SINCE the swanky Murree Expressway was inaugurated a decade ago, tourists and long-distance ‘through’ travellers have more or less forgotten about all the other access roads to the higher regions of the range.

The expressway, a multiple-lane motorway-standard road that cost an estimated Rs12 billion, exits off the old, or main, Murree Road just after the (absolutely nightmarish) Bhara Kahu bottleneck. From there, it takes travellers in full driving ease up to Lower Topa in about an hour or a bit more if one sticks to the speed limit. The time up along the main Murree Road has just about been halved.

But if driving fun and taking in the view are the travellers’ priority, it is the smaller roads that are infinitely more charming. True, the driving takes some art, given that these roads are narrow and meeting an oncoming vehicle requires at some junctures a complete stop and careful gauging of the shoulders so that the vehicles can navigate around each other. But, if one enjoys driving in the hills, then the expressway is a poor alternative.

The routes I’m most familiar with in this context are, apart from the main Murree Road, the Angoori Road, and another up the Simli Dam side, my destination invariably being New Murree or Patriata (the village is called Charehan).

Recently, I had the pleasure of taking the Angoori Road down from Charehan, which connects at the bottom with the expressway just before Bhara Kahu. It is heavily wooded, used mainly by short-hop commuters. From a village called Saim (where reportedly silos for heavy weaponry storage are being built) downwards, the area is generally known as the Angoori Forest, where the vegetation goes all the way from centuries-old pine trees to bushes.

Along this road, about six or seven kilometres down from the New Murree Bazaar, is a small stream known as the Balai Wali Kassi (kassi being a mountain channel in the Pahari language). Most people believe that ‘balai’ is a derivative from ‘bala’, or spectre, and that the area is thus named because it’s haunted. In fact, it has a thoroughly more interesting history.

Baala is, in Pahari, a roughly four-sided log, one whose roundness and thus outer bark has been stripped and shaped to make stacking and transportation easier. The process of balai was the term for the first, crude shaping of freshly felled timber in the decades — probably centuries — before machinery and chainsaws became common. Balai used to be carried out by people in the profession of aara-kashi, who would do the needful with axes and saws; hence aara.

Today, there are no aara-kash, and unauthorised felling is illegal. The cutting down of a green tree on even private land requires permission from the highest levels of the provincial administration.

But, where there is the will or a need, there is always a way, and the illegal felling of trees (albeit on a relatively small scale compared to professional timber thieves), is common. This, as the accompanying photograph illustrates, is to be witnessed again and again along the Angoori Road, far from eyes of the traffic wardens that patrol the expressway.

A fire is lit at the base of a green tree and pieces hacked out of the trunk. When the base is effectively rendered lifeless, the canopy will wither and die, and the tree will eventually fall over, drying timber worth lakhs there for the claiming.

Another sight that is common is cutting into the centre of the tree to drain out the resin. The resin can be sold, and for the tree the effect is the same as having had its base damaged by fire — death. A third way is even simpler, and leaves no trace. Simply climb up and lob the canopy off the pine tree (conifers’ greenery is at the top, with the trunk relatively leafless). Without the ability to photosynthesise, pretty soon what you have is dead wood worth a tidy packet.

Yet it is important to remember that it is not pecuniary concerns alone that cause this decimation of the forests. There is no piped gas here and most kitchen fires are fuelled by wood. It is illegal to cut any firewood off the trees in the shamlaat — or common land; villagers may only collect what has dried and fallen — which, for a burgeoning population, is nowhere near enough. The fallen fuel on private land belongs to the owner. (He, after all, also stores wood through the summer against the winter.)

There does exist a system of forest wardens, but it is inefficient, under-resourced and under-staffed. The occasional survey of a given area is carried out to count and mark dead trees. The volume and value of the timber is estimated before an auction is held. But corruption is rife, and there are plenty of ways around the system.

The state and head of government, who make so much of their billion-tree tsunami, would do well to remember that there is little point in leading plantation drives when illegal felling cannot be controlled. The day I drove down Angoori Road, at the expressway junction the traffic had been halted to make way for a high-profile motorcade descending at siren-blaring speed down the motorway.

It should have taken the road less taken, where there are sad, dying trees and endless charred tree stumps to take note of.

The writer is a journalist.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2021

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