Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Ecological Disaster in the Making: Forest Minister admits it's a "loot and scoot" situation

Forest is a totally ruined department, says Forest Minister

From Ahmed Ali Fayyaz

(Mr. Fayyaz, 47, was born in Bodina, Budgam, and received his primary and secondary education in Budgam and later at Amar Singh College, Srinagar. He completed his Master's degree in Kashmiri language and literature from the University of Kashmir in 1987. He is the Srinagar bureau chief of Jammu & Kashmir's largest-circulated newspaper, Daily Excelsior. He is also a filmmaker and currently making a film on Kashmir's top pilgrim tourism destination of Chrar-e-Sharief, and about Sheikh-ul-Alam Sheikh Noor-ud-din Noorani, also known as Nund Rishi.)

SRINAGAR, Jan 12: Forest Minister Qazi Mohammad Afzal, who is in the eye of a storm in Legislative Assembly over the Kundal committee report, today said that Forest was a "totally ruined department" in which the loot-and-scoot situation was continuing and the politicians and officials had built too strong a nexus to be broken by ordinary measures. He asserted that he would leave no stone unturned to expose real culprits of the timber mafia whose immunity was intact notwithstanding the Kundal report.

Qazi Afzal revealed to EXCELSIOR that the other day only he had taken a high level meeting of senior officials and called for a detailed report about the massive damage caused to the state's sylvan cover in his 3-month-long absence from Ministry. "I have no hesitation in saying that due to political intervention, Forest has become a totally ruined department. This is what I had revealed to Chief Minister in August last year as I wanted to launch a major drive against the timber mafia", Qazi said.

"When the timber mafia came to know that I was going to get back my portfolio, it managed posting of a DFO in the most sensitive Pir Panjal Division in the dead of night. Order was issued hours before I resumed charge. And, what was the sin of the prematurely removed DFO? He had just ignored a politician's halt orders and dismantled the illegal sawmills of three of his relatives in 'A' zone in Budgam district", Qazi lamented. He said that within two days of his resuming charge, he learned that scores of conifer trees had been felled in compartment No: 66 of Gogaldara Block in Gulmarg Range.

On Qazi's express orders, Forest Protection Force (FPF) conducted a raid and found that 11 Devdar and 3 Kail trees had been felled in just two days and 1450 cft of timber was being smuggled. The FPF team seized 792 cft (636 cft Devdar and 156 cft Kail) and placed the same in the custody of Forester Ghulam Ahmed Sofi, Block Officer Khoipora, against a Supurdnama. On the Minister's orders, PCCF Mr Irshad Khan placed Range Officer Gulmarg, Ishtiaq Ahmed Matoo, Block Officer Gogaldara, Forester Malik Feroz and Forest Guard Ghulam Ahmed Rishi under suspension. "I'm ordering a high level inquiry as I have reasons to believe that higher level officials and some politicians are actually involved", Qazi asserted.

Minister has also learned that a former Range Officer of Gulmarg, who had been similarly placed under suspension last year in identical circumstances, has not only managed his reinstatement but has also been rewarded with a training course. Even as both Vigilance Organisation as well as Forest Department are supposedly conducting an investigation, the official involved is under training in Dehradun.

"This is our State's biggest problem. Our forests are denuded with impunity and there's a lot of political intervention from several quarters. In August itself, I had told honourable Chief Minister that MLAs as well as the people they represent are not satisfied with the system in Forest sector. I had made it candidly clear that media was equally dissatisfied and the timber procured from our forests was not reaching the common man. Now that I am back to the work, I'll mean business", Qazi added. He said that due to the Kundal committee investigation, one-odd Forest official had been axed, that too in an offence of dual citizenship. "It's a veritable big mafia, completely intact even after the Kundal probe. It has become a huge, lucrative business for well-connected people. Until we take a major initiative, it's not going to break", he added.
Qazi revealed that in days of returning to office, he observed that massive damage had been caused to forests in his own Assembly constituency of Ganderbal. "We immediately mobilized Police which seized as many as 57 sleepers and dumped it at DPL Ganderbal", he said.

Last fortnight again, in a day of his resuming the portfolio Qazi learned that massive damage had been lately caused to some compartments in Lidder Division in Anantnag district. On the Minister's orders, a four-member team of FPF conducted a midnight raid and seized 126 cft of illegally felled timber at Vail Nagbal in Mattan Range. In two hours of the raid, a group of 12 officials of Forest Division Lidder cordoned the house of the poor Gujjar who had provided shelter to the FPF team. As the Forest officials were preparing to set the house on fire and burn the FPF officials alive, a reinforcement from FPF and Police rushed to the spot on an SOS and rescued the three guards and a watcher.

Next day, FPF officials lodged a complaint with Police Station Aishmuqam and identified five culprits as Ghulam Nabi Paddar, Abdur Rasheed Trali, Nisar Ahmed Mir, Mohammad Afzal Sheikh and Mohammad Ramzan, all Forest Guards of Lidder Division. Qazi said that he had asked for a detailed report and a "very serious departmental action" was imminent against the five Forest officials and their local helpers.

Asked for his comments, Joint Director FPF Kashmir, Liaquat Ali Dar, said that Police simply filed an FIR but did not take any further action. He added that officials of Lidder Division did not only attempt to burn the FPF team alive but also thrashed Deputy Director Abdul Salam Sofi mercilessly next day when he went to the spot. "My subordinate staff in Anantnag have complained to me that the SHO has taken a sum of Rs 50,000 from the culprits and hushed up the matter. This is a serious allegation which I am taking up with SSP Anantnag and other senior Police officials", he said.

Dar was, however, quick to give credit to Forest Department that earlier this week DFO Kamraj Division extended best possible cooperation to the FPF squads in jointly seizing over 600 cft of illicit timber that has had been felled in compartments 17-Tris and 19-Tris in Kupwara district. He said that the DFO also placed two guards and a watcher immediately under suspension. He said that "heavy damage" was being caused to the forests in Kashmir valley and claimed that FPF had seized as much as 2,000 cft of illicit timber in just three days.

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