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.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The Rape of a Garden

Timber Mafia operatives, working in tandem with officials, are leaving an irreplaceable legacy for generations to come, including their own progeny

Who will stem the rot?

Syed Junaid Hashmi (KT)

Jammu: Like the proverbial 'who will bell the cat', the endless puzzle of who would put curbs on the timber mafia operating in league with officials of state forest department in Jammu and Kashmir is a million dollar question. Like his predecessors, Forest Minister Mian Altaf too has obliquely expressed his helplessness in putting curbs on this mafia.

Ironically, while minister talked about taking stringent measures to curb the timber mafia, he failed to make a mention of the fate of officers who under his very noose, despite being knee deep in corruption, are enjoying prize postings. They have proven cases of timber loot against them but their influence have prevented their prosecution and instead, they are enjoying prize postings.

A DFO, presently working in Udhampur range who was held responsible for extensive damages to around 400 Kail and Deodar tress in Marwah area of Kishtwar district has been rewarded with prize posting. It needs to be mentioned here that an internal inquiry had held him guilty of official misconduct and recommended his penalisation but to no avail. The damages attributed were worth Rs. 1 crore 20 lakh.

Sources in the forest secretariat said that senior officers have repeatedly informed the minister about timber mafia managing posting of DFOs and rangers in the most sensitive Pir Panjal Division. They added that a DFO was prematurely transferred just because he ignored an influential politician's orders and dismantled the illegal sawmills of three of his relatives in Budgam district.

Moreover, sources said that the department is yet to seek answer from the officers about felling of scores of conifer trees in compartment No: 66 of Gogaldara Block in Gulmarg Range besides inquiring into the massive damage caused to some specific compartments in Lidder Division of Anantnag district.

Reliable sources said that goaded by the inability of Jammu and Kashmir government failure to deal with timber mafia, a senior officer of forest department has prepared a white paper and put the entire blame of timber smuggling on the rangers and DFOs of various ranges.

Citing instances, the officer has in his paper made a mention of frequent transfers of range officers and DFOs, attributing it to their connections in higher echelons of power. They added that the officer, while referring to fire incidents, said that around 104 square kilometres forest area has been gutted causing loss of several crores of rupees to the state forest department.

"50 percent of the fires were caused intentionally mainly with the objective of encroaching upon the land and to cover-up the loot and plunder of the green gold. The remaining 50 percent fire incidents have taken place because of carelessness of the officials of forest department," the officer has reportedly stated in his paper.

The officer in his white paper has said that a Range Officer of Gulmarg, who was placed under suspension for his alleged involvement in timber smuggling not only managed his reinstatement but was also been rewarded with a training course. "He has cases against him which are being probed. Yet he is being sent on one training programme after another for the reasons best known to the administration," the officer has written.

Talking about the Chenab circle, the officer has in his paper put the blame of plunder of forest wealth on the nexus between DFOs, Range Officers and some timber contractors belonging to Jammu and Doda region. He has even gone to the extent of saying that "All these are much more powerful that the entire cabinet of Jammu and Kashmir."

Sources said that the well-drafted white paper on the Jammu and Kashmir forests which is spread over 300 pages has also made a mention of a senior IAS officer who managed posting of a DFO in Chenab circle for helping his relatives dealing in timber without the knowledge of the minister in-charge.

Interestingly, the officer has pointed out that mass transfers and postings of officers are done on the basis of their regional affinities. "Those from Jammu and Kashmir are being discriminated when it comes to postings. They usually get second preference on every issue," the official has written in his paper. Sources said that the officer would be submitting this white paper to the Forest Minister within a month's time.

"It's a veritably 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", said an officer of the forest secretariat. He added that timber smuggling has been state's biggest problem. "Our forests are denuded with impunity and there's a lot of political intervention from several quarters," added the official.

Meanwhile, Minister for Forests and Environment, Mian Altaf Ahmad has said that government is ready to open new Forest Protection Units in uncovered areas to check forests smuggling. For this purpose, the forest department would be re-organised, the minister said, adding that a Gamma Unit of Forest Protection Force has already been set up at Doabgah, about 10 kms away from Zainagair.

He said that besides Gamma Unit K-06 Natnusa, Kupwara has already been established in Kamraj Forest Division and there is no Gamma Unit in one territorial Forest Division, adding each Forest Protection Force Gamma Unit comprises 55 men especially recruited and trained for the job. He said the department has taken cognizance of the damages caused to forest due to smuggling and has duly assessed quantum of damages during last decade (1999 till date).

The plans are ambitious, given the still strong nexus of officials and timber smuggling mafia. Will the minister be able to walk his talk?

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