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Paradise polluted: Can we save Kashmir’s lakes?

Around 500,000 people of Kashmir are directly and indirectly associated with tourism. These include boat owners, hotel employees, travel agents, guides, handicrafts makers, and providers of transport and pony services.  (Photo: Javaid Naikoo)Premium
Around 500,000 people of Kashmir are directly and indirectly associated with tourism. These include boat owners, hotel employees, travel agents, guides, handicrafts makers, and providers of transport and pony services.  (Photo: Javaid Naikoo)

  • Untreated sewage, encroachments, weeds and ferns are choking the biggest tourism hotspots
  • The govt is aware of the economic importance of the lakes and authorities say they are de-weeding them. Sustainable restoration would require the involvement and buy-in of locals

SRINAGAR : Sixty-year-old shikara owner Noor Mohammed remembers a time when the waters of Srinagar’s Dal Lake were clean enough to drink. Today, he displays the allergic rash he got on one of his hands by accidentally dipping it in the same lake.

“I warn tourists who hire my boat never to touch the water, and if they inadvertently do, to sanitise their hands immediately," he says. “This lake is our bread and butter. We are heavily dependent on it. But we have destroyed it and are doing nothing to save it."

His views are echoed by other shikara owners—shikaras are small boats that ferry visitors within the Dal lake, one of Kashmir’s tourism hotspots, immortalised in numerous popular movies and travel literature.

“When I take tourists around the lake, they notice dead birds floating on the water; they see heaps of plastic bags and empty bottles," says Gulzar Ahmed Sheikh, another boat owner. “As we move, my oars often get entangled in the overgrown weeds. I try to divert the tourists’ attention by talking about the beauty of Kashmir. But it is impossible to hide the truth for long."

With normalcy gradually returning to Jammu and Kashmir after the upheaval caused by the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, tourism has been rapidly growing. Since June 2021, 7.2 million tourists have visited the union territory (UT), including 340,000 in the January-March quarter of 2022, which is the highest in the last seven years, government officials say. About 180,000 came in March alone. Despite the intense cold, even the winter months of 2021-22 saw a sharp tourist spike with 100% hotel occupancy in popular resorts such as Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam, which had never happened before in Kashmir’s history. A good number of tourists stayed on houseboats on lakes.

But every lake dweller also adds to its degradation–not only Dal, but also other Srinagar lakes such as Nigeen, Khushal Sar, Gilsar and Anchar.

“It is human interventions, particularly encroachments, which have ruined water quality," says Muzamil Maqbool, a social activist. “The lakes are shrinking and if they are no longer an attraction, tourist traffic will be affected."

That would be a disaster. Simply because 500,000 people of Kashmir are directly and indirectly associated with tourism. Besides boat owners, there are hotel employees, travel agents, guides, handicrafts makers, providers of transport and pony services across Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg who make a living by catering to tourists. The per-head expenditure on a week-long Kashmir visit is estimated at 50,000-60,000; the industry contributes 6.98% to the UT’s gross domestic product.

The biggest polluter

The lakes are being choked by weeds and ferns like Azolla, increasing silt and encroachments of various kinds, but their biggest polluter is untreated sewage. It has been estimated that those living on and around the Dal Lake alone generate five million litres of sewage daily. But this is only a small proportion of a total of 45 million litres of sewage dumped daily into them, the rest coming from surrounding areas. According to the UT’s pollution control board, Srinagar generates around 201 million litres of sewage daily, but its sewage treatment plants can handle only 53.8 million litres–the rest all flows into its lakes and the Jhelum river. At least 15 big drains of the city empty into the Dal Lake alone.

Houseboat owners feel a disproportionate amount of the blame for the decline of the Dal Lake is heaped on them alone. “Less than 2-3% of the pollution is caused by houseboats, but we are made scapegoats for the government’s failure," says Ghulam Rasool Siah, president, Houseboat Owners Association.

Independent estimates have maintained that of the five million litres of daily sewage inflow, the houseboats’ contribution is around 800,000 litres. Even so, houseboats have been easy targets ever since pollution at the lake became a pressing concern. Way back in 1982, the government banned the registration of new houseboats. In 2009, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court even banned the repair and renovation of registered houseboats. As a result, the number of houseboats has shrunk from around 4,000 in the 1980s to 910 now.

But the government was also aware that houseboats were an important tourist attraction, and their dwindling number would affect tourism income. Finally, in March 2021, it introduced a houseboat policy by which new houseboats could be built on the lakes, but only if they were equipped with a bio-digester–a mechanised toilet system which decomposes human waste to rid it of its bacteria. Similarly, repair of damaged houseboats would be allowed on case-by-case basis, if the owner’s application is approved by the tourist department and includes installing a bio-digester.

However, sustainable houseboats will not be enough to save the lakes, as the causes of their degradation run deeper and are inextricably tied to Srinagar’s urbanisation. As Kashmir tourism grew rapidly in the 1960 and 1970s, and the lakes became a major tourist draw, more and more locals congregated on and around them for a livelihood, leading to a major spike in the waste flowing into the lake waters. While the tourist inflow has waxed and waned, falling during the insurgency years and then rising again, the locals have remained. As Srinagar’s overall population grew, the canals that flushed water out of the lakes were also choked with waste and silt. Roads built to cope with the city’s growing traffic blocked parts of the canals, while deforestation along the streams that feed the lakes increased the inflow of silt.

Rehabilitation goes awry

Many efforts have been made to save the lakes, starting with the Srinagar Master Plan of 1971–which was never seriously adhered to–but little seems to have worked so far. Even the Centre stepped in as early as 1997, with the ministry of environment and forests launching a ‘Save Dal’ project to which it allocated 500 crore. As the Jammu & Kashmir High Court itself observed in one of its judgments, “Despite public money being pumped in by the government, the authorities have proved helpless and unable to effectively ensure some meaningful outcome."

Following a public interest litigation claiming that the Srinagar Master Plan was being blatantly violated, the court too intervened, delivering a July 2002 judgment by which it took over monitoring of the Dal Lake’s water quality and directed its immediate clean up. Later judgments ordered all encroachments within 200 metres of the lake be demolished.

According to data obtained through RTI applications by social and environmental activists, a total of 759 crore has been spent by the government between 2005 and 2019 on the preservation of Kashmir’s lakes, of which 401 crore came from the Centre and the rest from the state. The Centre’s contribution includes the 300 crore Prime Minister’s Development Package (PMDP) of 2015, of which 50 crore was allocated to cleaning the lake and the remaining 250 crore–the bulk of the package–to rehabilitating people living on or around the lake in alternative locations, and thereby reducing the human pressure on it.

Separately, in 2018, the Indian Army launched a 21-day ‘clean Dal’ mission– uprooting weeds and removing plastic and other waste. In 2019, then union home minister Rajnath Singh announced yet another 350 crore package for the Dal Lake’s preservation. In October last year, lieutenant-governor Manoj Sinha held a fortnight long ‘Swachha Pakhwada’ drive for the lake, as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But even today, little evidence of all this effort is visible.

Even before the PMDP allocation, steps towards shifting people had been taken. However, they have run into various hurdles. In 2007, for instance, J&K’s Lake Conservation and Management Authority (LCMA) began a 416 crore project to shift 10,500 families living around Dal Lake to Bemina, 12 km away. The families were to be provided plots of land over an area of 379.4 hectares. But 15 years later, the land acquisition is still incomplete, while many of those who have shifted complained that they were jobless and the area lacked basic facilities.

“I cannot earn a livelihood staying away from the Dal Lake," says Zahoor Ahmed, 45, who refused to shift. “Here, I grow vegetables and take tourists around in my shikara to provide for my family which includes three children. My forefathers lived here and I have to do the same."

Yet another effort of the government, begun in 2010, was to use dredging machines to remove some of the debris and silt collected at the bottom of the lakes. The dredging was expected to restore the lakes to their former glory but experts now maintain it may have done more harm than good, affecting the flora and fauna of the lake, degrading its water quality further instead of improving it, diminishing the natural habitat and lowering fish production. A recent report by three research scholars shows that certain vital sea organisms such as lymnaea stagnalis (great pond snail) and radix auricularia (freshwater snail) had been eradicated from the lake waters due to the dredging and warns of dire consequences if it is continued.

Some living close to the Dal Lake also dismiss much of the government’s efforts as window dressing. “The parts of the Dal Lake that run alongside city roads or are close to the Shere-e-Kashmir International Convention Centre (SKICC), where major conferences are held, have indeed been cleaned up to impress outsiders," says Javaid Ahmed, also a houseboat dweller. “But in the interior areas, the lake remains a dumping site."

Bashir Ahmad, vice chairman, LCMA, maintains that most of the criticism of his organization’s efforts to restore the lakes was unfair and ill informed. “The moment we hear of any kind of fresh encroachment on the lakes, we remove it and book the culprits," he says. “De-weeding is on in full swing across the Dal Lake, a massive 120 tonne of weed being extracted daily."

Ahmad also dismisses the allegation of critics that the lake had shrunk greatly due to encroachments, pointing to the book The Valley of Kashmir by Walter Roper Lawrence, published in 1895. Lawrence was the settlement commissioner of Kashmir between 1889 and 1894.

The book says the lake is spread over 25.86 sq km, of which 18.21 sq km is water, with the remaining 7.65 sq km consisting of landmass and vegetation. “It remains the same today," says Ahmad. “Some people claim it was once 84 sq km, but they have never provided any evidence to prove it," he adds.

Citizens’ Initiative

In the past, the deteriorating condition of the lakes was even a political issue, with politicians of all hues promising before every election to improve them.

“Politicians would go deep into the Dal Lake’s corners, and promise people rehabilitation, jobs and other facilities, but after the elections they would not take our calls," says a Dal Lake resident who also goes by the name Bashir Ahmad. With political activity at a standstill following the Article 370 abrogation and the dissolution of the assembly, civil society has stepped in with better results.

One such initiative has been that of social activist Manzoor Wangnoo, who was inspired to intervene after he watched a TV show on Srinagar’s Doordarshan channel in December 2020. “During a discussion on the ‘Halat-e-Hazira’ show, the anchor asked the panellists for suggestions on what to do about the lakes," he says. “It made me feel responsible."

Soon after, with a couple of friends, he chalked out a strategy to clean up one of the smaller lakes–Khushal Sar.

“We got together 20 volunteers who worked for about 100 days in the spring of 2021," says Wangnoo. “At first we worked manually with spades and shovel, removing hundreds of bags of waste every day. But carcasses and weeds could not be removed this way, so we approached the LCMA who was very cooperative and provided us the equipment needed," he adds.

The volunteers then carried out a door-to-door campaign in the catchment area, impressing upon the people living there the socio-economic importance of the lake as a revenue earner.

“The situation demands a community approach for a comprehensive restoration of the lakes," says Raja Muzaffar, an environmentalist. “The administration needs to formulate a holistic strategy involving the local people. The sooner it is done, the better." is done, the better."

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