RTI activist, are worried what the proposed industrial development would do to an ecologically sensitive region. “The only land owned by the government in Kashmir is part of rivers and wetlands and some Kerevas. One can just imagine what can happen to the environment and ecology once the construction is allowed there,” he said.

Banner image: The people of Jammu and Kashmir are concerned about the impact of the state reorganisation on its sensitive environment. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz.

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This article was originally published on Mongabay.com.

Mongabay-India is an environmental science and conservation news service. This article has been republished under the Creative Commons licence.

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