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21st September '2008
Storm over Land, Apathy for Dal
(If Kashmiris could rise en masse for saving the Land, why are they totally insensitive to dying Dal Lake?)

The recent mass upsurge in Kashmir which was triggered by the controversy regarding the transfer of 100 acres of land to Shri Amarnath Shrine Board clearly demonstrated the extreme sensitivity of Kashmiris to the ownership of their land. This sensitivity has a historical background. For centuries Kashmiris had been deprived of their land in their own country by outsiders. They would be forced to till the land but would hardly get a meagre portion of the produce to keep their body and soul together. Not only were they landless but were heavily indebted to money lenders who would charge hefty interest on their lending.

In spite of such a fertile and rich land they had to borrow money to survive. It was after centuries of subjugation and suppression that they got the ownership of their land in 1947 when Sheikh Abdullah with a single stroke of his pen transferred the land to the tiller. Thus a Kashmiri has in built in his psyche the preciousness of the land which he has retrieved after centuries. Any problem with its ownership is bound to cause extreme panic in him. The transfer of land even though just a small patch, that too mostly barren and uncultivable created such a panic reaction that the whole valley burst into turmoil.

The land was not going anywhere. Even if the Shrine Board had built permanent structures on it, the same could be retrieved any time. However, the notion that the land was being transferred to outsiders gave the impression that there was some sinister plot to deprive Kashmiris of the entire land which they had retrieved with great difficulty. There was a vehement reaction and Kashmiris from one end of the valley to the other rose in violent protests. They defied curfew and scores were killed and injured. The upsurge was spontaneous as well as leaderless. The traditional leaders were at a loss and they were being led by the masses. There was massive and uncontrollable burst of emotion and sentiment.

People were ready to shed blood for their land. However, one fails to understand the total apathy of the masses towards a more destructive and damaging problem, the grave issue of the fast deteriorating environment. It is starkly visible that Kashmir’s environment is facing a disastrous future. Be it the water bodies, the rivers, the forests or even the climate itself, these are all slowly heading towards an irreversible damage. Some aspects of the environment especially the water bodies have gone beyond retrieval. It is a total enigma. How can a person be so concerned about his land but be totally apathetic to the attributes of the same land? In fact it is the Kashmiris themselves and not any outsiders who are primarily responsible for this wanton destruction of environment.

The gradual deterioration in the status of Dal Lake which has the distinction of being the throbbing heart of Srinagar has been going on for decades. The main culprits are the encroachers within the Lake, the households on its banks putting all the sewage into the Lake, the House Boats, and the Hotels around it. These destroyers of the Lake have no remorse or compunction in putting all the filth into the Lake. They are totally insensitive to the health of the Lake. Apart from them even all other inhabitants of the city do not feel any compulsion to either stop this virtual rape of the water body or take practical measures on the ground to restore its health. There are dozens of voluntary organisations claiming to be saviours of Dal but they do not seem to have the same drive and emotional upsurge as was seen during the last couple of months in the land agitation.

The Government agencies have totally failed to keep pace with the speed of deterioration of the Lake. They are caught in the web of bureaucracy and have been paralysed in taking any momentous decision for restoring and conserving the Lake and other water bodies through some international agencies having the expertise and resources to undertake such a task. From the Government side one only hears about the hundreds of crores spent on the Lake which seem to have sunk to its bottom. In a number of places the Lake is fast converting into land and may be after a few years we will have people marking plots for construction of houses. Our efforts have been more in giving slogans for conservation of the Lake than mounting a sustained peoples’ movement to save it. The real estate is our main vocation these days and it is not only eating away the Lake but even the centuries old paddy fields in the countryside.

The most enchanting landscape of popular avenues bordering paddy fields along Kashmir’s roads has been replaced by rows upon rows of brick and concrete houses and lines upon lines of shops. The lush green forests of Kashmir have faced worst fate. These have been massacred. The timber smugglers in league with the guardians of the forests as well as security forces have cleaned up entire mountain sides in a number of places in the valley. There has been senseless cutting of young trees and some of the forest areas look like freshly cut maize fields with only stalks left in these. It is criminal negligence on the part of the state and extremely blind greed of the local people. We are so concerned and emotionally agitated about the ownership of our land but we seem to be least concerned as to what happens to its beauty and charm which had made it known all over the world as the “Paradise on Earth”? A strange dichotomy!

We have also lost the sense of cleanliness and hygiene during last couple of decades. May be due to the horrific brutalisation witnessed by one and all during this tumultuous period, our sense of refinement and sophistication has been totally blunted. Our cities and towns have become dirty. Srinagar must be at present one of the dirtiest cities in the world. The force of the peoples’ agitation made Indian Government speed up the opening up of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad Road for trade and it is expected to be operational within a fortnight or so. Why can’t the people feel equally strongly about the destruction of our environment and rise for saving the Dal Lake? If nothing else, we could at least start a popular movement for handing over the conservation and restoration of the Lake to some international agencies on a turnkey basis. If the people could feel strongly about the environment, they could easily motivate the authorities to take some drastic steps to save the Lake. This movement would be totally apolitical and would be appreciated globally as the preservation of the environment is a universal agenda pursued by all the saner elements of the human race. Can we imbibe the masses with the same enthusiasm and fervour for saving the Lake, which they showed for the land? That is a million dollar question. If we do we will save Kashmir for future generations. If not, then it is immaterial if we own the land or not as it will not be liveable at all by the time we achieve “Azadi”!

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