Burning Indifference?

A fire rages through the forests of Tral for several days, but eye witness accounts and government official statements seem poles apart. Bilal Kuchay ventures inside the aftermath of an ecological destruction

A fire that started on the intervening night of Marcy 19th and 20th, 2012 burned through the forests of Tral for five days in a row, with no apparent efforts to control it. The range officer, however, claims that “no loss” has been caused due to the fire.

Panner Jageer, a village five kilometers from Tral, is known for its thick and dense forest cover and some beautiful wildlife. This particular forest, home to several endangered animals like deer and leopard, became a victim of the fire.

According to local villagers, a massive fire erupted suddenly from the jungle located on the Hajnitop mountainous range during the intervening night of March 19 and 20. Even from a distance, it was clear that the fire was spreading quickly. Witnesses say the fires seemed to have erupted not from just one location, but from almost a dozen different locations simultaneously. They spoke of seeing black clouds of smoke engulfing the forests by day, and the flames of fire brightening the skies at night, for several days in a row.

They say forest officials are trying to hoodwink the government. “On one hand, they let smugglers easily trespass with smuggled green gold. On the other hand, they deliberately stage the drama of a fire inside the forest – killing two birds with one arrow. The loss is blamed on the fire, and no official is asked any questions,” says Ghulam Mohammad, a Tral resident.

Environmental Tragedy
The wild animals that once thrived in these forests have gradually been taking refuge in residential areas as the forest cover is shrinking continuously, posing a threat to their existence. It is this situation that, experts say, has been the underlying cause of increasing man-animal encounters in the region.

At a distance, the forests of Tral seem as if they are packed with pine trees. However, the situation inside is different. The forest is just like a hollow sphere. It is difficult to find a spot in the forest interior that does not bear the evidence of freshly cut trees, and wide spaces of land bereft of any trees. “A trail of destruction is revealed, leaving even a stone hearted person to melt as well,” says Wali Mohammad, a local.

On the eve of World Forest Day, when many forests of Jammu and Kashmir enjoy plantation drives, the unfortunate forests of Tral suffered immensely due to the massive fire.

Throughout the valley there was a plantation drive going underway by forest department officials, but there were also “some people from the same department who were seemingly fast asleep and couldn’t see the burning forests” of Tral.

The Aftermath
As the fire subsided, one could surprisingly see some deadwood placed directly under dozens of trees, including massive pine and deodar trees, and then were set on fire.

Inside the Hajnitop jungle of Panner Jageer, it is difficult to find any area that has been spared from damage. Although a single sapling has never been manually planted in the area, the naturally grown plantations have been severely damaged by such dreadful fire incidents. Officials say, “The fire has just merely damaged 15 kanals of jungle,” but the ground reality shows there are hundreds of kanals heavily damaged by this fire.

People who live nearby fear the fire might spread and engulf residential houses, as strong winds are fueling the intensity of the flames.”Throughout these nights we are not able to sleep well; this fire is a constant worry for us. We ask authorities to take steps to get rid of this fire,” says a Tral resident, Gulam Khan.

Belt officer Deedar Singh says, “We took every possible step to get rid of this fire. I have informed the range office about this fire. They have sent me more manpower. We are already on with our job. During the daytime of 20th March we had controlled the fire, but suddenly in the evening the fire broke out again because of some unknown reason. The fire has not spread much and damage is minimal.”

Residents of Tral say they can’t seem to understand why the fire is difficult to control, if it has not spread much.  Similar fire incidents are being witnessed throughout the thick and dense jungles of Tral for the past few days in several locations. Locals say they smell a rat.

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