Jammu and Kashmir: NHAI ‘killing’ our trees, say anguished farmers

Jammu and Kashmir: NHAI ‘killing’ our trees, say anguished farmers.

The past six months have seen fruit trees in both the Kashmir Valley and Jammu region being uprooted by NHAI to build new roads.

Farmers in Jammu and Kashmir are crying out in despair as the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) has uprooted and felled trees from their orchards in order to build new roads.

Land has been acquired from farmers on the basis of laws that have been repealed due to the abrogation of Article 370. Also, farmers have claimed that they have not been compensated according to current rates.

The trees have been felled at the sites of two under-construction Ring Roads that are being built to decongest traffic in Srinagar and Jammu cities respectively.

Some 600 acres of agricultural land is being acquired for a 62-kilometre highway connecting Pulwama with Ganderbal via Budgam as part of the Srinagar Ring Road project.

The NHAI and a private infrastructure company, NKC Projects Pvt Ltd, have uprooted and axed thousands of apple, plum, pear and peach trees in several villages of Kashmir in the last six months.

Earth movers and motorised axes were used to uproot the fruit trees in several villages of Budgam and Srinagar.

In Gudsathoo village of Budgam, more than 600 full-grown apple trees were axed last year in October. The apple farmers were paid compensation according to 1996 rates.

In Wathoora village of Budgam, NHAI and NKC Projects Pvt Ltd, along with officials of the revenue department, uprooted around 250 plum and apple trees last month without even intimating the affected farmers.

Mohammad Afzal, a farmer from Wathoora, told this author:

Around mid-day on March 30, 2022, the earth movers of NKC Projects Pvt Ltd, assisted by the site engineer of NHAI and the Naib Tehsildar of Chadoora tehsil trespassed into our farm and started uprooting fruit trees which included plum, pear, apple and quince. The local police were also accompanying them.

He added that all the uprooted trees were in full bloom, with huge flowers and were supposed to yield a bumper crop this season.

“This was simply a criminal trespass as we have not been given any compensation for land and have been given some part of the compensation for fruit trees which is very less,” Afzal said.

He was given compensation according to 1996 rates. In 1996, the rate of apple per kg rate was Rs 16 and that of plum was Rs 13. This is now seven to eight times higher.

The administration has paid Rs 4,700-5,000 as compensation for each plum and apple tree of Mohammad Afzal.

These trees bear at least 70-80 kg of fruit every year. This means each tree fetches Rs 5,000-6,000 annually as plum & apple are sold at Rs 70 per kg in the wholesale market.

“My 20 to 25-year-old fruit trees uprooted by the government would have given me livelihood for the next 20 to 30 years. But they were murdered mercilessly. I was not even given a chance to transplant them,” Mohammad Afzal added.

“Had the authorities told us in advance, we could have done this in late February which is the best time for tree transplantation. We want action against the errant officers,” Afzal said.

Even more shocking is the misuse of law. There were legal issues in the past but after the abrogation of Article 370, the government could have invoked the Right to Fair Compensation Act, 2013, to compensate the affected farmers.

Also, the notification issued under the Jammu and Kashmir Land Acquisition Act, 1934 for the Srinagar Ring Road in 2017, elapsed in 2019.

But the government didn’t care about that and continued the acquisition proceedings under the repealed law even post Article 370 abrogation. This has been challenged before the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir by some farmers and the matter is still sub judice.

The situation is similar in Jammu. Around 400 acres of land has already been acquired for a 58-km highway. The work on the project has been going on.

Affected farmers have been denied fair compensation as the proceedings were undertaken under the outdated Jammu and Kashmir Land Acquisition Act, 1934. The land acquisition process has been completed in Jammu.

“My 40 mango trees, 20 trees of Sheesham, Jamun, Mulberry and Litchi were uprooted in Pritipur village in the Bishnah tehsil of Jammu last year for the construction of the Ring Road. The horticulture department prepared a vague estimate of just Rs four lakh for such a huge property,” Sarat Chander Dubey told this author.

He added that the valuation was made according to 1996 rates, which was sheer injustice. “I was also not even given an option to transplant these trees as the government could have facilitated that with the use of technology,” Dubey added.

Transplantation and loss

Afzal and Dubey are right about the transplantation. The Jammu and Kashmir Forest Department transplanted two full-grown chinar trees at Char Chinar island in the Dal lake at the end of February.

It did so in collaboration with the Floriculture Department and the SK Agriculture University of Kashmir. Both transplanted trees are growing up successfully.

The Government of Delhi came up with a tree transplantation policy in 2020. The policy says that agencies concerned will have to transplant 80 per cent of the trees affected by their projects to a new location.

Ten saplings will be planted in addition to the whole tree being dug up with the root intact and scientifically transplanted at another location instead of being felled.

“Tree transplantation is a successful technique wherein more than 80 per cent trees survive. I have been in this field for the last five years and have been transplanting small to big trees in Delhi, Bihar, Jharkhand, etc,” Kumar Tripurari, the founder of Rohit Nursery, a Delhi-based company which takes contracts for tree transplantation, said.

“We get paid only after 80 percent of the trees survive. This work needs more advocacy and awareness among the government,” he added.

The uprooting of trees, especially in the Valley, could deal a serious economic blow. The apple industry is the backbone of Kashmir’s economy.

It generates more than Rs 10,000 crore in revenue for the Union Territory annually, according to media reports. The industry gives livelihood to around 3.5 million people.

Also, more land is required for setting up new apple farms in Kashmir. As the average land holding in the Kashmir Valley is on sharp decline from the last few decades, it is an arduous task to create new apple and other fruit orchards in Kashmir.