A staggering 53,000 hectares of agriculture land have been lost in Jammu Kashmir due to the conversion of agriculture land during the past decade. Furthermore, according to official figures, the agriculture land has shrunk from 8.47 lakh hectares in 2005-06 to 7.94 lakh hectres in 2015-16, a decline of 53,000 hectares. Shrinking of agricultural land is a major concern and both government and people are responsible for it.
Earlier, travelling through countryside used to be a feast for eyes. It was fascinating to see green fields extending to the horizon on both sides of the road. But now concrete residential and commercial buildings are sprouting thick and fast in the paddy fields of Kashmir. These structures are not mere eyesores in an otherwise beautiful landscape. They also have serious implications for the agrarian economy of the valley. The phenomenon is widespread, especially in the outskirts of Srinagar city and the major towns.
J&K High Court had directed the state government to ensure that no conversion of agricultural land is allowed for commercial, residential and industrial purposes. According to official figures, lakhs of kanals of agriculture land have been converted for commercial and other purposes over the years. The successive governments have failed to check the practice and as a result the problem has assumed dangerous proportions.
The rapid urbanization has led to shrinking of agricultural land with serious implications for the food security. Due to excessive conversion of agricultural land for commercial purposes, food grain deficiency is increasing with each year.
As per the assessment of agriculture department, the state is expected to face nearly 40 percent food grain deficit during 2020-21 and this figure will go up to 50 percent in 2030-31.
Owing to developmental projects like construction of roads, bridges, acquisition of land for Railways and other public purposes, a lot of unavoidable conversion has taken place over the years. Fragmentation of joint family and increase in number of nuclear families also results in the increased demand and insatiable appetite for landfor housing purposes.
The Land Revenue Act, J&K Agrarian Reforms Act, Prohibition on Conversion of Land and Alienation of Orchards Act are some of the laws already in place to check blatant conversion of agricultural land for non-agriculture purposes. However, despite the strong legislations, illegal conversion of agricultural land is going on unabated, mainly due to non-existence of a comprehensive housing policy.
The unauthorized conversion of agricultural land is mainly taking place in suburban areas. The commercial potential of the plot along the highways is also spurring the change of agricultural land for non-agricultural use.
Ideally, land conversion policy must take into account environmental considerations and larger public good. Impact of the non-agricultural use on soil, natural drainage, water bodies, forest and tree cover, mountains and hill slopes, flora and fauna, air and other ecological resources needs to be studied in detail.
The non-agricultural use of land has a bearing on demographics as well. It is also connected with issues like need for road and transport connectivity, water supply, waste water and solid waste generation, collection and treatment, electricity and other utility services.
The non-agricultural land use affects the adjoining areas as well. For instance, land is required for providing right-of-way to land parcels behind land adjoining road networks. Land is also required for future expansion of existing roads.
The onus is on the government to ensure that conversion of agricultural land for commercial and residential purposes is stopped so that we don’t incur further punishment from nature for our insatiable greed.
‘The Valley of Kashmir’ by Walter R. Lawrence is one of the finest works on Kashmir by a British author. One of the chapters in the book deals exclusively with agriculture and cultivation. As per Lawrence, land occupied by Kashmiris for agricultural purposes stood at 1,195,555 acres (9564440 kanals) in 1890s. In the conclusion of the chapter, Lawrence, who was the settlement commissioner of J&K in the British period, writes there is a great future for agriculture in Kashmir. However, the present status of agriculture sector is far from bright and the future looks even bleaker.
With politics and conflict taking the centre-stage in Kashmir, environmental and ecological issues have not received proper attention. With little scrutiny, successive governments have also got away with their flawed policies and half-hearted measures in addressing environmental issues some of which have gradually come to assume dangerous proportions. Despite laws seeking to protect the environment, our water bodies are polluted and shrinking, our forest cover has reduced and our wildlife is threatened.
Flooding, silting and landslides have become more common. Law enforcement is either poor or susceptible to corruption. Take for instance, the plight of the world famous Dal Lake. Despite crores of rupees being allocated for its restoration, authorities have failed to stop the pollution and encroachments from strangling it to death.
Wullar Lake and its wetlands have also been shrinking in area over the years, symbolizing the human apathy towards nature. Kashmir is also known for its wetlands like Hokersar, but the official figures about their encroachment and subsequent decline in the number of migratory birds is frightening. 2014’s devastating floods were attributed, among other factors, to lack of proper dredging of river Jhelum and the flood channels.
The government has failed to address different aspects of the problem like carrying capacity of Jhelum and the weakening of its embankments owing to human settlements close to the river banks. Climate change can no longer beseen as an irrelevant or remote issue in the context of Kashmir as we look into its manifestations in thevalley. Kashmir conflict may have served as a blessing in disguise for the wild animals, but the frequent incidents of man-animal conflict serve as a reminder about the human encroachment into their habitatwhich we explore in one of the feature stories here.
Tourist resorts like Pahalgam and Sonamarg havealso witnessed serious threat to their ecology. We have not spared even the meadows and foothills ofthese resorts from vandalization. Authorities have failed to implement a comprehensive policy to safeguard the natural beauty and ecological balance of these places. We see glimpses of human complacency towards the fragile ecology. It is high time that we step up to protect our environment from further degradation lest it gets too late. People and government need to overcome indifference, combat greed and act to preserve our natural heritage.
The author is Srinagar based journalist and also teaches journalism at Central University (Kashmir)