Forests are life-giving. As the lifeblood of human existence, forests provide shelter to several species of plants, animals and insects. Water bodies survive and remain perennial if forests remain alive and throbbing. So integral is the existence of a forest for ecological well being that it led a fifteenth-century Kashmiri poet Sheikh ul Alam to observe thus: “Ann poshi teli yeli wan poshi”, meaning “food will last as long as forests last.”
As per the India State of Forest Report of 2019, 24.56% of the geographical land of India is under forest cover. The report registers an increase of 5,188 sq. km of forest and tree cover combined from the past record, but Jammu and Kashmir have witnessed drastic forest reduction in the recent past. What is worrisome is the fact that the logic adopted by the report is questionable in its estimate of the total forest cover.
As per the definition of ‘forest cover’, it includes land that is more than 0.01 sq km (one hectare) and has a tree canopy density of more than 10%, notwithstanding the legal status of the land. ‘Recorded Forest Area’ by the FSI (Forest Survey of India) includes land that is legally considered a forest, as per government records, regardless of the actual canopy density. In other words, if forest land is diverted for dam construction, the legal status of same may remain unchanged. In view of expert researchers working on the subject, ‘Recorded Forest Area’ could include land which belongs to the local forest department but has no forest.
To further add to the woes of the Himalayan state, Forest Advisory Committee of the state of Jammu and Kashmir gave official clearances to 125 projects involving diversion of forest land between August and October 2019. The timeline marks the political shift in the administration of the Himalayan state since the withdrawal of Article 370 of the Constitution of India, 1950.
As per another report, as many as 198 projects, mostly for road construction, were approved by the FAC in four meetings on September 18, October 3, October 17, and October 21 in 2019. The plausible response by some officials is that as The Jammu Kashmir Reorganisation Act 2019, was to kick in from October 31, 2019, as a direct consequence of this development, Jammu and Kashmir Forest Act 1987, under which the FAC (Forest Advisory Committee) is formed, faced its demise.
Deforestation may lead to irreversible damages in the environment and can precipitate climate change. Forest degradation, along with deforestation, is considered to be a grave problem worldwide as it is estimated that planet earth has lost over half of the tropical forests worldwide since the 1960s. Reckless mining in Jhelum river basin has furthered the problems in the Kashmir valley. Floods of 2014 in Kashmir is not a distant reminder of the environmental damage unleashed. As per estimates, the 2014 floods damaged 2,61,361 structures, 3,27,000 hectares of agricultural land and 3,96,000 hectares of horticultural land.
The housing sector suffered losses over ₹300 billion, and the business sector lost around ₹700 billion. Trees like almond and walnut take 10–15 years to grow and mindless deforestation and official haste to approve projects at the cost of the environment may sow the seeds for consequences like over siltation, heavy erosion of soil leading to flash floods. It would also cause a loss of biodiversity and reduced forest productivity.
The construction mafia needs to be reined in, and restoration of lost forest reserves is the need of the hour. Trees can only be saved when enlightened citizenry takes up cudgels to protect them from being felled. Chipko Andolan is reminiscent of an aware citizenry protecting the green reserve. The movement in advanced stages took the shape of the “Save Himalaya” movement.
Uttarakhand was the epicentre of the movement, and it was primarily led by the women who formed a human chain around trees to resist loggers. The government machinery needs to respond with greater urgency to nip the trend of deforestation to improve the ecological well being of Kashmir Valley.
Trees are part and parcel of growing up. Children dream of fairies and deep woods as children’s literature across cultures is built on trees, creatures and mysteries of the forest. Forests are not just indicators of a good environment but also augment the social and cultural well-being of people. Who can forget such characters as Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Winnie the Pooh (1926) or even Little Red Riding Hood (1812)? Forests have been depicted in various ways, thus enriching the cultural capital. We must preserve them at every cost.