Choking on greed, valley strikes back
As a child, I remember accompanying my grandmother to Maarbal, a canal in Srinagar downtown that would turn into a floating vegetable market in the morning twilight. I relished the sight of brinjals, gourds, knol-knol, tomatoes and lotus stems stapled in bundles on the boats, men and women of all ages haggling for the best deals with the boat-borne hawkers, many of whom were women. Most of the deals were clinched through barter exchanges – pricy koshur tomul (Kashmiri rice) for the veggies that came fresh from the floating gardens of the Dal lake.
Maarbal was one of the smaller waterways that criss-crossed Srinagar to link the Dal lake to the Jhelum river. It served as a drainage canal for the river into the lake in times of heavy floods. However, in normal times it also served as a green navigational channel for the people of Srinagar.
Nearly 40 years later, today Maarbal has vanished from the Srinagar map. So has the biggest canal, the Nullah Maar, and others like Tsunthkol and Kaitakol that had been thoughtfully laid out by successive kings and emperors to regulate water in times of floods to save Srinagar from a deluge.
Maarbal of my memories is gone; Nullah Maar is now a macadamised road linking old Srinagar to the upmarket Civil Lines area. In the last three decades, despite turmoil and insurgency, Srinagar, like other Indian cities, had also expanded at a rapid rate, giving itself big houses, malls, shopping complexes- all that have given this pristine city a chaotic, yet somewhat modern, look. With scanty land available, government and people had encroached upon the water bodies- marshlands, canals and lagoons- least realising that these bodies were the sponges for flood waters.
The result was a catastrophe- the deluge that visited the valley three weeks ago, nearly engulfed Srinagar city, home to 1.2 crore people. Three weeks later, Srinagar continues to deal with its aftermath- hospitals are shut, businesses removing muck from their merchandise and the government hopelessly grappling with the rising health hazards.
How did the Paradise on Earth become a haven for environmental terrorists?
The story goes back to the 1970s, when Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah had regained power after 22 years of political wilderness, ending his bickering with the centre. One of his predecessors, Ghulam Mohammad Bakshi, had unleashed a slew of development work across Kashmir. As if to match up to Bakshi, the Sheikh began with a unique idea of converting Nullah Maar into a road. Today, the road is lined with hotels, shops, shopping complexes and showrooms. Environmentalists see the death of Nullah Maar as the biggest impediment in saving Srinagar city from the deluge.
Nature had showered its choicest bounties on the valley, people, including the rulers, thought that tinkering with it a little would not cause harm. Today, when the blame game continues between the state and the centre on who could have saved Srinagar from the floods, it is time to find out how the paradise was lost to encroachers and commercial voyeurs.
Two decades of insurgency and weakening of political and democratic institutions is how this recipe for catastrophe was cooked.
In 1989, the elected government of Farooq Abdullah simply abdicated power in the wake of the sudden spurt in pro-Pakistan insurgency.
Young Kashmiris crossed the line of actual control (LAC) to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir where they were trained in sabotage and firing and armed by Pakistan. They were out to wage jihad to upturn the government and make Kashmir a part of Pakistan. The governments in Srinagar and Delhi were clueless about it, leave alone having the capability to deal with it. Political leaders like Abdullah gave up soon.
The state was under central rule for years, with governor Girish Chandra Saxena, the former chief of the research and analysis wing (RAW), leading the charge against militants. His priority was clear- countering propaganda, limiting the firepower of terrorists and not allowing them to have territorial control, keeping the international community on India’s side in the game of one-upmanship unleashed by Pakistan. The proxy war by Pakistan took a heavy toll on Kashmir – both in terms of human lives as well as democratic institutions.
Saving environment and conserving ecology was not on the government’s agenda. It was the time when people – influential as well as common- started flouting rules. One could see concrete buildings cropping up on the Jhelum bund, filling up of the lakes to create floating gardens, houses being built in paddy fields and encroachments upon water bodies. Amid the booming guns, real estate was a flourishing business in Srinagar and the rest of the valley in the 1990s, while the sector was in doldrums in the rest of India.
This vandalism has been chronicled by various studies and scientific researchers. Weak governance had clearly taken a heavy toll of Kashmir’s wetlands and water bodies during the years of insurgency. So when a slightly heavy downpour started on 7 September- four days after the meteorological department’s warnings, it became clear that the flood in Kashmir was not exactly the result of nature’s fury but was aided by man.
A study done by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) has pointed out that the rapid rate of extinction of Kashmir’s wetlands was the main reason for the flood. Its studies have shown that in the last 30 years, nearly 50 per cent of the wetlands in the Kashmir valley have been encroached upon.
The BNHS study says the Dal lake in Srinagar has suffered due to reclamations all along its periphery in the marshy areas. The lake area is just about 1,200 hectares now, almost half of its earlier spread. The Wular lake and its surrounding marshes – an important bird area (IBA) – has been reduced from 20,200 hectares to a mere 2,400 hectares now.
After the floods, BNHS director Asad Rahmani said, ‘The damage caused to life and property could have been minimised if the large number of wetlands that once existed in the valley, had been preserved.’
In another case, Kashmiri scientists Humayun Rashid and Gowhar Naseem used satellite imagery to study the shrinking of lakes between 1911 and 2004. Their report had warned of the ecological powder keg the valley was sitting on due to loss of wetlands. Their report had said, ‘Though siltation brought about in lakes and wetlands, especially during floods was natural, yet subsequent encroachment, earth-filling, planting and construction by individuals and converting water channels into roads, presents a living example of how these valuable assets of natural landscape of Srinagar were destroyed.’
However, the most precise doomsday prediction was made by the state’s flood control department. A report sent by it to the centre in 2010 had predicted that Srinagar will face a major deluge in ‘next five years, which will see most parts of the city submerge; the Srinagar-Jammu highway may be washed away, road to airport may get submerged, leaving the valley cut off from the rest of the country’.
The department had sent a proposal of Rs 2,200 crore to the ministry of environment to retrieve the situation. Needless to say, the report remained shelved in the Paryavaran Bhawan till the deluge happened.
Why were these warnings not taken seriously by successive governments in Srinagar and New Delhi?
Another glaring lapse of governance highlighted by this flood is the mindless exclusion of Jammu and Kashmir from the purview of the central water commission (CWC). The mission statement of CWC says it is responsible for ‘initiating, coordinating and furthering in consultation of the state governments concerned, schemes for control, conservation and utilisation of water resources throughout the country, for the purpose of flood control, irrigation, navigation, drinking water supply and water power development’.
‘In case the CWC was involved in monitoring crucial water bodies of Kashmir, the situation would have been different- it is a huge lapse on our part,’ said a former chief engineer at the state irrigation department.
Interestingly, Saifuddin Soz, a Kashmiri, was India’s water resource minster for five years but even then this lapse was not addressed.
Yet another lapse was seen in the post-flood situation. The Omar Abdullah government surely lacked resources to rescue people in the city-turned lake of Srinagar, necessitating Herculean efforts of the Indian air force, army, naval commandoes and the national disaster response force (NDRF) to save lives. But the state government’s apathy was clear when it failed to even show up in south Kashmir, and Reasi and Poonch in Jammu region where the flood played havoc with life and property.
By arrangement with Governance Now