Paradise polluted: Can we save Kashmir’s lakes? 

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Context: Normalcy is gradually returning to Jammu and Kashmir after the upheaval caused by the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution. Tourism has been rapidly growing.

For example, 100% hotel occupancy was seen in popular resorts of Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam in the winter months of 2021-22.  

What are the problems being faced by the locals? 

Almost every Kashmir Lake has been facing degradation, like Dal Lake, Nigeen, Khushal Sar, Gilsar and Anchar. 

These lakes are the source of livelihood for local people. 500,000 people of Kashmir are directly and indirectly associated with tourism. But these lakes have been polluted (For example, Dal Lake). They are full of plastic bags, empty bottles and overgrown weeds. The lake’s ecology has been destroyed. The dead birds floating on the water has become a common phenomenon.  

What are the factors behind environmental degradation? 

It is human interventions, particularly encroachments, which have ruined water quality. The lakes are shrinking 

The lakes are being polluted by weeds and ferns like Azolla, increasing silt and encroachments of various kinds.  

The most important cause of pollution is release of the untreated sewage, 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 flows into Dal Lake and other lakes and the Jhelum River.  

The pollution is also caused by release of effluents from the houseboats. The registration of new houseboats was banned in 1982. Further, the repair and renovation of registered houseboats was also banned by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court in 2009. 

Rehabilitation Efforts Made So Far 

(A) The Government efforts 

(1) The Srinagar Master Plan of 1971 has never been seriously adhered to. In 1997, the ministry of environment and forests launched a ‘Save Dal’ project 

(2) In 2018, the Indian Army launched a 21-day ‘clean Dal’ mission– uprooting weeds and removing plastic and other waste.  

(3) In 2019, the Union home minister announced a package for the Dal Lake’s preservation. In 2002, ‘Swachha Pakhwada’ drive was launched for the lake, as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But even today, little evidence of all this effort is visible. 

(4) In 2007, the J&K’s Lake Conservation and Management Authority (LCMA) launched a project to shift families living around Dal Lake to Bemina, 12 km away. But the project has failed. The land acquisition is still incomplete, and those shifted complained about joblessness and lack of basic facilities. 

(B) Efforts by the Judiciary 

(1) The Jammu & Kashmir High Court observed, “Despite public money being pumped in by the government, the authorities have proved helpless and unable to effectively ensure some meaningful outcome.” 

(2) In 2002, following a public interest litigation claiming that the Srinagar Master Plan was being blatantly violated, the court 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. 

(C) Citizens’ Initiative 

A social activist Manzoor Wangnoo, launched a plan to clean up Khushal Sar (one of the smaller lakes) following the Article 370 abrogation and the dissolution of the assembly, civil society in the spring of 2021.  

A door-to-door campaign was launched in the catchment area to raise awareness about the socio-economic importance of the lake as a revenue earner. 

Way Forward 

The problem demands a community approach for a comprehensive restoration of the lakes.

The houseboats are an important tourist attraction, and their dwindling number would affect tourism income. Therefore, the government is promoting sustainable houseboats through a houseboat policy in 2021.

A new houseboat could be built on the lakes if they are equipped with a bio-digester–a mechanised toilet system.

Similarly, repair of damaged houseboats would be allowed on case-by-case basis,  

In addition to sustainable houseboats, the government should look into Kashmir’s unsustainable urbanisation, rapid rise in the tourist’s inflow since 1960 and 1970s, the choked canals, and deforestation along the streams that has caused inflow of more silt in the lake. 

Source: The post is based on an article “Paradise polluted: Can we save Kashmir’s lakes?” published in the Live Mint on 06th May 2022. 

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