The ‘killer of the Dal’ is an unlikely figure: 71-year-old Abdul Aziz Tomaan, president of the Houseboat Owners Association, has been getting bad press as a spoiler of the lake. The charge is that the owners continue to disgorge their wastes into the Dal Lake. Tomaan dismisses the charge on behalf of his community, by pointing to the competition.
“Just check the waters in the Kardaulatabad and Nawpara region,” he says. “Around 3.5 lakh litres of sewage are pumped in everyday by public drains.” Centaur, a state government hotel, is another big polluter, say locals. The growth of ferns at its inshore sites often reach the waters. “This is changing the chemistry of our lakes,” says Imdad Saqi, who heads the three-year-old Valley Citizen’s Council (VCC) in Srinagar. “If Dal dies, we die with it.”
In Kashmir, all bad news is read alongside the 20-year-old turmoil; environmental mess is no exception. “We used to be rich in wildlife, human resources, forests and horticulture. Militancy has become the excuse for successive state governments to not save the water bodies, for cutting down trees,” says Saqi who routinely files PILs to needle the authorities into action.
Sixty-four year old poet Zarif Ahmed Zarif, another VCC leader, has made it his mission to save the chinar. He took up the cause with some flamboyance 25 years back by calling in TV cameras when chinars were being felled near the Tourist Reception Centre at the heart of the city. Since then, March has been his month. “I plant chinars on roads, schools, cemeteries every March. Every year, I plant a 100.”
The green brigade in Kashmir is not just an army of old men. “We have lost 20 years of our life. The young died or moved away. Our poets are still singing the old songs. The platform is still occupied by the old,” explains film-maker Tariq Bhat in his early 40s, who has documented a civilization in decay along the Jhelum. At present, he is involved in a branding exercise with the Kashmir University, which under its new V-C, has banned polythene, newer constructions on heritage sites within the campus, and encouraged a culture of “green activism and reconnection with the rest of the country.”
The neutralisation of militant activity, at least in capital Srinagar, since 2006, has led to a reassertion of other forms of politics. “Environment is a safe subject. If I say save the hangul (the Kashmiri stag of which only 190 remain), no one can harrass us,” says Nadeem Qadri, 23, president and CEO of the Kashmir Geographic Economy Cooperative. “We want to correlate economics with social activism. We don’t want to politicise the issue.” However, Qadri’s choice of activism cannot be seen separately from his identity. The symbolism of fighting to save the hangul — a political animal, as it were — like the fight for the chinar and the Dal, cannot be lost.
“This year a project to start rainwater harvesting has been devised with foreign consultancy to start in Rafiyabad, Baramula, an area which was already full of water,” says Arif Shafi Wani, a local journalist who won the Ozone Award for environmental reporting last month. “The trees in Rafiyabad near the LOC area are just stumps. They were cut to check militant movements,” he says. “Ikhevanis (former militants) also loot these forests but as they now help the army to tackle insurgency, no action is taken against them.”
Botanist Dr Majeed Kak also complains of the depleting forest cover. The culprits, he says are the jungle mafia. “If you cut one fir tree, it gets Rs 15-20,000,” he says. The plight of the Dal lake makes him weep. “Encroachers are converting water into land in order to grab lake areas by first converting them into floating islands called radh,” he says. “These islands will then become permanent and fit for eventual construction of hotels. And then we can all raise a toast and call it development.”