Why did J&K Govt chop down 10,000 Apple trees grown by Muslim farmers?

The government is reported to have called the villagers “encroachers” on forest land, but the nomadic families have nurtured the small orchards for generations!

Image Courtesy:trtworld.com

Jammu and Kashmir’s most famous produce, the Apple, is also one of its most crucial cash crops, sustaining thousands of farmer families who work in the orchards. Each tree needs to be nurtured for at least 10 years or more before its first crop can be harvested and sold. However, it took the Union Territory administrators less than a day to chop down thousands of trees in In Kashmir’s Budgam district!

According to an Article-14 report from Kashmir, the move “to evict Muslim tribals from land they have used for generations” has “held back a protective forest law and a Supreme Court stay.” Crucially important to note that The Forest Rights Act, 2006, which grants rights to such tribal communities over their forests, is yet to be implemented in the union territory, reported the Gaon Connection. The report details how families including that of Farooq Ahmad Hajam (42), Shakeel Hajam, Maqbool Hajam and Abdul Hameed Hajam, and others all traditional forest dwellers from Sekiloo village in Pulwama district, bordering Budgam, were all served eviction notices by the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) forest department. These families have been cultivating small patches of land in the surrounding forests for generations, it added.

In the third week of November, the department sent men who then felled hundreds of decade-old apple trees raised by these families over 30 kanals (1.51 hectares) of forest land in Kanidajan forest area of central Kashmir’s Budgam district, about 500 metres from Sekiloo. According to the report in Gaon Connection, these trees had borne fruit this season too, and the families had harvested up to 10 boxes (that sell for between Rs 700 and Rs 1,000 each in the mandis). The report added that the total number of trees felled “runs into thousands in Kanidajan in Budgam district and Sekiloo in Pulwama district.”

Article-14 reported that the men from the forest department were accompanied by the police and the personnel from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF). For the Apple growing families, these trees were the only source of income, added the report.

Around 50 officials and workers of the Jammu and Kashmir forest department cut about 10,000 apple trees on November 10, Mohammed Ahsan, the village head, was quoted in the report stating that the villagers were “threatened with police cases” against them if they tried to intervene. The reporter noted that, now over two weeks after the trees were massacred, the apple orchards “were strewn with chopped trees” and the farmers who visited the site were disconsolate. Others have not had the courage to visit the scene of destruction. 

The administration has maintained that the apple orchards were on forest land, and alleged that the area had been “encroached by the villagers”, who belong to the nomadic Gujjar and Bakarwal communities recognised since 1991 as scheduled tribes and “forest dwellers”, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006.

However, the Act has not been implemented in J&K, as explained in the report this is because a slew of central laws did not apply to the former state. However, when article 370 of the Constitution was revoked on August 5 2019, 155 central laws had automatically became applicable to the new union territory, and the J&K government promised the FRA would as well, stated the report quoting a November 2019, statement by a spokesperson of Chief Secretary B V R Subrahmanyam who had said, “The FRA will be in place in J&K by March 2021, after the initial survey is completed by 15 January 2021”.

The Jammu and Kashmir Administration had announced that it was all set to implement the Forest Rights Act, 2006 (FRA) by March 1, 2021. The J&K administration had stated, “It may be pointed out that the Forest Rights Act of 2006 provides for granting of rights to forest dwellers across the country. This Central Act was, however, not applicable or implemented in Jammu and Kashmir in the last 14 years. It became applicable to J&K only after October 31, 2019, hence, recognising the rights of forest dwelling communities for the first time in the Union Territory.” It was also decided that the survey of claimants would be completed by January 15, 2021, followed by the sub committee’s scrutiny into the claims and preparation of the record of forest rights by or before January 31. 

According to Gaon Connection, the J&K administration has been evicting people since early November. Most of those evicted are nomads and other traditional forest dwellers, belonging to the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities. They live in temporary sheds or mud houses in forests and mountains. However, traditional forest dwellers live on private land, locally known as milkiyat land, but have been cultivating patches of forest lands for generations.  

Mehbooba Mufti, the former Chief Minister of J&K had also flagged the issue in november. She asked that J&K Governor Manoj Sinha intervene and ensure the evictions “on discriminatory grounds” and the ensuing harassment of the “rightful inhabitants” be stopped.

Meanwhile, over the years, several eviction drives have been carried out against Tribals in parts of the State on ground of illegal encroachment. Greater Kashmir reported that the eviction and reported demolition of Kothas (kuchha houses) in some Muslim- dominated areas of Jammu including Kalakote, Shidhra, Bathandi was done following an order by the General Administration Department.

The nomadic tribes of Gujjar and Bakarwal in Jammu and Kashmir have been dragged into the line of fire by the Union Territory (UT) administration as their unoccupied shelters were demolished in Pahalgam under the guise of clearing illegal encroachments. Both communities combined form 11.9% of the UT’s population and are spread over largely on Srinagar, Anantnag, Kulgam, Baramulla, Pulwama, Ganderbal, Shopian, Bandipora, especially on the higher reaches in the Kashmir valley. The government maintained that this is part of a drive to retrieve forestlands, which have been encroached upon.

However, as per Gujjar activists, the shelters or dogas as they are called, were unoccupied by the tribal communities as they had migrated to Jammu for the winter. They live in these shelters during summers to return to their pastures. This demolition drive in November was soon after  the J&K high Court declaring the Roshni Act or the Jammu and Kashmir State Land (Vesting of Ownership to the Occupants) Act, 2001, as unconstitutional. Through the Roshni Act, the state government had granted ownership rights to occupants of a state owned land for a fee. The proceeds were to be used for funding power projects in the erstwhile state. The High Court in its judgment directed all state land under unauthorized occupation to be retrieved.

It is noteworthy that on February 13, 2019, the Supreme Court had directed state governments to evict forest-dwelling scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers, whose claims over forest land were rejected under the FRA. But on February 28, 2019, the Supreme Court stayed its own order, after it was called out widely, including  by United Nations special rapporteur for human rights, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. “Indigenous peoples and local communities are treated as squatters when in fact the land is theirs, and they have protected and stewarded their holdings for generations and play an important role for conservation,” the UN special rapporteurs stated onJuly  4 2019. SabrangIndia’s sister organisation CJP has been working closely with Adivasis and Forest dwellers and backed an intervention application to defend rights of forest dwelling communities in the Supreme Court by forest rights activists Sokalo Gond and Nivada Rana along with the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP). The IA was admitted by the SC.


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J&K: Gujjar Bakerwal shelter demolition causes political uproar
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