PAHALGAM, Jammu and Kashmir – Twice a week in the past four months, A has mounted his horse at dusk and ridden for more than an hour to a meeting point deep inside the forests of Lidder Valley in south Kashmir. Together with other out-of-work Kashmiris of Anantnag district, 46-year-old A, father to four children, has hacked at the majestic pine trees with his ax.
In a recent conversation with HuffPost India, A said he was a “pony walla” who longed for the days when he used Shaira, his horse, to ferry tourists around the picturesque town of Pahalgam, instead of smuggling timber to local construction holders or hoteliers.
“When I axed a pine tree for the first time, my heart pounded and my hands shivered. For days, I did not offer prayers. I don’t know whether Allah will forgive me for it,” he said.
Pahalgam, a hub of tourism, is yet to recover from the blow dealt by the Narendra Modi government on 5 August, when it revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, demoted India’s only Muslim majority state to a Union Territory, and placed the conflict-ridden region under a months-long lockdown and communication ban.
Just when Kashmir had started down a slow road to recovery, and the local administration restored the internet albeit a slow 2G network, the coronavirus pandemic hit India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared a nationwide lockdown on 25 March.
J&K’s first coronavirus case was reported on 18 March from Srinagar.
President of Pony Walla Association Pahalgam, Ghulam Nabi Lone, said 2,500 “pony wallas” in the area are jobless. “Many have sold their properties to feed their families. We are living on God’s mercy,” he said.
HuffPost India spoke with over a dozen people who had worked in the tourism sector in Pahalgam in Anantnag, and Yousmarg in Budgam district, and were now involved in timber smuggling.
Modi’s government’s actions one year ago and the more recent pandemic have forced them into a dangerous life of crime with devastating consequences not only for them and their families, but also their forests and environment that is already suffering intense degradation.
Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry (KCCI) president Sheikh Ashiq said that Kashmir had suffered economic losses worth Rs 40,000 crore since August, last year. “Kashmir’s economy is sinking and nearing collapse,” he said. “It’s a matter of survival for a major section of the society. If things continue like this, it will have grave social impact.”
The chief forest conservation officer of Kashmir, Irfan Rasool, said that timber smuggling is a big industry, and most of it is consumed locally for constructing houses and in the hotel sector. The pandemic, Rasool said, paved the way for a rise in timber smuggling. In April and May, he said the forest department had seized 4,342 cubic feet of timber from smugglers, confiscated 13 vehicles and 41 horses used in timber smuggling, and filed 103 First Information Reports (FIRs).
“With guards unable to patrol far flung areas and local incomes plummeting, timber smuggling has become a viable option for many,” he said. “People prefer to buy illegal timber because it is cheaper and easily available.”
Under the Indian Forestry Act 1927, the penalty for smuggling timber is imprisonment for two years or a fine of Rs 25,000.
A, who has resorted to timber smuggling, said his family had no agricultural land and he had spent all his savings in the past 11 months.
“I hold this forest sacred. But I commit this sin to feed my family.” he said.
“When I axed a pine tree for the first time, my heart pounded and my hands shivered. For days, I did not offer prayers.”
How it happens
To the tourists who visit Pahalgam, the vista of the hills and the trees against a blue sky can be breathtaking, but the local Kashmiris know that at the centre of wilderness lies nothing but a hollowed out forest.
Sitting in his single story-house in the lap of the hills, fanning his elderly mother while she slept, A narrated how the timber is smuggled in the area.
A group of five to eight people go into the forests twice a week, A said. Once they spot a timber tree without too many branches, they cut it down, and then do the “sizing and sorting,” he said.
A usually brings back ten pieces of wood and hands them over to a middleman under the cover of the night. Each log fetches him around rupees Rs 1300.
“It’s a risky job,” he said.
There are frequent run-ins with the forest guards, said A. The smugglers bribe the local forest guards for a fixed time inside the forest before they go in, he said.
“We have to run away or bribe them. Each time, it is a do or die encounter for us,” he said.
In a report compiled by the Kashmir Forest Employees’ Union and shared with HuffPost India, during the past five months, the department has reported around 320 incidents in which forest guards have been injured in attacks by smugglers.
“Each time, it is a do or die encounter for us.”
The first time getting caught
While his wife and mother looked on, A recalled the first time that the forest guards caught him cutting down a pine tree inside Chandanwari forest in Pahalgam.
“A shiver ran down from my spine when I spotted them. I thought this would be the end of my life,” he said. “We fled from the spot.”
While they were running, someone in their group said that the guards would have been informed of their presence or they would have come with the police. A is not sure what happened, but after two days, they found out the timber was still in the same spot.
“I’m most afraid in the night. I murmur prayers,” he said.
“A shiver ran down from my spine when I spotted them. I thought this would be the end of my life.”
It didn’t take long for A to discover that timber smuggling is more lucrative than taking tourists for rides on his horse.
As a “pony walla,” A said he earned Rs 700 per day during the tourist season. As a pine smuggler, A said he earns Rs 7,000 for two or three days of work of supplying timber to a middleman who sells it to construction contractors or local house owners.
But A’s 41-year-old wife made it clear that she was not happy with his decision but their hands are tied.
“We all stay awake worrying about him when he goes into the forest at night,” she said. “Sometimes, having no money to feed your family pushes a person to even take poison. I found our life in complete darkness. In the end, he had no choice but to take up this job.”
“Sometimes, having no money to feed your family pushes a person to even take poison.”
The cost of lucrative
B, who was a hotel booking agent, is now a middleman who buys timber from the smugglers and supplies it to local hoteliers.
“Local timber costs them less than carrying the timber from urban depots. For example, a 10 feet long log with 5 by 4-inch breadth costs them locally around Rs 1,300, but the same log from the urban depot would cost them Rs 2,700,” he said.
Anzar Ahmad, an environmentalist, said that if the increased rate of deforestation continues, it would have severe impacts on the environment, which includes the loss of precious flora and fauna, while increasing the risk of forest fires and the intensity of natural disasters.
“The continuous disturbance can easily upset the whole ecosystem,” he said.
Pushed to the edge
C, a 31-year-old, who was working as a “pony-walla” in Yousmarg, a tourist spot in Budgam, said that he took to timber smuggling in Budgam when his only son fell ill and he had no money to take him to the doctor.
“It was an emotional moment for me. I borrowed money from a friend who was into smuggling, and in order to pay him back, I joined him,” he said. “I would not have preferred this job but circumstances pushed me to do so.”
C said that he tried to find an alternative to smuggling. He failed to find work as a daily wage labourer in the middle of the pandemic.
C believes that poor people are always the worst in any kind of crisis, but some help from the government could have helped him avoid a life of crime.
“How would you face your family when you have nothing in your pocket,” he said.
B, who went from being a hotel booking agent to a middleman in timber smuggling in Pahalgam, said, “I spend sleepless nights. In my dreams, I see the forest guards and the police. I just want this to end.”
“I have lost my mind, my energy, and my self respect,” he said.
Editor’s note: The names of A, B, C have been withheld to protect their identity.