By Irfan Lone

Srinagar, September 15:Bending laid down rules to benefit its coterie, a case of gross misuse of power has come to light, where the previous PDP-BJP government’s forest minister, Chaudhary lal Singh tweaked rules for timber sale without cabinet order which lead to the exploitation of BPL families.

The then forest Minister Chaudhary Lal Singh orders to J&K Forest Department to handover the forest sale depot, meant for sale of timber to State Forest Corporation (SFC).

It might sound irrelevant, but the ex-forest minister’s decision has severely affected people under Below Poverty Line (BPL) in the Union Territory of J&K.

While BPL families were eligible to avail benefits under every government department, they were forced to buy timber at higher rate as per the new orders of ex minister Chaudhary.

REASON:

The SFC, which used to provide timber at a concessional rate to BPL families earlier was now distributing it at a higher rate and fleecing the poor.

As per new ‘unapproved cabinet orders’ of Chaudhary, the SFC was considering BPL families as APL in the distribution of timber for basic survival in the hilly terrain of J&K.

The SFC was going against its own order wherein it was clearly stated that the poor families (BPL category) would be provided timber at low rates. The poor have been side lined in the distribution of timber, which is the basic requirement of every household in J&K.

There were only two categories –Antyodaya Anna Yojana (AAY) BPL and non-BPL. The (Priority House Holds) PHH and NPHH families were supposed to be APL, an SFC official said. In every department, PHH were being supposed as BPL, and NPHH as APL.

Notably, during PDP-BJP government, BPL ration cards were converted into PHH category after National Food Security Act (NFSA) was implemented in the state.

The order under NFSA read, “The rates for sale of timber in Concessional Timber Sale Depots have been revised vide Govt. Order No. 365-FST of 2018 dated 22.11.2018. In terms of the said order classification of the depots into A, B and C zone was dispensed and sale rates have been prescribed for BPL and non-BPL consumers.” It was mentioned that BPL will also include AAY category while rest of the categories shall be treated as non-BPL.

According to the order, the SFC was bound to provide concessions to PHH category, but they are not providing such concessions. The government order No: 40-FCS&CA, dated February 8, 2018, says, “After implementation of NFSA, 2013, the nomenclature of erstwhile BPL category has been converted into PHH category. It is hereby notified for all concerned that PHH category beneficiaries constituted erstwhile BPL category beneficiaries after implementation of NFSA, 2013, as per directions of Government of India.”

Habibullah a local resident said, “After all mandatory formalities, I received a sanctioned copy of the timber and accordingly I went to Forest Sale Depot Zangli for timber, but the incharge depot gave me timber as per APL rate whereas I come under BPL (PHH) category.”

Another consumer, Tahir from Sopore said that he too went to Forest Sale Depot for timber and despite being PHH holder, which is supposed to be as BPL, the SFC did not consider his ration card.

Waris Azhar from Gazriyaal another PHH consumer said that last year when he went to the depot to purchase timber, he was denied on the grounds that he came under APL category. “However, the fact is that I am getting benefits in all department except SFC and till date did not receive a cft”, he added.

Even residents of South Kashmir also alleged that earlier they used to get timber easily. “Ever since SFC took charge, we have been facing immense hardships in receiving timber, even rates have also been increased”, they said.

They also pointed out that increased timber rate has achieved only one target ie smuggling in forest bound districts and illegal extraction of timber, which had been stopped/controlled to a large extent by the field officials. “Such illegal practices would lead to ecological disturbance, disappearance of rain and snow as well as soil erosion for future generations”, they added.

The people have appealed LG Governor UT of J&K, to redress this important issue priority. “We request him to issue an order to hand over the timber distribution to J&K Forest Department instead of the SFC”, they demanded.

Showket Masoodi, the Civil Society Head Kupwara said that handing over the sale depot to SFC has proved to be a futile exercise. The two departments were lacking in coordination, resulting in delay of extraction of timber from forests and making it available for beneficiaries. “This handing over of sale depots to SFC was not done following written govt order but on verbal instructions of the then Forest Minister Chowdhary Lal Singh”, he said.

Masoodi further maintained that LG Manoj Sinha should immediately revoke both the orders to stop unabetted cutting of forests and smuggling of timber on large scale.

Even Mir Nazir Non Gazetted forest Officers Association (NGFOA) J&K UT president said, “There was no cross check on the sanction and distribution process of timber. The SFC was following ‘might is right policy’. There was a need to check whether some mafia was involved in the sale of timber

Mir demanded revocation of the present timber distribution policy and urged the UT administration to provide timber to people residing near forests on A-zone concession rates. He said that this would save forests and the locals from the frontline attacks.

He also lambasted a section of media, who were labelling the poor as smugglers and termed it as complete injustice with them. “Instead the media should target the wrong policy which dragged them illegally to their forests. The question is to provide timber to poor people on cheaper rates”, he said.

Notably, local environmentalists pointed out that the concessions in timber for BPL families existed from Maharajas time. “As a result, people residing near forest used to save the forests, as they were getting timber on cheaper rates through forest sales depots. But, following the new orders, timber rates had gone sky high from Rs 850 per cft for BPL families and Rs 1500 to APL category. The BPL families were helpless and unable to buy timber on higher rates”, they said.

The environmentalists also said that timber mafia in Srinagar and other commercial areas were purchasing timber on these BPL cards after paying peanuts. “While the poor was forced to live under the open sky without shelter, black marketing of timber was on under the garb of BPL formula. It is because of this wrong policy that the poor were found stealing timber from the forests and targeted by the authorities. Unfortunately, when forest department employees tried to stop them, they attacked them, leaving hundred of employees injured in recent years,” they added.

“Government must reconsider this unfair and wrong policy and should facilitate the poor people residing in rural areas by providing them deodar and kail timber on A zone rates as per previous practice. When timber would be available in rural areas in SFC depots, nobody will damage forests”, they urged.

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