Disaster

The ‘high-tension’ transmission line that cuts through the heart of a Kashmir jungle

After 900 odd pine trees were axed in Ganderbal forests for laying of 220KV Alasteng-Leh transmission line, the reckless economic activity has once again come at the cost of environment. With over 95 percent trees already down on the ground, the recently launched ‘save environment’ campaign is hardly cheering up the jungle guards who say that the line hasn’t only devoured trees, but also the land.

As saws and axes are falling on the towering pines, the jungle regularly rattles with earth-shaking thuds. The obnoxious activity passed as development is not only bleeding the heart of the woods, but also derailing its meditative calm. What’s left now is a pervasive sight of devastation: chopped pines, barren sight and hazardous transmission lines.

The ‘dirty job’ is underway inside the thick forests lined on right side of the River Sindh, a few miles down the Kangan Township.

As a site of green massacre, Yashhuma-Darwuder forest belt is becoming a storm in a teacup save environment campaign—in Ganderbal’s Sindh Valley, where the civil society has raised its arms up against the deforestation order.

Far from the shrilling voices, men and machines are almost done with defiling the green gold in Darwuder forests for laying a transmission line that would connect Leh with the Northern Grid at the cost of 900 odd young pine trees of Kashmir.

The cost of the 2014 sanctioned project is Rs 1,788 crore, borne by New Delhi and JK in the ratio of 95:5.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid.

But as the shocking sight is hardly ruffling any feathers—barring a too little, too late crusade—Darwuder’s forest guard Farooq Ahmad is seething over the indifference. In his thirty years of service, the man has witnessed fortunes being made of the looted green gold.

What has recently happened in his field zone, however, is beyond individualistic greed, and perhaps a clear collective apathy towards the forests, which have housed the top insurgents of yore.

“Some people even blame forest department for this mess,” Farooq sitting on the big axed pine tree says. “But we’re literally on our toes, resisting every attempt by these men to harm the unmarked trees.”

Darwuder forest, where the devastation is paving way for ‘development’, is the home of young pine trees. In the entire transmission line from Alesteng to Baltal area, this belt has suffered the most. Out of the total 900 plus trees for clearance, 450 odd belong to this zone.

“Forest Department’s image vis-à-vis forest safety might be maligned, but in this case, they did put up a fight to safeguard around 450 trees in this belt,” says Farooq, leading through the chopped pine pathway. “But when the transmission company knocked the doors of the higher-ups, the government sent its men and machinery to mark the trees for massive axing here in 2017.”

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid.

The decks for deforestation were cleared by the PDP-BJP regime, and the main enforcer, Farooq says, was Lal Singh, the shamed and sacked ex-forest minister, who invited bad press for leading a pro-rapist rally in Kathua early this year.

“When the order came from the ministerial level, it made mockery of our tough stand,” Farooq continues, walking through the patch strewn with the fallen pines. “We might be guards of this jungle, but at the end of the day, when higher-ups take any decision, we’ve to oblige.”

But it wasn’t that simple. In fact, what’s happening in these Ganderbal forests is beyond the usual electrification process. By January 2019 when the transmission line becomes operational, some 12 meters of land under it will become barren.

Farooq says the company has even purchased the land under the transmission line from the state at Rs 18 crore.

With the coming of this power line, there’s also a fear of escalating forest fires and potential loss of lives in the jungle — given how gypsies and locals are frequenting these treks for daily routine and activities. Among them is Javed Sangoo. As a campus watcher, the young man keeps a vigil on the movement and activities in the woods. On August 27, when pine chopping began in his area of operation, he helplessly saw the green belt turning into a desert patch.

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid.

“I’ve grown up in these woods and I know them as home,” Sangoo says, taking one to the point where a tower supervisor from South India is seeking permission for chopping more trees. “We people couldn’t resist their advances beyond a point. They had come with a cabinet order last year, and now they came with axes to demolish these forests, like they ruined the paddy fields downhill.”

Not far from these transmission lines is the middle school where native children study. During recess, students play in these woods and come running towards their school when their schoolmaster whistles, signalling the end of the lunch break.

“I don’t think it’s going to be the same for these kids over here now,” Sangoo says, with a sad face.

There’s another regular watcher of these woods — apart from the helpless guard, and dismal campus watcher.

As a wild life low-rung official, Ghulam Mohammad Gujarlohar knows the jungle as the back of his hand. The smiling man in his mid-thirties recounts spine-chilling encounters with wild animals. After 8 pm, he says, jackals and bears come down in his tribe’s backyards, with whom they hardly enter into any conflict.

But now, he rues, wild animals won’t prowl around the way they used to, because of their lost habitat.

“I work here without getting a penny from the department and yet I perform my work as worship,” Gujarlohar says. “We protect these jungles which in-turn feed us. But now, the way things stand, we fear for our survival.”

Some in his tribe fear dislocation—like their nomad counterparts from Jammu—if they become vocal about the deforestation.

“Just a few steps from here, you’ll find our brethren from Jammu,” he talks about the Bakerwal tribe, some of whom are currently camping in Darwuder forests. “We all know what they faced early this year at Kathua. So, most of us are fearful to even talk about the happenings around. You never know, what would happen.”

FPK Photo/Afshan Rashid.

Much of this fear stems from the bizarre order of the former forest minister, Lal Singh, who opposed the implementation of the Forest Act in J&K that ensures the rights of nomads on forests. Behind Singh’s resistance, many see a sinister move “to drive out Muslim nomads from their lands”. When the same motive became the driving force of the Kathua rape and murder case, the entire nomad tribe felt threatened.

ALSO READ: Lal Singh: A demagogue’s field day

“Whatever is happening here has full official backing,” Abdul Gani Hakla, a roaming forester in Darwuder, says. “Who doesn’t understand the importance of these trees, but then how can we go against the order taken at the higher level.”

Hakla is a well-built man who has spent over 40 years in the major woods of Ganderbal. He was there when smugglers were having a field day. Even then, he says, he never saw such large-scale deforestation, “that too for the transmission line which could’ve been taken through an alternate route”.

The ravaged site has already oiled the local timber industry. Hakla takes one on a tour of the area where the young chopped pines are being numbered before being shipped to Ganderbal’s timber depot for sale.

Beyond economics and the wrecked environment, the bleeding heart of the jungle defies the very development story, which is being floated to defend the destruction.

A tree massacre has indeed taken place in Ganderbal woods. If not stopped at the earliest, such brazen moves might well become a new norm and will further plunder the valley’s green gold in the name of ‘development’.

 

 

Afshan Rashid contributed to this story.

 

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