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26th April '2009
Last Rites for Dal
(The present condition of this living heritage of Srinagar makes one feel that instead of restoration, we may be heading towards performing its last rites!)

On the World Heritage Day, the Archaeological Survey of India had planned a function in the historic Pari Mahal. From this high vintage point one could have a panoramic view of the dying Dal Lake. It was really painful to see the water body reduced to less than one third of the original size. Moreover, even the clear water area did not look so clear from this distance and height. One could see the weeds near the banks from so far off a place! It is said that in earlier times the Lake would extend almost to the hill of Hariparbat but now one sees only rows upon rows of houses. In between there are miles upon miles of so called floating gardens! These are in fact now permanent vegetable farms, which supply vegetables to the whole city. In fact, Kashmiris have practically eaten away the Lake in the shape of vegetables. Kalhana, the author of the earliest recoded history of Kashmir, Rajtarangni, states that the valley of Kashmir was a huge lake called Satisar. The Lake was drained through the Varmul gorge by Kashyap Reshi after killing the demon Jalodbhava guarding the outlet. The draining of the Lake reclaimed the present valley of Kashmir. The geological findings especially the presence of Karewas (geological formations of sedimentary clay) throughout the valley confirm this mythological belief. For thousands of years Kashmiris had the privilege of having the last remnants of Satisar as Wular, Manasbal, Dal, and Nageen. These water bodies were our living heritage from the times immemorial. In fact, as per the findings at Burzhom and many other similar places, the human civilisation in Kashmir started on the banks of these water bodies right from the Neolithic age. For centuries these water bodies survived and were the pride of Kashmir.

It is just in last 3 to 4 decades that we, the present inhabitants of the so called “Paradise on Earth”, have (due to our insatiable material greed) brought these to total ruination. Three fourths of blame for ruining these water bodies can be squarely placed on the local people. This is especially true of the Dal Lake. It is immaterial as to who has done how much damage, whether these are house boat owners, hoteliers, vegetable growers, residents inside or on the banks of the lake. Damage beyond redemption has not only been done but is continuing on a daily basis.

As regards the role of the people entrusted with the restoration of the Lake, there can be no better judgement than that given by the former Chief Minister Azad who publicly admitted that the Lake has become a “Money Minting Machine” for the politicians! He said so in spite of the fact that the political set up he was blaming was headed by him. Unfortunately, he remained a Jahangir and established a Tulip Garden. One would have wished him to become a Budshah and redeem the Lake! The most unfortunate part of the tragedy is that the government had woken up towards the necessity of restoring and conserving the Lake in mid seventies itself. The best ever report for the restoration and conservation of Dal Lake was prepared in 1977 by a team of New Zealand consultants (Enex Consortium). The consultants had made some very practical recommendations for initiating measures to arrest the further deterioration in the condition of the Lake as also to restore it to its previous glory. These measures would have stopped accumulation of nutrients in the lake and over a period of time this would result in a net loss of nutrients that would in turn curb weed growth and thus improve the water quality. The Enex report provided cost estimates and based on analysis deemed the proposed improvements economically feasible. Unfortunately, no practical steps were taken to implement the plan. On the contrary, the bureaucrats as usual dithered by discussing endlessly the project report in committee after committee and the politicians in the meantime made hay while the sun was shining on the waters of the Dal Lake! At last the government constituted a toothless non-statutory authority LAWDA, the Lakes and Waterways Development authority which proved to be an epitome of corruption. It is just like any other government department mostly headed by bureaucrats having absolutely no expertise in environment protection or conservation of water bodies. LAWDA has been moving like a tortoise but not like the tortoise of our school day story of “Slow and Steady Wins the Race”. It is a tortoise which is slow but not steady. In last 30 years or so, the Lake instead of getting restored has gone from bad to worse. If one puts three fourths of blame on the local people, one forth has to be shared by the Government of India also. Even the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in their report have raised objections about the pumping of funds by the Central Government into the Lake Authority without any accountability. The condition to which the Lake had deteriorated could not be reversed by cosmetic slow treatment. It needed accelerated intensive time bound treatment to arrest its deterioration and reverse the same.

The Lake suffers from multiple problems. The deposition of silt by the streams coming in; the stagnation of water due to choking of its outlets including senseless filling of Nalla Mar; discharge of nutrients in the form of drains emptying in it all around and the house boat discharge. This has given fillip to unprecedented growth of weeds with the deterioration of the quality of water. A lot of noise has been made about the Lake and the need to save it. However, the actions taken do not match the words. The only silver lining has been the pro-active attitude of the Judiciary. But in spite of the sincere efforts in giving directions and hauling up the concerned officers for their failure in saving the Lake, they have not been able to achieve much as they ultimately depend upon the same thoroughly corrupt executive which has brought the Lake to this stage. There have been two notable omissions in regard to the state of the Lake. The Kashmiri Diaspora throughout the world has not been able to do much even though they had every possibility to do something practical. They have been pinning without any productive work! They could have at least got Global Environmental Organisations interested in saving the Dal. They could have also identified International Agencies having expertise to undertake such tasks. The second omission is on the part of the leaders of the “Popular Movement”. How good would be “Azadi” for Kashmir stinking all around with numerous marshes and heaps of muck being forayed by swarms of stray dogs? They could have easily led a mass movement not only for saving the Lake but against the entire environmental degradation of Kashmir.

Recently, Mr.S.S.Kapoor, the worthy Chief Secretary while interacting with the media invited suggestions for saving the Dal. There is only one worthwhile suggestion. Take Dal away from the tortoise like LAWDA and hand it over on a turnkey basis to some International Agency having both the expertise and resources to undertake the task in a given time frame. In fact, the Housing and Urban Development Department had already moved a proposal to the State Cabinet last year but it got stuck as usual in some sub-committee. Now that there is a young and dynamic Chief Minister having excellent rapport with the Centre, it should not be difficult to implement such a proposal. It may be mentioned that sometime back the Lake Geneva, much bigger than Dal, had suffered worse pollution when even the fish had died. However, with the help of some international resourceful expert agencies they were able to completely redeem it. Why can’t we do the same with the Dal Lake? It may be our last chance and whomsoever takes the initiative will have his name carved in golden letters in the history of Kashmir. If we fail now, then it is better for us to formally prepare for performing the last rites of Dal!

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