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Himalayan activist takes on timber mafia

The multi-crore trade in illegal timber is being challenged by one man whose main objective is to save the hills of Uttaranchal from being denuded in the name of development  

India Today, February 2, 2004

Jaya Prakash Dabral, a former corporate executive turned social and environmental campaigner, has taken on the notorious timber mafia in Uttaranchal. Dabral has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court alleging that, in the laying of a 800 MW transmission line between the Tehri dam and the town of Meerut, for every one tree sanctioned for felling, five were being chopped down.

The soft-spoken 49-year-old who runs the Himalayan Chipko Foundation says: “A full-grown tree is worth Rs 30,000 in terms of wood. So you can imagine the money involved. I alone have evidence of illegal trading (to the tune of) Rs 350 crore.”

The money involved, however, is the least of his concerns. The power lines cut across 36 km of the Rajaji National Park in the Shivalik hills, an elephant habitat and a rich biodiversity spot.

A pragmatist, Dabral, while opposing the indiscriminate felling of trees, acknowledges that development is important for this backward hill region. So, instead of tackling issues with an activist’s blind passion, he offers viable alternatives.

For instance, using helicopters to fix the power lines from the Tehri site would involve cutting down just 300 trees. Raising the height of the towers would help too, he points out.

Earlier, Dabral’s Chipko-style campaign led to the Supreme Court scaling down the number of trees that could be cut, from 60,000 to a much smaller 14,739. The Central Empowered Committee set up by the court to examine the case has further reduced the number to 8,422.

As a result of his latest campaign, Dabral is currently facing threats to his life from the timber mafia, whose Rs 2,000 crore business stands exposed by his action.

Dabral worked with the India Tobacco Company and DCM before volunteering his services to NGOs in the Kumaon-Garhwal region. Since then he has gained fame and notoriety, depending on one’s perspective, by shouting slogans in support of Uttarakhand from the visitors’ gallery in Parliament in 1998, and leading a mass movement to close down liquor shops in Gaja, Tehri Garhwal.

Dabral’s reformist zeal is not restricted to Uttaranchal. “My aim is to get the government to enact legislation protecting the environment wherever transmission lines are laid across the country.”