“Your children and the generations to come will curse you for wasting Diyaar so ruthlessly,” rebukes a middle-aged man to Siddiq, the owner of a small eatery, while sipping on hot tea and warming his hands on the crackling fire.
“Well, we don’t have an alternative and there’s no wood that burns like Diyaar!” responds the jovial Siddiq, adding that the wood burns for much longer than other woods like the longleaf Indian pine (commonly known as Chir).
When winter embraces the picturesque valley and temperatures fall to sub zero levels, locals in the valley resort to burning Diyaar to rescue themselves from the benumbing cold, since availability of gas is a novelty unknown to the locals. The burning of Diyaar has accelerated deforestation to alarming levels. Siddiq is just one of the thousands of locals who have no choice but to put the valuable wood to domestic use such as cooking food or lighting fire to stay warm.The crises of energy shortage cannot be emphasized enough. It is an unceasing menace gripping the rural areas with much greater intensity than the urban cities. Unfortunately, it is one of the main reasons that hinder the development of rural areas and the inhabiting population.
“This wood would sell for over Rs 20,000 in Karachi or Lahore but will burn out here in just one night,” says Siddiq, pointing to a huge plank of burning Diyaar while revealing that majority of the people do not sell the wood but consume it in the winters to guard against the harsh weather conditions. The Forest Department has made it illegal for the locals to cut down Diyaar trees to limit deforestation; but people continue to do so, getting away mostly by hoodwinking the authorities.
Cedrus deodara or Himalayan cedar (Diyaar) – is a large, evergreen coniferous tree native to eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan and India and sells for Rs 4,000-6,000 per cubic foot. The tree typically grows to over a hundred feet, at altitudes of 5,000 feet to 10,000 feet and can live up to a thousand years, according to locals. It is used for making doors, wooden floors, ceilings and walls. The tree is worshiped by Hindus who consider it as having esoteric properties, other than combating fungus and being used for aromatherapy in the traditional Ayurvedic medicine.
The region’s disputed status and the never-ending violence across the LoC of the most heavily militarized border in the world has put the regional economy in a dismal state. Selling wood is one of the few options locals have as a means of livelihood.
“We don’t have any employment opportunities here in Kashmir. Whatever little we earn is through tourism, which is not much,” says Siddiq, who has served as chef in local hotels in Islamabad and has a passion for cooking. He, and many of his male family members have had to relocate to different cities in order to secure jobs as a means of making their ends meet. But Siddiq returned to his hometown Doarian (in Muzaffarabad) to look after his parents and start a family.
Around seven lakh tourists visited Kashmir in the summer of 2016, according to local sources. This number is reduced to a mere thousand in winter, adding to the already prevalent poverty.
“It’s a sight to behold in winters but people don’t come because the region lacks basic necessities like gas and electricity,” says Amir, a tourist guide, highlighting the beauty of the scenic valley. What makes it worse is the ever deteriorating relationship amongst the arch rivals; India and Pakistan. The Indian side can be easily seen at many points on the main Neelum Valley road, with Neelum River serving as a natural border between the two states.
With over thirty billion dollars allocated for power projects in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (including the 969 MW Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project),which is expected to be completed later this year, at least the energy crises plaguing the region would reduce. In addition, the decision of Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited (SNGPL) to set up LPG-air mix plants in Kashmir, KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan in order to provide gas to the region will reduce deforestation as modern energy producing methods will replace the traditional wood burning.
The lower generating projects will not create job opportunities overnight, the change will be subtle and will take time to creep in. Only then will we be able to rescue our valuable forest reserves and preserve the area for our later generations to admire and value.
Infact, what is needed are more consolidated efforts by the government to strive for better relations with India. This will relieve the political pressure that the region is currently facing. Once this is underway, efforts can be made to improve the socio-economic structure of the region.