A NEW high court building for Jammu and Kashmir is all set to come up on the land adjacent to the Raika forest. And well, climate activists have stepped up their opposition to the project for reasons they are voicing loud and clear.
As per the activists, the project will directly cause the removal of some 38,000 trees, permanently harming the local ecology. A number of NGOs and a group of young activists have come together to protest against the project under the name – ‘Volunteers of Friends of Raika’. They’ve been going all out to express their disagreement. On June 25, the activists held a protest at Jammu’s Bahu Plaza by handing out flyers, spray-painting, and by other means. Climate activists from all over the nation have also participated in solidarity rallies in their own cities as a form of the protest. A group of lawyers protested outside the Jammu Courts complex against the relocation of the J&K High Court to Raika, a ‘forest area’, despite the fact that Jammu Courts were closed due to holidays. The attorneys too voiced their worry over the matter of moving the J&K High Court from its current location in Janipur, Jammu, to Raika. They termed the decision ‘incorrect’ because there is enough room at the current site for the High Court and other special courts to grow in all directions.
The east of Jammu is where the Raika-Bahu Forest region is located, which covers 19 square kilometres of land. This is where the new judicial facility is being built.
After receiving the no objection certificate (NOC) from the J&K Wildlife Department, Forest Department, and the other departments concerned, the process of felling trees has begun and the area is being levelled. There will be some 35 courtrooms in the new High Court building, with room for an additional 70. Also, it would boast 1,000 lawyer chambers with room for growth.
The Climate Front, Jammu – a group of local climate activists – which is opposed to the building of the complex on forest area, has been holding demonstrations against the construction since the proposal was made. “Hundreds of birds and animals will lose their habitat with 38,000 trees being cut down for the construction of the complex,” says a woman activist. Over 150 different plant and animal species may be found in the Raika forest – sometimes known as the ‘lungs of Jammu’. Says Anmol Ohri, founder, Climate Front, Jammu: “If we fail in our mission of stopping the destruction of the sacred forest land, we will make a memorial of the forest area so that the coming generations get to see how beautiful the land was before it was destroyed. Also, we have support from the lawyers who work in the High Court”.
- Environmental concerns
There are environmental concerns that need to be addressed. Anmol Ohri lists out the following:
* A total of 38,006 trees, including 813 kanals of forest and animals, will be removed.
* Some 150 kinds of trees and seven species of shrubs, including Phullai, Shisham, Jamun, Khair, Babul, Dhaman, Siris, Chirpines, Pansar, Katari, etc., will be directly impacted by the relocation of the High Court to Raika Forest.
* Soil erosion and a rise in floods will result from clearing 813 kanals of forest area.
* Peacocks, foxes, porcupines, rabbits, mongoose, wild pigs, musk deer (an animal listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List), snakes, leopards, and other species of wildlife are present in the area.
* There will be a rise in human-animal conflict as a direct result of the displacement of wildlife.
* One of the closest and the largest carbon syncs in the vicinity of Jammu city will be directly impacted by the project.
Additionally, the 813 kanal area mentioned here is not the only one that will see this amount of expansion; instead, we should consider the private encroachment and development that will occur in the region surrounding the new High Court in the upcoming year in the form of markets and offices. As a result, sooner rather than later, the entire region will become urbanised, robbing us of the last urban forest that still exists or what is known as Jammu’s lungs.
- A case for the Gujjars
Then there are aspects related to the Gujjar community that need to be looked into:
* According to official documentation, 22 homes are considered ‘encroachers’ whose land is subject to this project while in reality there are 59 households whose neighbourhoods and homes are included in this project.
* Gujjars are seen as encroachers on this territory despite their majority population having land documents (girdharis) that date back to the time before Independence. Since they are considered encroachers, it is unclear what the government intends to do when they are evicted and lose their source of income.
* The Forest Right Act, passed in 2006 in the rest of India and last year in J&K, gives local indigenous forest communities – in this case, the Gujjars & Bakkarwals – the authority to make claims on the land they have been residing on for centuries.
* The notion that they are encroachers is wholly untrue because they have legitimate and historical legal claims to the land, which are supported by both an ancestral qabristan in the forested region and official documentation that date back decades.
* As watch-guards of the forests and an additional layer of protection for the forests, it is also crucial to recognise that Gujjars are recognised as indigenous communities of forests and have legal claim over the forest land they have been living on for centuries under the Forest Rights Act of 2006 (FRA). Their preferred way of life and way of living depend on the forests, and the forests depend on them. Therefore, upholding their rights is crucial to the preservation of forests.
- Legal aspects
In 1981, Ramnagar Wildlife Sanctuary and Bahu Conservation Reserve, respectively, were established. The forest was only intended to be protected and preserved by doing this.
The Law, Parliamentary and Justice Affairs (J&K) suggested moving the High Court of J&K’s current facility (the Jammu wing) from Janipur to Raika in 2019. A directive was given to the Forest Department, and the J&K Forest Conservation Act’s provisions were used to process the entire matter.
Due to the fact that Section 2(2) of the Act limits the use of forest land for non-forest activities to no more than 5 hectares, the project itself suffers from some legal flaws and fallacies on the surface. A little over 40 hectares of forest property is purchased.
The department has noted that the land is within an eco-sensitive zone based upon observations made at the 16th meeting of the department.
On the one hand, the Forest Department forbids the user agency from using the purchased land for residential purposes, while on the other, the department approves the project without requesting any changes or modifications from the user agency.
The factual and action taken report provided by the PCCF JK before the Principal Bench of the National Green Tribunal in the case of Aavin Kumar Chadgal and Anr. vs. the UT of J&K and others. It shook people’s perceptions since it showed how senior officers had exploited their authority to carry out indirect tasks that couldn’t be done directly.
The study itself mentions the existence of a great number of endangered plant and animal species.
From the perspective of attorneys, administering clients’ cases in District Court as well as the recently proposed High Court complex, would present challenges and challenges. All of the attorneys’ significant investments in the current lawyers’ chambers will be for naught. Additionally, the relocation of the High Court will have an impact on the business owners around the current Court building.
Lawyer and activist Murtaza Kamal says; “We have been witnessing the havoc caused by flash floods – a result of climate change caused by the destruction of the forest land and this is a step towards disrupting the environment and also its protectors. What is being witnessed is the greed of men which will in turn harm us in a bad way”.