Srinagar: Over a dozen persons were injured at a village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district after locals and officials from the forest department clashed during an eviction drive here on Monday.
During the eviction drive, carried out by forest officials at Chotimarg area of Zampathri, at least half a dozen forest officials were reportedly injured as they moved in the area to remove ‘encroachments.’
Many locals were also injured in the incident, some of them grievously, according to eye-witnesses from the village as they accused the authorities of ‘forced eviction’ from the area.
Irshad Aslam, a local of Zampathri, told NewsClick that they are being illegally removed from their homes. The 19-year-old’s family of seven members is also amongst those the forest authorities claim are illegally occupying the land.
“We have been living here for generations and have been taking care of forests for ages. We depend on cattle and have rights but, we are being targeted,” Irshad said.
The village, about 60 km from summer capital Srinagar, is home to over two dozen families – all of them belong to tribal community of Gujjars, who are ethnic pastoralists.
“On one hand they claim that we have forest rights and on the other hand they are committing injustices against us because we are poor. They attacked us and injured our women and some elderly persons too,” Irshad added.
Tribal Activist Showkat Shabir Choudhary, who is the vice president of J&K Gujjar Bakarwal Youth Welfare Conference (JKGBYWC), termed the incident as “outrageous” claiming that the forest department was violating the rights of the tribal dwellers under the forest rights act.
“If they want the implementation of forest rights act to uplift the tribal then this is a clear act of injustice. These tribes have been living in these forests for nearly 70 years and have been protecting it...todays actions against them is unacceptable,” Showkat told NewsClick.
Mohammad Ayoub, District Forest Officer (DFO), Shopian, however, told NewsClick that today’s drive was part of a three month-long exercise to remove forest encroachments. The department, he said, had sent several notices to the locals about their claims on the land they were dwelling it. The forest officials refuted allegations of any violation of the Forest Act.
“We received legal rights and documents from many areas but, the locals of this particular village did not provide any claims despite repeated notices so we went to the spot today. They however attacked us and injured the government officials,” Ayoub alleged.
The official added that they are only implementing high court orders to remove encroachments from different areas. There is a process, committee set up which looks at the rights but, when there is no claims we have to take action against the encroachers.
About 50% of the total land area in Jammu and Kashmir is under the forest cover of which around 8000 sq km forest land exists in the Kashmir province. The Forest Rights Act was not applicable to Jammu and Kashmir before the abrogation of Article 370 which paved way for the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 leading to the scrapping of its own Jammu and Kashmir Forest Act.
Tribal activists have long been advocating for the implementation of the central forest law, under which a forest dwelling family can have exclusive rights over 32 kanals of land which can be partly used for cultivation as well and other rights such as grazing. The family can also build houses on forest land but cannot sell it.