Forests catch fire for many reasons, but near the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, there is an additional factor: routine cross-LoC shelling that has long been a marker of strained Indo-Pak relations in these parts even when the two countries are not at war. No wonder, not just people living close to the LoC but also the forests breathe a little more freely when the mortars fall silent. And the mortars have indeed been silent since the two neighbours agreed to a “strict observance ceasefire” in February. Earlier, according to forest officials, mortar shelling was leading to frequent forest fires.
“Forests in areas like Saidpur and Badar Kot used to catch fire due to regular shelling, and the fires were difficult to extinguish amid continuous shelling and firing,” says an official. Until last year, there were fires every year in the forests along the LoC during summer, especially in the Nowshera sector of Rajouri district and Karnah sector in Kashmir—all attributed to cross-LoC shelling. In May last year, a massive fire engulfed a large forested stretch at Mendhar in Balakote sector of Poonch district. Exploding shells caused the fire, which, in turn, triggered several landmines that had been planted to prevent infiltration. In May 2017, Nowshera witnessed a forest fire that raged for several days after heavy shelling across the LoC.
“Firing ranges of the army also contribute to fires and loss of forest cover,” says Ghulam Rasool, an environmental and RTI activist. “For example, the Tosamaidan meadow, about 45 km northwest of Srinagar, was used by the army as a firing range until 2013. A part of the forest cover there was burnt over the years due to artillery fire. Since 2013, there have been various campaigns for afforestation in the area to recover the forest cover.” According to official figures, 65 people died in Tosamaidan over the past four decades due to artillery fire and accidental explosions of shells.
Forest fires are also caused intentionally to meet the need for fodder for grazing cattle. Before migrating in autumn, the nomadic herders burn some patches of forest to create conditions suitable for new grass to grow in the next season. Officials say it is sometimes done to create more space for the cultivation of maize and cannabis. Four people were booked in the Lolab range of Kupwara for trying to clear forestland to grow cannabis there.
“Smugglers and corrupt forest officials also start forest fires to destroy evidence of illegal felling,” says an official, adding that illegal production of charcoal, which is common in autumn, is another reason why forests are set on fire. Owners of apple orchards adjoining forests are also accused of burning trees to encroach upon forestland. Last year, the forest department filed an FIR against Abdul Rehman in Yusmarg area of Kanidajan. Rehman, a retired government official, was allegedly earning Rs 5 lakh a year by growing apples on forestland. “We caught him red-handed when he was trying to burn trees in the forest,” says a forest official. According to activist Rasool, sometimes trekkers cause forest fires when they leave behind lit cigarettes.
By Naseer Ganai in Srinagar