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Destruction of Kashmir’s Environment
(A Public-Private Sector Joint Venture)
 

Kashmir has witnessed some of the worst episodes in its long history both in terms of human suffering and material destruction. However, the wanton destruction of its Environment during last decade and a half has no parallel in its entire 5,000 year old history. The destruction has been deliberate and intentional purely for material greed which has surpassed all limits. One does not know where to begin this tragic story as every facet of nature has suffered from this inhuman onslaught. Let us start from the water bodies as these have come into sharp focus due to the intervention of the State High Court. Dal Lake is virtually at the point of extinction. A massive water body has been reduced to a wide river but without any flow! If the flow had been there, one could have waited to get the original size of the lake back by removing encroachments by various means. Unfortunately the first action of our brilliant modern engineers was to stop the flow of water by filling up the centuries old canals which has transformed the lake into an oversized pond of stagnant water. The inflow of tons of raw sewage and untreated waste from over 2,000 house-boats and dozens of hotels on its banks has converted it into an oversized septic tank. All these years the greedy people have been constructing colonies of permanent houses on islands in the very heart of the lake hidden by a thick cover of vegetation. These were exposed only after the trees were cut down under the directions of the High Court. The sight of these houses hits one straight in the eye while driving on the Boulevard and gives pangs of pain. The devious proposition of the British to by pass the state subject law of the Maharaja regarding ownership of land by constructing a house floating on the water mushroomed uncontrollably after the original authors left the sub-continent. The number has grown from a few dozen house-boats to more than 2,000. During their stay here the British would never allow the waste to go into the lake and would always use dry wooden commodes. In addition, these boats were permanently moored in the river and would be allowed inside the lake only for short temporary stays. The return to power in 1975 of the Kashmir’s tallest leader resulted in the destruction of the famous Boulevard from Dalgate to Nehru Park. During the time of G.M.Sadiq attempts were made by his relatives to start some construction on the Boulevard but he had them including his son, almost thrown into prison! The first culprit in the time of Sheikh Abdullah was the Gulmarg Hotel with a beautiful bar inside owned by the Muslim Auqaf Trust. We Kashmiris are adept at commercialising everything including religion! The other disaster was the construction of Hotel Centaur and the Convention Centre protruding menacingly into the lake. When the Government itself commits the first wrong how can it expect the people to respect laws safeguarding the Environment?

It is for the first time that the people have started becoming conscious about the threat faced by the lake. Even though the J & K High Court has been very active in trying to wake up the State Executive yet the slumber and the corruption in the Executive is so deep that the only possibility of stirring them into some real action seems to be sending a few top concerned officers/officials into Central Jail! Unfortunately sound and convincing arguments never make us act. We have to be physically goaded into action. While taking care of the pollution of water bodies we must not forget the Wular, Manasbal, and the River Jehlum. All are threatened and are facing worst kind of pollution, most of it manmade. During the time of Maharaja the River Jehlum used to be dredged periodically and the silt was taken out of it. No such operation has been undertaken for decades now. On the contrary we are dumping the entire muck from the City and other habitations on its banks straight into it without any treatment whatsoever. Vyeth or Vitasta as it was known in ancient Kashmir deserves a better treatment. Just trying to improve a short stretch of its bank called the Bund by the British who used it as a fashionable walkway does not help. The health of the entire River needs to be improved. It was once a very important means of transportation in the valley. Wular Lake is supposed to be the second largest sweet water lake in this part of the world after Lake Baikal of Russia. One is not sure whether the water is still sweet after the muck it has been absorbing for decades now? It has considerably shrunk in size and has become shallow due to deposition of silt. The fate of Manasbal is no different. It is also getting choked by the abundant weed growth accelerated by inputs from villages around it including Kondabal and Jarogbal. Lime kilns of Kondabal are the worst culprits. Thus every one whether from Public Sector or the Private Sector is collaborating in the destruction of our Environment. The main concern is the material greed.

After water bodies, let us study the condition of our Mountains. The fate of these is starkly evident right from the first entry into Srinagar. The stone quarries of Pandh Chok show the great love and regard we have for our Mountains. These have been virtually “raped”. There is no other stronger word in English language which can depict the state to which these lovely and beautiful Mountains at the entrance of Srinagar have been brutally subjected to. It is like a lustful savage assaulting a beautiful lady by forcibly lifting her dress right from her feet! The incessant blasting must be shaking the whole Mountain and one fine day it is going to come down tumbling right into the Jehlum River. One wonders what the children in Dehli Public School are learning about Environment. Instead of learning its preservation, they are getting a daily lesson in its destruction. The entire school gets a shower of stones in the morning due to blasting. This is not the only spot where Mountains are being subjected to this cruelty. Right from this spot to Dara along the Zabarwan Range there are many quarry sites where the same story is being repeated. In addition, a road has been taken up the Mountain at the back of the cantonment and a number of buildings constructed on the ridge. It has completely disfigured this beautiful Mountain which gives a back drop to the city of Srinagar. It is not known whether the Forest and Environment Departments had cleared the construction of this road? The people who have done it should have at least had the decency of covering up these scars with fast growing shrubs and trees as was done in the case of the road going up the Shankaracharya hill. Apart from this every major town has some sort of quarry in the nearby Mountains. In fact some new quarries are in the process of being started in some adjacent areas. This destruction has been there for a long time and none of the rulers has had either the guts or even the inclination to stop it. When the attention of a Chief Minister was once drawn to this wanton destruction, his comment was that the “destruction” is providing jobs to a hundred households and they should be left alone. He did not have the wisdom of providing some alternative source of income to these hundred people to save this gift of nature. How could one expect him to take care of more than 10 million people of the state? We have not even spared the mole hills in the middle of the valley. The laying of a trans-valley railway line has eaten away dozens of small hills and mounds which have disappeared by providing earth filling for the track. This has disfigured landscape all along the valley. Again this is a joint venture between the Railways and over greedy local people.

All our Mountains used to be covered with lush green and dense forests. In the earlier times these forests were so dense and near to the city that wild animals would be seen roaming in the lanes of old town especially in winter. Hundreds of migratory birds would fall into the backyards of the people during a heavy snowfall. Gone are those days! We have massacred our forests in a joint venture. During the peak of militancy the security forces and timber smugglers had joined hands for a very profitable enterprise. Truck loads of furniture were sent to different parts of the country. The felling in the forests especially next to the road heads was so indiscriminate that even very young trees were not spared. Some of the top forest lessees enjoyed official patronage and some are even now holding important offices in the Government of the day. One has only to travel to some areas near Ahrabal (Sedou) and Yusmarg (Pal maidan) to see this destruction. Vast areas of once lush green forests resemble freshly harvested wheat or maize fields with only young stems standing like freshly cut stalks. Is any body bothered about this? Has any one filed any Public Interest Litigation on this subject? The irony is that the destruction is still continuing unabated. The other Environmental degradation which our Mountains have suffered in recent years is due to the non-biodegradable garbage dumped all over by the pilgrims to Amarnath Cave. The entire area between Pahalgam and Sonamarg is strewn with tins and plastics not to mention the tons of human waste and other garbage. The Yatra had been in vogue for centuries but was limited to a religiously prescribed period of one week to ten days. The human attempts both for the prolongation of the Yatra for purposes other than religious as well as the creation and maintenance of the once naturally formed Shiva Lingam have not only deprived the Yatra of its sanctity but have resulted in an Environmental disaster of immense proportions. If the purpose is to perform a Yatra with an artificially created and maintained Shiva Lingam, it could then be very easily performed in Delhi itself. Every religious event has some background on which it is based and because of which it has its sanctity. It cannot be extended or modified to suit somebody’s earthly ambitions. It is like Saudi Arabian Government telling Muslims around the world that due to unmanageable crowds at the time of Hajj, it should be performed for a longer period or at different convenient times. Keeping in view their infrastructure and other arrangements they only fix a quota for each country but in no way can they modify the religious rituals and the timing prescribed for the event. The Shrine Board was set up to ensure performance of the Yatra in a more orderly and safe manner. They are doing the reverse by increasing the number as well as its duration regardless of the religious and other considerations of safety etc. The least attention they are paying is towards Environment. They should invest part of the offerings amounting to crores which they collect during the Yatra on the cleaning of the track from both the sides. According to the news reports their efforts at disposal of the garbage are half-hearted. Non-biodegradable garbage instead of being brought down to the towns for disposal is being buried under a thin layer of earth on the site itself. This is negligence of the highest order! They should take a lesson from the organisers of Hajj where the entire area is cleaned up within a week of the completion of the pilgrimage even though it is attended by more than 3 million pilgrims from all over the world.

Another aspect of the Mountains where the Government is a culprit in causing massive Environmental damage is the location as well as construction of power and other developmental projects. A living example is the Power House at the start of the Pahalgam valley. An obnoxious concrete building has completely destroyed the beauty of the first view of the Lidder valley in Pahalgam. The least the Government can do is to order its blending in the landscape by covering it with wood panelling or pine bark and landscaping the whole area. It is very unfortunate that most of the Government Departments connected with development do not give any consideration to Environment while locating various projects especially in ecologically fragile mountain and forest areas. Construction of a concrete Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering in the middle of the lovely meadow of Gulmarg is a living example of violations of these considerations by the Central Government itself. There is talk of setting up a number of micro hydro-electric projects in different parts of the State. No doubt we badly need power for our day to day living as well as for industrial and other development yet we are totally handicapped in this sector by an unjust Indo-Pak treaty which has deprived us from using a resource that is by all canons of justice, equity and fair play, 100% owned by us! A couple of storage type mega projects would have solved our problem for at least a couple of generations. But we cannot tap the potential of over 20,000 Megawatts which our State has because of this treaty. Baghliar is still being arbitrated by the World Bank Consultants. It is an Indo-Pak joint venture to deprive Kashmiris of the use of their own rivers. However, if to circumvent this treaty we have to go in for micro projects, we must not forget our Environment. It has been reported that one of such projects is going to eat up the famous Aharbal Falls. These falls have been in existence from the earliest times and have been a historical landmark. Loss of these falls would be the greatest tragedy not only for Tourism but for the Environment also. On the one hand we are creating dozens of Tourism Authorities to oversee Tourism Development in different potential areas while as on the other a different department of the same Government is making projects to wipe out the most important tourist attractions of the State. There can be no better example of lack of co-ordination among various State agencies. A lucid example of lack of co-ordination can be seen on important city roads. As soon as Public works Department completes the macadamization of a road, the Water Works and Telephone Department personnel come to dig these up! Well one can always build a new road and it’s only an added expenditure but the same does not hold good for the Natural Environment. Once destroyed it cannot be restored. Hopefully some responsible and knowledgeable key members of the Government connected with developmental activities are expected to give due consideration to Environmental aspects of various projects before these are implemented on the ground?

Kashmir used to be famous for wild life. The Dachigam National Park boasted of over 800 Hangul or Kashmir Stag. During the turmoil most of these got butchered by the conflicting parties as well as by the people living in villages at the periphery of the sanctuary. According to some reports the number had gone down to 150 or so. Hopefully, it may have started going up again in last couple of years or so? On the contrary, the vermin like Black bear have considerably increased in number and are a menace to the people living at the edges of the forests. The wetlands which provided home to hundreds of thousands of migratory birds seem to have gone out of focus due to stoppage of duck shooting which was a great tourist attraction in winter. Similar is the case with trout fish in the mountain streams and high altitude lakes. Although the trout farms are in good shape and ordinary citizens can buy the fish at different outlets yet the game of angling for which Kashmir was famous has almost disappeared. It has been reported that during the disturbed period, the trout in the wild streams was freely poached. Even explosives were used in some high altitude lakes and streams to stun and catch these. According to some experts, the wild life has considerably increased during last few years as it remained unmolested in deep and remote valleys. Well this fact needs to be verified and authenticated by the Wild Life Department. It would be quite ironic and pathetic, even though a consolation for conservationists, that while the human life has suffered, the wild life has prospered and increased in number! Nature has its own strange ways but human effort is needed to supplement and preserve it.

Apart from the Natural Environment, the man made Environment especially in the city of Srinagar too has considerably suffered during last decade and a half. It has become one of the dirtiest cities in the world. Srinagar’s neglect has been due to many reasons. The urban growth of Srinagar has been phenomenal. It stretches more than 30 kilometres across from the Airport to almost Ganderbal. This uncontrolled urban growth where every one wants to settle in or around Srinagar has completely distorted the city. The first casualty has been its parks which used to act as the lungs of the city. These have now been replaced by Secretariat, High Court, and New Assembly Complex (unused at present) and so on. All the basic norms of town planning and urban development have been shelved and people have gone berserk in constructing shopping complexes and commercial buildings. There is no differentiation now in residential and commercial areas which has adversely affected the individual privacy. Roads and open spaces have been encroached upon thereby creating traffic problems in the heart of the city. Another glaring aspect of Environmental distortion is the gaudy and bizarre hoardings. There is no uniformity in their size, colours, or locations. The citizens of Srinagar do not seem to be very much concerned or troubled by these things. This is especially true of the elite which are living in posh houses. They seem to be content living in very posh and modern houses with all types of latest gadgets and well manicured lawns regardless of the muck surrounding them! Probably when faced with the question of very survival man loses sense of sophistication and finer qualities of life? All these urban activities are usually controlled by Municipal Authorities in various important capitals. However, the Municipality which used to look after the city when its population was about a hundred thousand souls has not grown and modernised in keeping with the increase in population which at the present moment exceeds a million people. In addition to such a huge area and population, the Municipal authorities are beset with political problems. The perennial conflict between the ruling party and the opposition has crept into the functioning of the civic services also. Unfortunately people have failed to rise above these political considerations in regard to issues like Environment and clean living. It is in our blood. Last few years have seen circulation of stories of village versus the city. According to these during last four years as well as at the present moment the “apparent” political power responsible for day to day affairs mostly vests in the villagers who are taking revenge from the city dwellers that ruled over them for almost half a century! The story of Environmental degradation is very tragic and painful and one can go on endlessly. In fact each topic would merit a separate article. The result of this mistreatment of our Environment both Natural as well as Manmade is evident. Our greed and the negligence on the part of the Government too have made an appreciable contribution in this tragedy. The drastic climatic changes in Kashmir cannot be solely blamed on global warming. About 30 years back one could not even think of ceiling fans in Kashmir. Now some people have started using coolers and air conditioners. At this rate we may be soon growing dates and coconuts in Kashmir!

Is there a solution to this problem? Can we stem this rot? Yes, we can. But it would need a multi-pronged approach. We have to begin with our children. Most important is the elementary level. Children have to be given lessons in Environment both theoretical as well as practical during their formative years. Recently the President was giving lessons on TV to elementary school kids on values in life. It was a pleasure to watch him. One wishes all the elementary school teachers could emulate him. Our kids are the only hope for the future of Environment. If we succeed in inculcating in them respect for Environment at an early age they will not indulge in its wanton destruction when they grow up as our generation has done. Secondly, the Executive which has been woken up by the State High Court would need to be kept on its toes and the scope of action would need to be enlarged to encompass the entire gamut of Environment and not focus on water bodies only. This may need constitution of a full time and independent bench to deal with Environmental issues only. The State could also set up an independent statutory authority which may be called “The Environment Protection and Conservation Authority” with mandatory and not recommendatory powers. The directions of the authority should have legal binding and should override all other considerations. The members of the authority could be drawn from various sections of society and should include experts on different aspects of Environment. The Authority should be headed by a very senior, upright, and a respectable person. It could even be a sitting Judge of the State High Court. Well, these modalities can be worked out once it is decided in principle to have such a body. The idea is to have an independent and fully autonomous authority with legal as well as executive powers to ensure protection and conservation of Environment. These efforts can only be successful when they have complete and unconditional support of the masses. Here, leaders of all shades and hues have to unite to ensure mass support. Surely they can at least unite on this important issue if they claim to be true leaders of the people? One would need a leader of the stature and dedication of Sunder Lal Bahugna to start something like a “Chipko Movement” in Kashmir. Do we have one? Finally, all efforts to safeguard and conserve our Environment can only be a real success if the Media, both electronic and print take it as a challenge and rising above commercial considerations, start a dedicated and concerted campaign to make people aware about it and continuously laud efforts to save it.

 
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