This Article is From Dec 12, 2020

Kashmir Forest Land Drive Fells Thousands Of Apple Trees, Evicts Tribals

Officials say they are only removing encroachers, the tribals say they are forest dwellers.

"It's like losing a young child," said Abdul Gani Wagay, a distraught apple farmer.

Kani-Dajan, Budgam:

The vast patches of land at Kani Dajan village are dotted with chopped apple trees. Even saplings have not been spared. A Jammu and Kashmir forest department drive to retrieve forest land from alleged encroachers is not only dispossessing villagers from land they have been farming for generations, thousands of apple trees, too, have been mowed down in the process.

For instance, Abdul Gani Wagay, a distraught farmer, is struggling to come to terms with his loss. Of the 2,000 trees cut down, around the village, 200 were those that he had nurtured like his own children, says the 65-year-old. He had worked hard to shift from maize and potatoes to the more profitable apple cultivation. That dream, too, has now been cut short.

"It's like losing a young child... I can't see what's been done to these trees...How I have nurtured the orchard - getting a sapling, giving it fertilisers, caring it for years through hard-work. Now they have ruined it all," Mr Wagay said.

Living in a forest area, Mr Wagay had 0.62 acres of land. He admits it's not his propriety, but being forest dwellers, his family has tilled it for at least four generations.

The villagers say the government move was aimed at dispossessing them and attacking their livelihoods. The common refrain is, why were the trees chopped if the idea was to retrieve forest land.

"If government wanted to take over the land, they could have taken it with the trees. By cutting apple trees they have committed a brutality. We have no source of income now. Earlier we were cultivating maize, potato and now apple," said Farooq Ahmad.

Since the drive was launched by the officials, at least 15 nomadic families have been evicted from the forest land, and their dwellings dismantled. Officials, though, say they are only removing encroachers.

The Forest Rights Act, 2006, which protects the rights of traditional forest dwellers and schedule tribes, has not been extended to Jammu and Kashmir even following the abrogation of Article 370 that turned the state into a Union Territory. Officials say the Act is likely to be implemented in Jammu and Kashmir in March next year. Once implemented, it will restore the right to ownership to the land farmed by forest dwellers and scheduled tribes.

The Jammu and Kashmir administration's spokesperson said the Forest Rights Act, 2006, is being implemented in the Union Territory. "Efforts are on to safeguard rights of forest dwellers and communities. The deadline for completing the record is March 31 next year," the spokesperson said.

Basharat, a Class 12 student, says that from grazing livestock to farming, their life and livelihoods depend on forests. Eviction is going to hit them hard. "We don't know why they are evicting us when the same land has been cultivated by our forefathers. We are not claiming ownership it. We are only cultivators," he said.