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Caught in the Crossfire-

The Assault on Kashmiri & Ladakhi Biodiversity

THE ABROGATION OF ARTICLE 370 HAS PAVED THE WAY FOR THE DESTRUCTION OF BIODIVERSITY IN J&K AND LADAKH

Written by Anna Abraham

Artwork by Suryansh Deo Srivastava

With the new government in power, the Indian tendencies to ‘develop’ (read: exploit) have been consolidated. Predatory commercialisation of the land will begin, just as it has across India.

Making Kashmir a “true” part of India does not mean it must suffer the same fate other Indian flora and fauna has.

Local legend has it that the world’s first sanctifying encounter with the Chinar tree was when a Sufi Saint, Syed Abul Qasim Shah Hamdani, planted the 637-year-old species in central Kashmir’s Badgam district. Come that day, every spring, a fiery magnificent crimson red has taken over the valley. Alas, with the passage of time, the Chinar ceased to be the only red that engulfed the valley. One part of the region yearned for independence from India,  and the other from Kashmir. 

Then came the day. August 5, 2019. 

Families in Kashmir said their last goodbyes to their loved ones outside the Kashmir valley, unbeknownst to what would come. 

But as grim as one side seemed, the situation was starkly different in the neighbouring Ladakh. 

Ladakhis, systematically ignored by the government in Kashmir, celebrated their new status as a Union Territory. However, over a year ahead, today, people from both the Union Territories remain cautious about the same things – their land, their biodiversity.

 

Jammu and Kashmir

Apart from the general violence that Kashmiris find to be part and parcel of their lives, there has been another onslaught in the valley. After the abrogation of Article 370, there have been a series of government decisions to convert forest lands for non-forest purposes in Jammu and Kashmir. With the state under lockdown (and President’s Rule), the former Jammu and Kashmir Forest Advisory Committee issued clearances to 125 projects in the time between September 18, 2019, and October 21, 2019 – 33 days. This, in just four meetings. To put it into perspective, only 97 projects had been cleared in all the eight meetings held in the entire year of 2018. 

Projects were hastily cleared because the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) would cease to exist on the 31st of October, 2019, as a result of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act (set into motion after the abrogation of Article 370 to demolish Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status). The Reorganisation Act would lead to the scrapping of the Jammu & Kashmir Forest Act under which the FAC was formed. Although most projects had been waitlisted due to concerns raised by the committee, they were urgently passed without addressing any of these concerns. These decisions included – the diversion of 787 hectares of forest lands and the felling of around 1847 trees (a major chunk of which belonged to forested lands and lands for social forestry). 243 hectares of the diverted land (from Pirpanjal - Gulmarg Wildlife Sanctuary, Jhelum Valley, Samba and Jammu Forest divisions) will be repurposed for use by the paramilitary and the army.

The forests of Kashmir are its very heart and soul. The conflict in the valley has only worsened their state. Additionally, the felling of Chinar trees continues, despite a ban on the activity. The lush evergreen coniferous forest and snow-capped mountains play a vital role in maintaining biodiversity in Kashmir. They are also valuable to sectors such as agriculture, energy and tourism. The effects of deforestation are already evident with the rise in flash floods, silting up of reservoirs, increase in soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and drying up perennial rivers. 

Some government data shows that forest cover has increased in Kashmir in the last decade. However, a simple reading of the data will show that this is false and the Government of India has only expanded its claim on land beyond the Line of Control (LOC), which has been under Pakistani administration since 1948. Another area that shows an “increase” in forestation has actually shifted to horticulture.

 

With the new government in power, the Indian tendencies to ‘develop’ (read: exploit) have been consolidated. Predatory commercialisation of the land will begin, just as it has across India. The new government has been adamant on clearing forest lands to invite business to the vulnerable region. The Jammu and Kashmir administration has embarked on a massive land-hunt and identified around 57,000 acres of land for a private sector hijack. The land identified is in the floodplains or adjacent to riverbeds, wetlands and streams. Rapid urbanisation and population pressures in Srinagar in the last decade have caused it to lose many wetlands and important water resources. Any new projects will only further endanger these resources. The land identified (and owned by the government) has been “encroached” upon by Kashmiri locals, says the government and they are looking at ways to take back the land. Ask a Kashmiri, and they might say that the land has in fact been encroached upon by the government. 

Even agricultural land, sized at three acres, was diverted for non-agricultural purposes, despite the resistance from the Agriculture Department and farmers raising consternation about it. Unsurprisingly, the director of Kashmir’s agriculture department, Aijaz Andrabi, responded by saying –  a government is authorised to do “whatever it wants to do with its land”. Haphazard land conversion in Kashmir (especially with regards to paddy farming) has a history of causing overdependence on imports and food insecurity. 

Sand mining, an activity dominated by locals, has now become an expensive buy and endeavour for two reasons, one – most sand mines have been auctioned off to non-locals, two – sand mining now requires environmental clearances that are not being pursued by miners (making it illegal). These are driving up the costs of sand mining and are destroying the environment with it. The auctioning of the mines was conducted online in December 2019, in spite of the absence of high-speed internet connectivity in Jammu and Kashmir – leaving local firms unable to join the auction. New rules enforced in 2016 mandate that the mining of gravel, sand, etc be done on an area of 5 hectares for a minimum of two years. The extractions were much less exploitative prior to these rules.

In the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation (Adaptation of Central Laws) Third Order, 2020, the Centre notified that citizens from across India can purchase land in Jammu and Kashmir. This move, while a threat to J&K’s struggle for independence, more importantly, is another nail to the coffin that Kashmir’s biodiversity is soon to descend into. The new order will also allow a district collector in J&K to divert agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. The government can also declare any land as strategic for army purposes, industrial purposes, public use or any other purpose.

 

Tribals in Kashmir are facing a very tough time as rumours of mass eviction drives reverberate. Nomadic tribals have already been sent eviction notices in certain areas with an alarming seven-day deadline to vacate the premises. Tribal people are numbered at 20 lakh in Kashmir and fall under the Scheduled Tribe category. These nomadic tribes, living in Poonch, Rajouri, Doda, and Reasi districts of Jammu, migrate to the high altitude pastures of Kashmir and Ladakh. They spend their winters in Rajouri and Poonch and return to the mountains in the spring. The forests are their life. To view it separate from them is to not recognise them at all.

 

Gujjar and Bakarwal Kothas (tribal communities), in Pahalgam, were vandalised early in November this year. The Forest Department, Pahalgam Development Authority, Wildlife Department, and Revenue Department took 700 kanals of forest land on a “war-footing”. These tribes have a very protective relationship with the forests. They are the true wardens of the area. To deny them access to the land not only reeks of a saviour complex (not unlike the White Man’s burden) but is also in violation of the basic tenets of forest rights and indigenous rights. These rights recognise the crucial role tribals play in conserving forests. Non-recognition of this endangers the forests.

Ladakh

Ladakhis found themselves suffering under the Dogra regime and then ignored by the Jammu and Kashmir administration. The change in status has hence, been welcomed. However, many other demands of the people are yet to be met.

Of the mere 2.7 lakh people in Ladakh, close to 96% belong to Scheduled Tribe communities. The government is yet to declare it a Tribal Area under the 6th Schedule, in spite of a recommendation made by the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the countless pleas of the Ladakhis. Students who expected this basic demand to be met after the abrogation, were on a hunger strike all through the sub-zero temperatures of the winter last year. The Sixth Schedule (Article 371) makes separate arrangements for tribal-designated areas and restricts ownership of land and government jobs to local residents only. Enforcing this in Ladakh will safeguard the environment.

When it was a part of J&K, Ladakh fell under the Kashmir Forest Conservation Act; naturally, post the abrogation, the Forest Rights Act of 2006 should be applicable in Ladakh, however, it has not been implemented. This Act is crucial in recognising the historical injustice meted out to tribal people, and the nurturing relationship they have with nature. Failure to implement this act will pose a threat to not just the region’s fragile biodiversity but also its people’s cultural identity.

Ladakh is suffering from an acute water crisis and much is to be done to help the people. A climate refugee crisis has occurred due to melting glaciers, with two villages – Shun Shadey and Kumic being displaced due to water shortage. Each isolated Ladakhi village heavily depends on the glacier right above it for water, but global warming and climate change have voided Ladakh of its water security. Dust blowing from the Thar Desert, the Sahara Desert and Saudi Arabia are melting the glaciers in the Himalayas due to land-use changes (that have involved the felling of trees that stopped the dust). 

After the abrogation of Article 370, few areas in Ladakh have been identified for solar power (at Phyang) and hydropower projects (at Khalsi, Kanyunche and Takmaching). Tsewang Namgail, Director of the Snow Leopard Conservation Trust Ladakh, says that if any industry comes to develop the region, the strain on water resources will be too high. The workers they bring along will also require Ladakhi resources for survival. This will be catastrophic for Ladakh. Ladakh is very mineral-rich and any potential mining activities in the region will be around the glaciers which will further endanger water as a resource, says Namgail.  

Apart from its sprawling military facilities, the Leh-Ladakh region is severely underdeveloped. However, any development, henceforth, must be done cautiously and sustainably. The Nimzoo Bazgo Hydroelectric Power plant on the Alchi Dam is responsible for the disappearance of three species of fish, says Namgail. The power plant has stopped the passage of fishes moving upstream on the Indus river. Any new projects would have adverse impacts on Ladakh’s biodiversity. Migratory birds, moving back to their Siberian summer house after a pleasant stay at their winter residence — the plains of India, stop at Ladakhi and Kashmiri wetlands to feed on the small green patches on the banks of the Indus before resuming their taxing journey of crossing the Himalayan range. The loss of wetlands will have a fatal impact on them.

Water is a scarce resource for Ladakhis who use just about 20 litres a day. On the other hand, tourists use about 75 litres. Every year 25 to 30 new hotels are opened in the region and they can use up to 5000 litres of water in a single day. More tourists will likely visit the region, owing to the abrogation. Ladakh may well be bidding farewell to its water resources very soon.

It is absolutely crucial that the government ensures the safeguarding of Kashmiri and Ladakhi biodiversity. New draft notifications such as the EIA that push back decades of conservation efforts, the push for palm oil in the North East, the plans to make Goa a coal hub, the manner in which forest rights are being trivialised in the North East and the general destruction that nature has witnessed in India, paint a very gloomy picture for the Indian battle against climate change. India has vowed to ensure 33% of its land remains under forest cover, how then can they approve projects to destroy forests? Climate change is a reality and the climate action efforts taken by the Indian government towards an environmentally secure future seem to be mere PR activities. Making Kashmir a “true” part of India does not mean it must suffer the same fate other Indian flora and fauna has. Action is needed, and it is needed now, for if there is a heaven on earth - Hameen ast-o hameen ast-o hameen ast.