Study shows mountain forests being lost at ā€˜alarming rate,ā€™ especially in Asia
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Umsaw (Meghalaya): Armed with seed bombs and saplings, the Assam Regiment of the Indian Army has been on the frontline in the fight against deforestation and ecological degradation in the forest areas adjoining the Assam and Arunachal Pradesh border.

Fifteen years and counting, their resolve to protect the region’s green heritage has only got stronger.

Raised on September 20, 2007, the 134 Infantry Battalion (Territorial Army) of the Assam Regiment, also called the ‘Jungle Warriors’, is based at Nameri in Sonitpur district of Assam. The unit functions under the TA Group Headquarters based in Kolkata. Its genesis lies in the success of other ecological task forces of the Army in restoring the forest cover in other states.

Recently, the ‘Jungle Warriors’ participated in the seventh edition of the Northeast Green Summit here. It was organised at the North Eastern Police Academy (NEPA) by NGO Vibgyor NE Foundation, which specialises in green issues of northeast India.

Addressing the summit, Union minister Rajkumar Ranjan Singh said the forest cover in the northeast region reduced by 1,020 sq km in 2021 compared to 2019, with Meghalaya alone losing 73 sq km due to natural calamities, anthropogenic pressure, developmental activities, and shifting of cultivation practices.

“Northeast India has always been a hotspot for biodiversity. However, under ever-increasing population and biotic pressure, the forest areas adjoining the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border were subject to unabated illegal deforestation,” Colonel Amit Pande, Commanding Officer of the 134 Infantry Battalion, said in his talk on environment and disaster management during the summit.

“Inspired by the success of other ecological task force units, the Assam government mooted the proposal to set up an Army battalion to curb illicit tree felling and restore the denuded forest along the Assam-Arunachal border following which, a sanction was accorded by the Union government in February 2007,” he said.

Since its raising, the battalion has planted more than 79 lakh saplings in an area of 5,069 hectares. In the financial year 2022-23, more than four lakh saplings have been planted in an area of 212 hectares, said Lt Col Praveen Hosmane, the project officer.

‘Seedbombing’, which usually implies aerial reforestation, is a potent weapon for the battalion.

“A seed ball or seed bomb is a seed that is wrapped in soil, usually a mixture of clay, ash, and compost. It eliminates the need for digging pits and protects the seed from insects and birds. It can be sown, scattered, or aerially broadcasted and large numbers can be planted in a short period,” said Havildar Binay Das.

Keeping in league with modern forestry and ecological management practices, the battalion has developed its own vermiculture, Azolla (used as a biofertiliser on a variety of crops), and seed ball production units.

Officials told PTI that the battalion has also established a herbal garden and medicinal park at Nameri with 248 different medicinal species and discontinued dependency on synthetic fertilisers to make the area a chemical-free zone. The battalion has its own nurseries with a capacity of 4.5 lakh saplings per annum.

Highlighting that the Assam-Arunachal border is home to a large number of endangered moths and butterflies, Pande said the battalion is developing a one-of-its-kind butterfly park in the area in consultation with experienced entomologists and domain experts.

He asserted that no environment project can succeed without the active involvement of the forest dwellers and the local community. Therefore, the battalion personnel continuously engage with the locals for collective efforts to restore the pristine nature of our forests and green heritage.

The battalion, with the constant support of the Army, executed four major welfare projects for local villages in 2022, including the reconstruction of a community hall in Rehajuli village, the installation of solar street lights in Dhanikati and Mekahi villages, and the setting up an IT Lab at a government school in Gamani, Sonitpur, said Hosmane.

Talking about the challenges, Pande said acute biotic pressure due to rampant felling of trees, burning down of plantation areas for domestic cultivation, stray cattle grazing, and uprooting of saplings to increase cultivable land are issues that are being jointly addressed by the battalion and the state forest departments.

Then there’s a dense growth of weeds due to heavy rainfall in the region, which necessitates four or five clearances of the area.

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There is also the issue of waterlogging and several areas under the plantation are prone to it which impedes movement and also results in low survivability of saplings, said Subedar Samarjit Singh, the afforestation platoon commander.

“Notwithstanding the above, the ‘Jungle Warriors’ are determined and resolute in their efforts and commitment to exceed the annual afforestation target of 3 lakh saplings, works towards the river bank and hill stabilisation, wetland rejuvenation, establishing a food forest and revival of traditional Indian medicinal species,” Pande said.

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