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.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Forest Preservation in J&K

Arjimand cuts through the underbelly of State's disastrous Forest Policy to find culprits - indifferent citizens led by officials lacking vision

(Mr. Arjimand Hussain Talib, 34, is a columnist/writer and a development professional who matriculated from Tyndale Biscoe Memorial School in 1991. He subsequently graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Engineering from Bangalore University and has a diploma in journalism as well. He is an alumni of the International Academy for Leadership, Gummerbach, Germany and has worked with UNESCO, Oxfam and ActionAid International in some seven countries in Asia and Africa. Arjimand writes regular weekly columns for the Greater Kashmir and The Kashmir Times since 2000 on diverse issues of political economy, development, environment and social change and has over 450 published articles to his credit.)

Trees, Mr. Mian: 2010 Forest Policy needs new ideas and action

The last 3-4 decades have seen devastation of forests in almost every country, barring a few exceptions, mainly in Europe. Now, there are two kinds of countries: one, that have reversed the trend of deforestation, and, second, that live with the decay. We belong to the second category.

The problems with our environment are grotesquely huge. As our plantation season is about to begin, and J&K’s Forest Department is finalising the state’s new Forest Policy, it is high time we talk about our forests and urban greenery.

The draft of the 2010 Forest Policy looks impressive. But it needs to consider some other issues as well. The crux of any Forest Policy in today’s circumstances must be to increase the forest cover; restore and reclaim it, wherever possible, and make forests a renewable source of people’s ethical livelihoods. The latter one has a particular significance.

We are said to have had a forest cover of 21,000 sq. km. in 1930, which went down to 13,000 sq. km. in 1980. We are said to have lost another 20 per cent during the previous 20 years. So what are our options?

Simply put, there are two dimensions of the debate on our forests - one is moral and another commercial. The moral question that we must all preserve forests for our better future has, sadly, lost its appeal and relevance. If the Forest Policy is based on such a disingenuous moral argument, it would be like living with a farce.

We live in an age of intense survival competition. It is going to get worse with each passing day. J&K’s Forest Policy (2010) must focus on creating conditions for ethical business activities from our forests. And that is not going to happen with the current system of making a government corporation to do all that.

Ideally, government agencies must be relieved from the business of maintaining forests and other plantation. Preservation, new plantation and exploitation must go to private hands. That must happen in the countryside as well as in our cities. That would generate massive productive employment for us. I have seen many countries having done wonders with reforestation – China, Indonesia and Zimbabwe being the most impressive ones. We need to look at their success stories little closely.

The reason Kashmir’s rural lands, outside the designated forest areas, are green is because they are privately owned, and offer viable commercial incentive. People plant and cut trees for making money. They replant on their own, again to make money. And all that doesn’t happen under a government-promoted or sponsored scheme.

The timber sale policy of the State Forest Corporation also needs a rethink. It is good that the new Forest Policy has talked about institutionalising imported timber sale in the state. That will relieve a good deal of stress.

There is, however, a bigger problem which hasn’t been addressed in the new policy draft. The problem relates to the rural-urban distinction in the state’s subsidised timber sale. It doesn’t make sense to make subsidised timber available across all segments of people in the rural areas. Similarly, the policy of selling timber at high rates in urban areas, particularly in Srinagar, irrespective of purchasing power, needs reconsideration. Considerable amount of subsidised timber is consumed in rural areas, especially in commercial construction. The new Forest Policy must ideally envisage selling timber at flat rates in both urban and rural areas. Subsidised timber should ideally go only to the families duly recognised living below the poverty line. It may be a politically unpopular step, but it is inevitable.

When it comes to forest preservation, or tree survival outside designated forest areas, the fundamental problem is that of maintenance and care. The reason most of the social and urban forestry projects have failed is that there is no incentive to government employees to preserve them. National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) offers a good opportunity on that. The scheme could be handy in engaging people in plantation and maintenance on community lands.

Urban tree cover in our state, especially in Srinagar city, is dismally low. Popular news portal - MSN – last fortnight published the findings of a survey on India’s eight greenest cities. Normally, one would expect Srinagar to figure somewhere in such a list. But it did not.

Success stories of some of India’s cities are worth emulating. According to MSN, from 1991 to 2007 Chandigarh's 17,000 trees came under axe, but during the same period the city planted over 21 lakh trees. What a feat!

Gujarat’s capital, Gandhinagar, is today seen as one of India’s greenest cities. It boasts of some 32 lakh trees for a 1.5 lakh population. Delhi Government’s Green Delhi Action Plan undertaken in 2004 has focused on planting saplings that specifically combat air pollution. Bhopal has today a designated National Park within the city, covering an area of 445 hectares. The same area was once barren.

Due to growing urbanisation, Bangalore lost 50,000 trees over the last two decades. But its citizens are saying ‘no-more.’ Last year alone, 300 individuals and a few corporate houses have come together to plant around 4,000 trees in various parts of the city.

The question that arises is: why haven’t we been able to create a decent tree cover in Srinagar on public lands and along the roads? Why do we prune the residual trees on our roads so often not to make them really grow? Why do we see trees as a ‘public nuisance’?

The performance of the Landscape Division – entrusted with maintaining landscapes and roadside trees – in Srinagar city needs close scrutiny. Good deal of public money in spent on installing steel casings for saplings, but saplings disappear normally within no time. The disaster with the conifer plantation along the Dr. Ali Jan Road is a ready example.

The 2010 Forest Policy must allow for involving private players in planting and maintaining green lands in Srinagar city and elsewhere. And it must be done by law. To create an incentive, the person/entity responsible for maintenance may be entitled to the sale of firewood of the trees whenever pruning is deemed feasible. And it must have clear guidelines on that.

When it comes to Srinagar, I would be the first person to undertake plantation of a public space and maintain that. There would definitely be many others who would be interested in doing that.

Another serious environmental issue related to our urban landscaping also needs immediate attention. It concerns the macadamisation, concretisation and ever-increasing civil drainage work of our urban spaces. The drainage phenomenon and fast-disappearing natural green spaces are preventing groundwater recharge. ‘Drainage’ of the sort that we develop ends up sending rain and snow water directly to our rivers. It is essential that the Forest Policy addresses this related aspect. Groundwater depletion is not going to be a good omen for our future.

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