CHITRAL: Groups with vested interest backed by the powerful timber mafia of Chitral have come to the open against an initiative of the district administration aimed at distribution of forest royalty to the royalty holders directly instead of involving the Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) to ensure transparency.
In Arandu, Sheshi Koh, Damil, Arsoon and Kalash valleys of Bumburate, Birir and Rumbur, the government pays 60 per cent of the income generated from the sale of forest timber to the local residents when the forest is harvested on commercial scale which normally happens after every five years.
Social activists in Chitral have for long alleged mass-scale irregularities in the distribution of the amount among the royalty holders. They say instead of the actual royalty holders, most of the amount ended up in the pockets of the so-called Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMCs) constituted in each lot of the forest in these areas.
The JFMCs are non-representative and mostly headed by non-locals and members of the timber mafia who have connections with local political leaders as well as contractors of the timber trade. So far, it is alleged, millions of rupees have been embezzled by members of the JFMCs in connivance with the powerful elements involved in timber business as well as the forest department officials.
A few days ago, Deputy Commissioner Irshad Sodhar announced that a team of officials headed by a revenue officer had started a survey in the southern sub-valleys of Chitral to give women shares in the royalty of forest.
The deputy commissioner told Dawn newspaper that as per practice in vogue for the disbursement of forest royalty, the amount was placed at the disposal of JFMC office-bearers where the funds were often misappropriated. He said as per rules given in the law governing the management of forests in the province the royalty amount was to be disbursed equally among the residents of the areas having landed property there.
As directed by the chief secretary, I decided to make direct payment of the royalty money to the royalty holders. I also decided to include the women of the area for the first time in the list of recipients and fix share for them as per Islamic Shariah: DC Irshad Sodhar
Under the current practice, in a household if a man has seven daughters but no son the head of the household would have only one share for himself. But if women are also made the beneficiaries, he would get more shares.
As economic rights are key driver of social status, inclusion of women folks in list beneficiaries as per Sharia laws and forest rules would ensure their equal rights in the society. Special survey of the beneficiaries is in progress in the forest areas by the district administration to compile the list of royalty holders, including women, and the disbursement of Rs149 million would be started shortly. Step towards transparency and women empowerment. a senior official in the local administration told ChitralToday.
But speaking at a press conference in Chitral on Thursday, members of JFMCs from different areas rejected the new initiative of the government and said it was a move against the purdah-observing women of Chitral. They said the deputy commissioner would be responsible for consequences of such a move. They claimed that the forest royalty was distributed fairly and benefited all members of the local communities,including women.
But these elements having self-interest in the old system of royalty amount distribution are now trying to pressure the DC. Their warning about cutting off supply of wood to upper areas of Chitral is also an attempt against the new move to check corrupt practices by the JFMCs.
The social circles said if the forest royalty was being distributed in a transparent manner, the JFMCs should produce all the previous records of the money transaction showing how much was passed on to the common people.
There have been instances when a number of ordinary royalty holders were paid Rs5,000 but fraudulently forced to sign on papers acknowledging the receipt of Rs50,000. In many other cases, the royalty holders were deceived through forgery or tampering with the records to pocket millions of rupees.
The social circles have welcomed the move taken by the DC and said it would not only check rampant corruption in the distribution of the royalty amount but would also increase the income of the poor people in these far-off valleys. They have demanded that the new initiative should be taken to its logical end without succumbing to any pressure from the JFMCs or their supporters in political parties and the forest department.