Environmentalist backing the drive to reclaim forest land have said it was necessary for the holistic futuristic developmental plan of the Jammu city, which projects to have a population of about 18 lakh in another six-year.
"Sidhra and its adjoining areas provided much needed forest cover to the Jammu for ages. But, the forest land, which acted as lungs of the city, was systematically encroached upon with political patronage. It's a major environmental concern," said environmentalist and former Congress MLA Ashok Sharma.
The government had started a drive to demarcate forest land in Sunjawan, Bathindi, Raika and Sidhra areas, which is being tagged as anti-Muslim move by mainstream parties and now by the separatists.
Separatist leader Yasin Malik has said it was a plan of RSS to drive out Muslim from the Jammu region.
"Environmentalist in the Valley have been demanding shortening period of the Amarnath Yatra, citing environment and ecological concerns. But, the fact is pilgrims don't settle down permanently, but in the Jammu city-the entire ecological pattern has been changed," said Sharma.
The population of the Jammu city was only 2.23 lakh in 1983. It increased substantially after terrorism started in the Valley and some parts of the Jammu region. In 1994, it jumped to about 8 lakh and at present it is about 10 lakh. The 2021 Jammu master plan document also notes that land in Sidhra and the adjoining area would have been encroached upon.
"Forest cover, even if there is just vegetation only, acts in conserving rain water. Reclaiming forest is must also to meet the water requirements of the city," said Sanjay Sharma of departmental of environmental science Jammu University.
Former MLA said the National Forest Policy and even the state forest policy have said one-third of the total area should be under forest, but now the forest area in the state is only 15%. He said it's for this reason that former revenue minister had opposed the move to transfer forest land in the Sidhra area.
"The then revenue minister Abdul Ahad Vakil did not approve the proposal of the Farooq government to transfer land for residential purpose in the Sidhra area. And, for this reason he was removed from the ministry," said Sharma.
Forest minister Bali Bhagat said they have just started demarcation and the land mafia got so much scared that they approached Hurriyat. But, it was also an achievement in itself that Hurriyat leaders have started taking up civic issues than talking about just Pakistan and Azaadi for Kashmir.