JAMMU, India, July 7 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In April, scores of hillside homes in Fraswad and Shalnand villages in Jammu and Kashmir collapsed in a landslide amid heavy rains. Eighteen people died.
Not long ago, those same sloping hills had been covered in forest. But illegal tree harvesting by timber smugglers denuded the area, making it ripe for conversion to homes, local people say.
Despite substantial spending to protect its once-thick forests, Jammu and Kashmir is fast losing them to urban expansion, corruption, fires and lack of planning.
The result, experts say, is a rise in soil erosion, landslides and floods that is threatening lives and homes.
"There is a close correlation between floods and deforestation; one leads to another," said S.K. Gupta, the former head of the forestry department at Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Jammu.
Trees, he said, act as a sponge that holds soil and water and help prevent flooding. When the trees disappear, top soil washes away into riverbeds, cutting their water carrying capacity. That, combined with the encroachment of new homes at the edge of waterways, results in "raging floods," he said.
Floods in Jammu and Kashmir in the last few years - including in the summer capital, Srinagar - have left hundreds dead and thousands affected.
The problem, experts say, is growing demand for food, fodder and timber.
Jammu and Kashmir's Forest Department, the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority, and nine other state departments are responsible for managing and protecting forests, soils, water and wildlife. Nonetheless, the loss of forests has accelerated, both officials and villagers say.
"Earlier there used to be a lot of trees in the upper reaches but now the mountains are denuded. The trees along the rivers which worked as a flood defence have disappeared in the past few years and hardly any new trees have come up in their place," said Thoru Ram, a farmer from Pragwal.
Now, every time it rains heavily for days in a row, "flash floods eat away a major chunk of farmland in our area," he said.
India's national forest policy aims to maintain forest cover in the country's hill states at 66 percent, but Jammu and Kashmir has less than 16 percent trees, according to the Indian State of Forest Report.
In the report, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India said encroachment onto forest land for other uses had grown 88 percent between 2003 and 2012. Over that time, 6,281 hectares of forest land were diverted for other uses "without any alternative arrangements for afforestation" or replanting trees elsewhere, the report said.
Also, between 2009 and 2014, Jammu and Kashmir's Forest Department spent 86 to 90 percent of its total budget on administrative costs, the report said, "leaving negligible funds for preservation and conservation activities.
The state created a forest policy in 2010-2011, more than 23 years after a national forest policy was set up. But the objectives in the plan were not met, largely because officials were "not serious" about meeting them, the report said.
According to state Forest Department officials, nearly 60-70 percent of the forest cleared in the last decade was removed to accommodate infrastructure development projects.
Other government reports have said that legal requirements that cut areas be replaced with tree planting have failed because departments are understaffed, unequipped and short of resources.
The State Forest Conservation Act of 1997 requires any forest area diverted to other uses to be replaced with twice that area of reforestation on degraded land.
But the 2012 Comptroller and Auditor General report said that hadn't happened because "funds allocated for carrying out required afforestation and strengthening the forest protection mechanism had been spent on purchase of LEDs, air conditioners, iPods, sofa sets, projectors, vehicles, furniture and fixtures."
Mian Altaf Ahmed, the former state government's minister for Forest, Environment and Ecology defended his administration's time in office, saying the state had seen an overall improvement in forest cover in that period.
"I don't care a bit about who is saying what" about the former administration, he said.
DEMAND FOR HOUSING
Jammu and Kashmir's deforestation has been driven in part by a steep increase in demand for housing and infrastructure development in the state, as a result of declining militancy, population growth and the expansion of villages, towns and cities.
That expansion has driven rising demand for timber and forest land, and for firewood to fuel a growing number of brick kilns.
In March, state police arrested two forest guards after they were found involved in timber smuggling. The new state government, elected in March, recently admitted that "there is a nexus of politicians, revenue officials, police and senior bureaucrats that has plundered green gold," according to the state's new forest minister.
The state government has now launched an aggressive drive to retrieve vast tracts of illegally occupied forest land.
State Forest Minister Bali Bhagat in May told local media that the previous governments were "not serious" about protecting forests.
In two months, he said, his government had evicted illegal owners from 200 hectares of forest land, and aimed to bring that total to 5,000 hectares by next March.
Nadeem Qadri of Environmental Policy Group, a Srinagar-based environmental and social think tank, agreed that their research suggested that "huge money pumped into the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority has failed to be utilised for its basic purpose."
The state sits on the "fringe of an ecological disaster", he warned.
(Reporting by Ashutosh Sharma; editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's rights, trafficking and corruption. Visit www.trust.org/climate)
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