How Kashmir Is Damaging Its Ecological And Economic Powerhouses

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Athar Parvaiz

Over 1000 small and large water bodies across Kashmir do not only add to the beauty of this idyllic valley, but also play an important role in livelihood generation for thousands of people. In recent years, however, growing pollution, siltation due to deforestation and frequent flooding, encroachments, overexploitation of these water bodies and natural processes like flooding have threatened their survival and jeopardized the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people who depend on these water bodies for their economic sustenance.

Almost all the tourist places in Kashmir like those in Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Srinagar, Sopore, Bandipore owe their existence to water bodies which include River Lidder, Sindh, Dal Lake, Wullar Lake, Mansbal Lake, Hokarsar etc.  According to the officials at the tourism department, over one million tourists visit these places annually and around 300,000 people are directly and indirectly dependent on these tourist places for livelihood support. The multi-million dollar handicrafts industry of Kashmir, which gives employment to over 200,000 people, is also heavily dependent upon arrival of tourists in the region.

Another big contribution of Kashmir’s water bodies make to the state’s economy is the revenue generated through taxation of water usage for electricity generation in Kashmir by the central power development agencies like National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC).  According to state government’s Economic Survey of 2014, revenue of around 300 million rupeeshas been realized since 2010 on account of water usage charges on hydroelectric projects in the state.

Figures available at the Geology and mining department suggest that sand worthmore than 150 million rupees is extracted from Kashmir’s water bodies, particularly from River Jhelum and its tributaries,through organized sector in a calendar year. Officials in the department, who requested anonymity, said that 40 percent of the sand extraction is done illegally which is roughly worth 75 million rupees in a calendar year. This implies that sand worth 225 million rupees is extracted from the water bodies in Kashmir annually.

Fisheries is yet another big livelihood generation sector linked to the water bodies of Kashmir. MasoodHussainBalkhi of Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology (SKUAST) said that the aquatic resources of Jammu and Kashmir form about 15.97 percent of the total area of inland aquatic resources of India.

People, he said, are not only getting fish, but also commercial commodities like chestnuts and fodder for their livestock from the water bodies of Kashmir.  His colleague, Farooz Ahmad Bhat said that the total annual fish production of the region is 20,000 tonnes adding 98.70 percent of the total fish production is from the capture fisheries. Quoting figures from statistics maintained bythe fisheries department, he said that more than 30,000 people are directly involved in fishing with 14000 people having registered licenses.

Kashmir’s Commons in Danger

Experts have warned that the abundant common resources of Kashmir in the form of over 1000 small and large water bodies are under severe threat because of human activities and natural processes like flooding.

While the impact of human activities and natural processes has already put Kashmir’s commons in danger, experts say that the deterioration of the water bodies is bound to intensify further if required measures are not taken in time.

Bhat said that the fish diversity and production in Kashmir region over the past few decades has shown sharp decline and some of the local fish species have even become endangered and threatened.  The major causes of this decline, according to him, are encroachment of water bodies, pollution and siltation. Over 150,000 Kashmirisget direct and indirect employment from sand extraction and fishing.

As per a document of the State Water Mission, water bodies in Kashmir are the worst sufferers of human interference and rapid urbanization. It says that some of these water bodies have disappeared due to natural cause like glacial action, low precipitation or are on the verge of extinction.

Lakes that are within the urban areas have deteriorated while many are non-existent now. The reason for such deterioration is an outcome of massive proliferation of habitations around the lakes, encroachments and choking of drainage system.

Also, the document says, massive erosion in the catchment area is resulting in siltation of these lakes thereby converting the water area into landmass.

Though Dal lake still looks like a water body, its adjoining lakes like Gilsar, khushalsar andAanchar are almost nonexistent. The drainage system of the Dal Lake which used to feed these small water bodies has got converted into landmasses because of heavy siltation.

Careless about carrying capacity

Experts and environmental activists assert that tourist activities should be minismised at ecologically sensitive places like Pahalgam. More than half a million Hindu pilgrims from different states of India visit the Amarnath shrine near Pahalgamevery year.

With the steep rise in the number of pilgrims in recent years, environmental experts and civil society members are worried that the fragile mountain ecology is being exposed to huge danger which can ultimately lead to ecological disasters in future.

Dealing with the challenges of sustainable religious tourism has been a concern all over the globe with the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) estimating that 300 to 330 million tourists visit the world’s key religious sites every year.

Riyaz Ahmed Lone, an environmentalist who heads the Pahalgam Peoples’ Welfare Organisation  (PPWO) said that the facilities created by the ShriAmarnath Shrine Board (SASB) — which organizes the pilgrimage — for the protection of environment are not enough thereby encouraging the pilgrims to defecate openly at many places along the track leading to the shrine.

“We are not against the pilgrimage, but we want the organizers to ensure environmental protection and proper regulation of the pilgrimage like reducing the number of pilgrims to the permissible limit as per the carrying capacity of the fragile mountain ecology on a single day,” Lone said.

“Even the sewage treatment plant at the Pahalgam [Nunwan) base camp is not functioning as the sewage from this plant flows into River Lidder without any treatment as also from the hotels in Pahalgam,” he said.

Some officials at the Pollution Control Board (PCB), who preferred anonymity,  said that at least half a dozen fully functional Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) need to be set up for several hundreds of toilets going by the huge number of pilgrims visiting the shrine per day – sometimesmore than 25000 in a day.

“Even a little shower washes off the human excreta and other waste strewn in the forest along the trek to the holy shrine into the water systems which supply water to millions of people downstream,” said an official.

Mounting pilgrim and tourist numbers

According to official data of Jammu & Kashmir government the number of pilgrims has sharply increased from 4500 in 1950 to more than half a million pilgrims in 2015 while the number of tourists has increased from 15000 in 1950 to around  two million in 2015.

Until late 1990s, official data reveals, the pilgrimage had never crossed the 100,000 figure. Noted Indian human rights activist, GautamNavlakha says that the numbers started multiplying only after the establishment of SASB in 2002. According to him, SASB was made an all-Hindu body without the representation of the majority Muslim community.

A few years after its formation, Navlakha says, SASB didn’t only extend the pilgrimage from 30 days to 60 days, but in 2008 got 100 acres of forest land transferred to the board for construction through an order of the Jammu & Kashmir government. While the land-transfer order was reversed by the government after massive popular uprising in Kashmir, the “long duration” of Amarnath pilgrimage continues to be a controversial issue.

ShakilQalandar, member of Kashmir Centre for Development and Social Studies (KCDS) said that their demand of restricting the duration of pilgrimage and regulating the number of pilgrims per day as per the carrying capacity is yet to be fulfilled.

“We have formally presented this demand to the government saying we are in full support of an ecologically-friendly pilgrimage for our Hindu brethren,” Qalandarsaid.

Hindu religious scholar and social activist, Swami Agnivesh is a strong protagonist of curtailing the duration of pilgrimage and limiting the number of pilgrims.

“The increased human traffic is threatening the environment in this fragile ecosystem, a major source of water for the Indus River. Scientists are now grappling with how to protect the headwaters of Kashmir Valley,” he was quoted in media reports as saying after the September 2014 destructive flood in Kashmir.  He had even went to the extent of saying that the growing number of pilgrims at the ecologically sensitive area was one of the factors responsible for these floods.

Arguing that number of pilgrims at ecologically fragile zones like Mansarovar in Tibet and Gaomukh in Uttrakhand (India) is highly restricted, Navlakhawants similar regulation for the Amarnath pilgrimage while quoting from the NitishSengupta Committee report of 1996: “It (page 52 of the report) says that along with the regulation of the total number of pilgrims to about 1 lakh (100,000) we could lay down a ceiling of 3000 pilgrims that can be permitted to travel in a single day.”

However, no such recommendations are followed going by the figures of this year in July and the past few years shared by SASB on their website.

In a study “Sustainability of tourism development in Kashmir — is paradise lost?”by Imran Malik and Sultan Bhat published in May, 2015 issue of Elsevier, the authors have found out that in July the tourist flow  in Pahalgam  is almost fourfold of the  Tourism Carrying Capacity (TCC)  which is adversely affecting the environment at Pahalgam.

“Such a large tourist flow well above TCC is because of Pilgrimage tourism (AmarnathYatra),” says the study.

The author is a researcher, Journalist and has contributed on environment in international publications. He can be reached at atharparvaiz.ami@gmail.com He tweets @AtharParvaiz  

 

 

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