Srinagar: The Jammu and Kashmir civil administration is planning to approach the Narendra Modi government to seek amendments to the Indian Forest Act, 1927 to include the provision of booking timber smugglers under the stringent Public Safety Act (PSA) — a law that allows detention of individuals without trial for upto two years.
Jammu and Kashmir, where timber smuggling has emerged as a major threat, used to be governed by the Jammu and Kashmir Forest (Conservation) Act, 1997, when it was a state. But the law, which could be used to book timber smugglers under the PSA, got scrapped after the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019 came into effect this October.
The Indian Forest Act, which has been extended to the union territories of J&K and Ladakh, does not have the provision of booking timber smugglers under the PSA. The crime is, in fact, a bailable offence under the law.
J&K administration officials told ThePrint they would approach the central government on this issue soon.
The PSA, which has been considered a controversial law, was initially introduced in the 1980s to book timber smugglers in Kashmir, but was gradually applied to book and arrest individuals associated with the separatist movement, stone-pelters and suspected militants.
The law has been in the news since 5 August when hundreds of people, including businessmen, politicians, lawyers and activists in Kashmir, were booked under it after the Modi government’s decision to scrap Article 370 and bifurcate the J&K into two union territories.
Incidentally, the Jammu and Kashmir Police had last week announced that cattle smugglers in the union territory will now be booked under the PSA.
59 cases of timber smuggling between Aug-Oct
Around 50 per cent of the total land in J&K is under forest cover, with nearly 8,000 sq km area in Kashmir province under the forest department.
According to official data accessed by ThePrint, timber smugglers formed nearly 5 per cent of the total number of individuals booked under the PSA from 2009 to October this year.
From 2009 to October 2019, over 3-4 individuals were booked under the Act every year for timber smuggling.
This year, between August and October, the J&K forest department filed 59 cases of alleged timber smuggling. In 45 of these cases, FIRs were lodged and arrests made, while the remaining 14 are being fought in courts to levy heavy fines on the offenders. Of the 45 cases, the department recommended that 10 of them be lodged under the PSA by the deputy commissioners of the areas concerned.
Forest authorities said they noticed attempts of timber smuggling going up during the tensions that gripped the Valley after 5 August.
“Theft of forest wood used to be considered a petty offence, but with time the crime became more organised in Kashmir, which has a vast forest resource. Subsequently, the PSA was introduced to tackle the menace. An individual who is found to be involved in theft and smuggling of forest wood more than three times used to be booked under the PSA,” said a senior forest department official.
The department hopes booking offenders under the PSA will check smuggling of precious forest wood to some extent, the official added.
Issue of forest dwellers’ claim to land
There is another factor that has left the J&K administration worried.
The administration is anticipating that tribals and residents of forest areas may again claim their rights to forest land use, which were settled in 1912 under a Kashmir forest notice.
“With the implementation of the central forest Act (in J&K), forest dwellers have been empowered to reclaim their rights over forests. We also have to keep an eye out on land-grabbing non forest-dwellers who might take advantage of the transition period and lay stake on forest land,” an administration official said.
Another official said the administration is also planning to take measures to keep a tab on illegal sand mining in the union territory after it noticed a spurt in the crime after 5 August.
According to government data, there has been a 35 per cent increase in the collection of fine for illegal sand mining since May this year.