New court complex in Jammu’s Raika forest touches environmental fault line

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The Jammu and Kashmir administration secured quick permission to develop a new court complex over forty hectares of land inside Raika forest, which has been questioned by conservation activists who described the forest as the lungs of Jammu. 

The forest land, on the outskirts of Jammu city, falls under the Bahu Conservation Reserve and a plantation closure maintained by the Soil and Water Conservation Department.

The proposal by the Law Department of J-K for acquiring the land was put before the Forest Department on 11 October 2019 and maintained that the present High Court complex at Janipur in Jammu, was in a decrepit state with low fire and earthquake safety, insufficient parking, and safety concerns.

The initial proposal for the new complex at Raika forest included buildings for courtrooms and legal proceedings in addition to accommodation for 35 judges and also a helipad.

The proposed diversion of forest land was contested in a failed appeal filed before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by Satyam Arora, a law graduate from Jammu, which was disposed of by the tribunal in January 2020 citing that due diligence was followed while providing clearances.

After the review application was dismissed, Arora appealed before the Supreme Court where the case was also dismissed.

“Why was this particular forest land chosen for the project? This land falls within the Bahu Conservation Reserve and is also close to the Ramnagar Wildlife Sanctuary. Was there no other land available in Jammu apart from a conservation reserve?” Satyam asked.

Clearance within twelve days

The office of the Deputy Commissioner of Jammu had certified through a letter dated 10 October 2019 that no other land in village Bahu and Raika except the designated land was available for the project.

The proposal by the Law Department, forwarded on 11 October 2019, was cleared by the Forest and Wildlife Departments within twelve days.

On 15 October 2019, recommendations and reports on the forest land were given and the case was forwarded through three offices in the Forest Department – that of the Conservator of Forests East Circle Jammu, the Chief Conservator of Forests (CCF) Jammu, and the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF) Jammu and Kashmir.

It was also placed before the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) after recommendations by the PCCF and the committee approved the proposal on the same day. Approvals were granted to around 40 other proposals involving forest land by FAC on October 15, 2019. 

The State Board of Wildlife, on 18 October, asked for project details and a report on the flora and fauna from the Forest Department. After receiving the reports, the project was approved by the Board in its subsequent meeting on 23 October.

It is also unclear why forty hectares were transferred when the proposal mentioned a requirement of around twenty-five hectares (500 kanals) and the PCCF had disallowed the use of forest land for residential building. 

Raika: Lungs of Jammu

The part of the Raika forest in compartment 66, where the proposed new court complex will be constructed, is a densely wooded forest area with 38000 small, medium, and big trees.

The area is covered with mixed scrub forests and trees like the Chir, Jamun, Babul, Bael and Ber while animals like jackals, monkeys, wild boars, porcupines, species of snakes, and birds inhabit it.

The forest is part of the greenbelt of Jammu and close to the Ramnagar Wildlife Sanctuary.

“This is the only surviving forest close to Jammu city and has been rightly termed the lungs of Jammu. If massive deforestation happens here, it will harm the air quality of Jammu and in the coming time we’ll be gasping for clean air like other metro cities in India,” said Anmol Ohri, the founding director of Climate Front, an environmental group whose Jammu chapter is actively campaigning to save Raika. Climate Front Jammu also led a demonstration in Raika on 14 February this year to celebrate “Valentine’s day with the trees of Raika”.

The construction of the new complex also threatens the displacement of the local Gujjar community who have been kept uninformed about the acquisition.

“No one told us anything. Officials come here, survey the land and leave. We protested when the forest guards started marking the trees. There was a scuffle and FIRs were launched against our youths,” said Ghulam Mohammad, an elderly Gujjar residing in the forest area.

“The forest guard told us that our houses will not be touched. But how is that possible if the land has already been taken over?” he said.

Invisible people of Raika

In the case before the NGT, the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), J-K, was asked to submit an action taken report on how the project was cleared. The report, which includes letters of clearances and details by the Forest Department on flora and fauna as asked by the State Board of Wildlife, has no mention of the people living in Raika.

The form for environmental clearance – filled by the Law Department – again does not mention the forest-dwelling Gujjar community that has been residing for generations in the proposed land for construction. It maintains that the project was exempted from the public hearing.

“The process took place as per the J-K Forest Conservation Act. However, the Forest Rights Act was not applicable in J-K at that time. If there are genuine claims under FRA, that will definitely put a big question mark on the HC proposal,” said a high-ranking official of the Forest Department who didn’t want to be named.

The Forest Rights Act, which empowers forest dwellers by granting them rights over forest lands and resources, is currently in implementation after a lengthy delay.

In Raika, there are no exact numbers of people living in the forest area as the administration has remained muted over the issue.

Hafiz Ullah, Sarpanch of Lower Sunjwan, had filed an application under the Right to Information Act (RTI) in December 2020 and asked the forest department for details of the forest land transferred for the new court complex and the number of tribal families residing or occupying the proposed land.

In the reply provided in January 2021, he received a reply that claimed that there was no information on the tribal families residing in Raika forest area.

The reply by the Forest Department was a contradiction with its own data when it had released a list of encroachers on forest lands in Jammu in which it had noted that around seventy families were residing in Raika’s compartment 66.

“We depend entirely on this forest. Our income comes from cultivating the land here. We have goats and sheep that graze in the forest,” said Ghulam Mohammad, a forest-dweller of Raika.

“Our families were settled here before independence and we have been cultivating the land since. Our ancestors are buried in a graveyard here. We have our names in the girdawari (land records) as cultivators,” pointing at papers that showed their possession as far back as the 1970s.

The possible disruption of the lives of forest-dwellers of Raika is also in contravention of the Forest Rights Act which guarantees the forest-dwelling and forest-dependent communities – who have been residing in or are dependent on forests prior to December 2005 – to claim their forest rights.

Murada, a woman residing inside Raika forest, said the forest-dwellers will have nothing “if this land is taken” from them. “Where will we go? We earn by cultivating wheat and maize here and use leaves from the forest for feeding the cattle. Some people do daily wage labour which generates meager income.”

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