Kashmir’s urban jungle

Unbridled urban development is destroying Kashmir’s precious wetlands and government apathy is to blame, writes Athar Parvaiz from northern India.

Srinagar city, the capital of Kashmir nestled in the north Indian Himalayas, has witnessed massive urbanisation over recent years. Now home to 1.4 million people, the area of the city has expanded substantially, making land management a complex phenomenon. With hardly any regulation of urban growth, the inhabitants and ecology of the area – already under severe pressure from environmental hazards, siltation and encroachments – are exposed to further danger.

Experts argue that, if rapid urbanisation is allowed to continue unchecked, Kashmir’s precious wetlands might vanish within a few years. This would endanger millions of animals and migratory birds that flock to Kashmir’s wetlands every year. Experts warn that the number of winged visitors has steadily declined over the last few years. “Encroachment of the wetlands and their siltation is the major cause of decline in the number of migratory birds,” said Shahid Ahmad, an environmentalist who has worked on several wetlands in Kashmir.

“For example, the Hokersar wetland, situated 16 kilometres north of Srinagar, has shrunk to 4.5 square kilometres from its original area of 13.75 square kilometres. The Haigam wetland, further north, has been reduced to almost half its original size,” explained Ahmad. Many of the 500 wetlands in and around Srinagar city recorded by the Environment and Remote Sensing Department of the state government in the late 1990s have completely vanished.

Mian Javed is the Environment and Remote Sensing Department’s director in Srinagar. He voiced his concern that precious little has been done to save the wetlands and other natural resources like forests and wildlife: “The un-planned and un-regulated growth, industrialisation and urbanisation throughout the Himalayan state of Jammu & Kashmir in general and Kashmir in particular have taken a heavy toll on our natural resources, like forests, lakes, rivers, streams and the ecosystems supported by these assets,” said Javed.

Javed, previously director of Sringar’s pollution control board, described the impact as alarming. “The pace of eco-restoration and rehabilitation of affected habitats is disproportionate to the rate of degradation of our environment. Huge resources are needed to restore the lost glory of our precious but fragile eco-systems,” he observed.

Environmental experts say that, in the past, Srinagar city – with its naturally-balanced environment of forests, wetlands, rich agricultural land, mountains and built-up areas – used to play host to all kinds of inhabitants. “Wetlands used to provide an important function regulating water regimes especially during floods,” said Shahid Ahmad, who teaches environmental science at Kashmir University. “Many wildlife species also depend on these water bodies for their survival. These wetlands have been threatened either by explosive spread of obnoxious weed growth, or by increasing pollution from indiscriminate discharge of domestic effluents and run-off from agricultural fields.”

Dal Lake and Nagin Lake have been squeezed from around 36 square kilometres to around 12.5 square kilometres due to sewage, soil erosion, agricultural run-off and deforestation. The construction of increasing numbers of floating gardens and houses in and around the lake has added to pressures. All of this has speeded up the process of eutrophication in lakes, threatening the very existence of these water bodies and aquatic life.

In the absence of appropriate drainage and sewerage systems, Srinagar city’s effluents are directly or indirectly drained into various water bodies. The challenge of waste disposal has assumed epic proportions due to rapid population growth and unauthorised settlements that have built up in low-lying areas of Srinagar. This has had a severe impact on water quality.

Several species of fish unique to the waters of Kashmir are in danger of extinction due to high levels of pollution, environmentalists say. According to freshwater fish specialist professor AR Yousuf, excessive use of herbicides, pesticides and sub-standard fertilisers dumped into Kashmir’s waters is the main threat to the survival of these fish species. Experts like Yousuf are worried that the use of such chemicals in agriculture and horticulture has seen a major increase in recent years.

Yet another worrisome consequence of rapid urban expansion is the growing incidence of timber smuggling, fuelled by the construction boom. In the absence of a coherent forestry policy or sufficient regulation, this is causing widespread destruction in the forests of Kashmir. Diversion of forest land to make way for development projects is also nibbling away at precious forest resources.

Sources within the state forestry department disclosed that, while some diversion of forest land for development projects is unavoidable, “both the government and construction agencies prefer to divert their projects to forest land rather than privately-owned land in order to avoid any compensation issues.”  

The construction boom is not only feeding on forest wealth, but also consuming thousands of hectares of agricultural land. According to Nazir Ahmad Qazi, deputy director of law enforcement at Kashmir’s agriculture department, more than 10,000 hectares of agricultural land in Kashmir has been converted for residential and commercial use over the past few years.

“The concept of horizontal expansion, prevalent in Srinagar for decades, is proving quite disastrous, since, unlike vertical expansion, it consumes additional space and construction material including timber,” said Nissar Ahmad, forest conservator for central Kashmir.  

Environmental experts in Kashmir blame the relevant government departments for the environmental mess this Himalayan state finds itself in today. “We have been urging the state government to declare a land-use policy for many years, but it is yet to come out with any such policy. That is why we are in such a terrible mess,” observed professor Shakeel Ahmed Rumshoo of Kashmir University, who has done extensive environmental work in Kashmir.    

The government of Jammu & Kashmir has failed to prepare its State of Environment Report (SOER) – a mandatory assessment of environmental damage – even though other states and union territories in India managed to complete theirs in time to be approved by the Ministry of Environment and Forests in the 10th Five Year Plan back in 2002.

“Most of the (government) departments in Kashmir are yet to submit the data. We have sent many reminders underscoring the urgency of preparing the report, but there has been no response,” SOER coordinator Mutahirra Abida Wahid Deva was quoted as saying in a local newspaper.

Interestingly, the offending departments – including those for tourism, housing and urban development, plus the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority – all hold the key to safeguarding the environment and ecology. But, as Deva observed, without the preparation of a comprehensive SOER, Jammu & Kashmir will lose funds under “Green India”, a central government-sponsored scheme that provides money to state authorities to minimise environmental damage caused by reckless development. Experts say that without such funds there is little hope of restoring Kashmir’s water and forest resources to their original state, or avoiding further destruction.

Athar Parvaiz is an environmental journalist based in Kashmir.

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