Forest department has started a drive against ‘illegal encroachers’ of forest land in Kashmir Valley.
With prediction of fresh snowfall in upper reaches of the Kashmir Valley, members of around 30 families are running from pillar to post to know the reason for the felling of tens of thousands of apple trees and a sudden eviction of nomadic population of Gujjars near the forest area in Budgam’s Pakherpora Block in central Kashmir.
In his 70s, Sharief Bajjad is the head of a family of eight members in Kanidajan village and homeless now. “Forest officials came this week to my Kotha [huntment] with orders to evict us. In this weather, where will we go? We have shifted to a nearby village. We tend cattle up in the forest area. What will happen to our means of earning now?” he said.
The Forest department has started a drive against “illegal encroachers” of forest land in the Valley. It also felled apple trees planted on what the department described as “forest land”.
Six decades of living
“I fail to understand the reason behind cutting the apple trees. Many were 30-year-old trees. This area sees a stunted growth of trees due to poor water levels. Many were planted by my grandfather. We are living here for more than six decades and my great grandfathers lived earlier up in the forest area. I fail to understand what is our sin?”, Mr. Bajjad stated.
Sabeer Ahmad Wagay alleged that the Forest Department within two days of the eviction notice started felling apple trees spread over 13 kannals (1.62 acre).
“We were not even heard. The land is with us for many generations. It takes a lot of efforts to tend an apple tree and see it attain the age of 20 years. Our earnings depended on it”, Mr. Wagay, with 13 family members in the house, said. However, his house was spared from being dismantled.
Unlike Budgam’s verdant orchard land, Kanidajan takes double the time in raising apple trees. “A ten-year-old apple tree is equivalent to low-lying orchards. These orchards, maize and potato fields were means of earning. If land is taken away, where will we earn to feed our family members?”, said Fayaz Ahmad, who had planted six kannals (0.75 acres) of land.
“This land was handed down to us by our ancestors. And suddenly, we are asked not to tend these orchards and fields. We demand the government to do justice with us”, he stated.
Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a Right to Information (RTI) activist from Budgam, said the Forest Department’s move was against the essence of the Forest Rights Act 2006 in J&K.
‘Intentions not clear’
“The Supreme Court has stayed eviction proceedings across India. How can the government ask people living near forests to surrender land? The intentions of the government are not clear when it comes to implementing the Forest Rights Act 2006 in J&K”, Mr. Bhat said.
On one hand, the government assured to give the Schedule Tribes and other forest dwellers their rights and title over the forest land “but the actions like issuance of eviction notices and chopping of fruit trees of these poor people is defeating the essence of this great legislation”, he observed.
“The erring forest officers should be taken to task. We will be filing a formal complaint against them before the court of law. The locals claims that the land has been allotted to them more than 60 to 70 years back by the government under the ‘Grow More Food’ programme”, he pointed out.
Local officials of the Forest Department were not available for comment.