Jammu and Kashmir has many wetlands of national importance and international recognition. These water bodies are critical source of livelihood and job opportunities for a large number of population in form of fishing, farming, tourism etc. Moreover, most of the wetlands in the region fall under Central Asian Flyway Zone (CAF) and visited by lakhs of migratory and endangered birds during their annual migration march. These wetlands areas also provide safe refuge to native vegetation and wild animals. Their protection is crucial to combat the dual impact of climate change, water scarcity and flooding.
The National Wetlands Atlas (NWA): 2011[i] had listed 3651 wetlands covering 3,91,501 ha in the then undivided state of Jammu and Kashmir. Of the total wetlands 2240 have area less than 2.25 ha. The region has four wetlands Surinsar-Mansar, Hokersar, Wular and Tsomoriri (now in Ladakh) of International Importance identified under Ramsar convention. Further the Central government in September 2019 has identified 12 wetlands in the region for priority restoration over next five years.
However, for past several years, the wetlands in the region have been facing the problems of encroachment, pollution and siltation. Unfortunately no remarkable progress has taken place for their conservation despite mounting public concerns, claims of government action and judicial intervention.
The December 2018 report[ii] had highlighted that even the state departments had not responded to the much delayed draft[iii] report of State Environment Policy 2018 and the document had not given much importance to the conservation of wetlands. The report also mentioned political apathy behind sorrow state of affairs regarding wetlands conservation.
Following sustained efforts by media and activists, the Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) High Court (HC) in August 2017 had directed government to demarcate and take steps to protect them. The demarcation was going on at snail’s pace and administration was reportedly facing resistance from encroachers.
The report also cited studies revealing that wetlands area including of Hokersar, Wular Lake in the state had decreased at alarming level over a period of time due to urbanization, deforestation, siltation etc. According to the report, more than 50 percent of water bodies in Srinagar and its suburbs were lost over a century. Similarly the marshy lands of the Hokersar wetland had declined from 16.3 square kilometres (sq km) in 1969 to 5.62 sq km in 2008 and the wetland, too, had shrunk from 18.75 in 1969 to 13 sq km in 2008. Likewise, the Wular Lake area had seen a reduction of around 45 % from 157.74 to 86.71 sq km during 1911 to 2007.
According to another report, the area of Narkara wetland had shrunk[iv] to 261 ha in 2010 from 342 hectare in 1971 and the govt agencies had no revenue records of the water body. During the floods of 2014, the Narkara wetland helped many surrounding areas from inundation. The report also mentioned that the HC had directed the government to maintain status quo of the wetlands while hearing a PIL highlighting plan of IIM campus on wetlands area.
The Wular Lake, Dal Lake, Hokersar, Mirgund Lake wetlands in the state falls under Asian flyway zone and provide a transitory habitat to lakhs of birds migrating from Siberia, Japan, and other places. However the pollution, encroachments and poaching were increasingly posing a significant threats to these habitats & migratory birds resulting in their falling numbers[v].
According to another report, around 20 acres of Shalabug wetland in Ganderbal, 250 acres of Haigam wetland in Sopore and 350 acres of Malgam wetland in Bandipora were encroached and Hokersar wetland had shrunken to 6 from 14 sq km due to accumulation of silt, solid waste and muck.
Similarly the four wetlands[vi] Fashkoot, Chatlam, Krentchu-Chandhara, Maen Bugh in Pampore which had found mention in NWA 2011 were facing threats from land mafia. The report also said that around 30 acres of Kreentchu-Chandhara wetlands along NH 44 was being filled by builders to construct residential colony. An irrigation canal flowing between the wetlands was already converted into a motor road.
On February 9, the administration directed[vii] the deputy commissioner of Jammu to expedite the land acquisition process for Gharana Wetland Conservation Reserve located in Raj Pura city. The reserve notified in 1981 homes more than 170 species of birds and hosts thousands of migratory birds from Central Asia during winters. Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed, a former Chief Justice had dubbed Gharana Wetland as a jewel on Jammu’s crown and said that none can afford to lose it by shutting eyes towards its continuous shrinkage.
As per a detailed report, despite spending around Rs 800 crore over 16 years on numerous cleaning and preservation projects, the Dal Lake continued to suffer from increasing sewage pollution[viii]. According to State Pollution Control Board report, Srinagar generated 201 MLD of sewage but had treatment capacity for only 53.8 MLD. The government had also failed to upgrade the technology of the 3 Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) around the lake which was recommended by NEERI scientists and promised by the state government in 2014.
In 2007, the government began Rs 416-crore project to depopulate the lake and rehabilitate these families at a site called Rakh-I-Arth Bemina on the outskirts of Srinagar. The project was supposed to be completed in three years, but even till 2018, authorities managed to allot only 2,600 of the proposed 10,500 plots. These excluded the fisherfolk families that were rehabilitated to Habak. Most of them were forced to do casual labour or driving works. Some sold the given land & went back to live around the lake to continue doing what they did before.
The report mentioned that more than 50,000 people including houseboat owners, vegetable growers, and fisherfolk were dependent on the Dal Lake for their livelihoods. The houseboat owners alleged that around 44.2 MLD of sewage was going into lake from surrounding area and houseboat were only responsible for 0.8 % of sewage. Despite that they were blamed for the pollution in the lake.
In March 2019, the Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing (DEARS) urged[ix] the government to make efforts to get Dal Lake declared as a potential “Ramsar site” and “UNESCO World Heritage Site”. It also said that Dal Lake supported plant and animal species at a critical stage in their life cycles and provided refuge during adverse conditions. According to the proposal, the major benefits of joining the Ramsar Convention would facilitate the development at the national level of policies and actions for wise use of wetlands.
Poaching[x] inside protected wetlands in the state has become a significant threat for migratory birds’ population. Around 20,000 birds in Hokersar and thousands were reportedly being gunned down in Shalabugh wetlands on annul basis in connivance of forest department staff. The hunted birds are then sold openly in local markets. The illegal act had also severely affected the research work taken to understand migratory birds routs, origins and destinations including disease threats.
In absence of conservation measures over past nearly two decades, Hokersar also known as the ‘Queen of Wetlands’ has been pushed to the verge of extinction. Towards the end of April 2019, the government had constituted panel[xi] headed by Deputy Commissioners of Srinagar, Budgam to demarcate boundaries of Hokersar wetland to prevent encroachments.
The report also mentioned of Irrigation and Flood Control Department’s plan to construct hydraulic gates at the entry and exit points of Hokersar wetland in order to maintain minimum water level in the wetland.
According to one more report the total area of major wetlands in the Jhelum basin with area greater than 25 ha had decreased[xii] from 288.96 in 1972 to 266.45 sq km by 2019. Around 22 wetlands were lost to urbanization within and in the vicinity of Srinagar city alone, since 1970. Similarly, the impervious concrete surfaces in Srinagar city, due to urban sprawl, had increased from 34 % in 1992 to more than 65 % at present, severely affecting the hydrological processes in the Jhelum basin. Experts also worried that the hydrological functionality of the existing wetlands was adversely affected due to the encroachments, siltation and depleting stream flows due to a number of reasons including the changing climate.
Similarly, the open water surface of Wular, the largest natural floodwater storage in the Jhelum basin, had significantly shrunk from 90 sq km in 1911 to less than 15 sq km in 2013. Due to shrinking and siltation of Wular and other water bodies, the floodwater storage potential of the wetlands in the Jhelum basin had significantly reduced during the last few decades.
On the other hand, encroachment, pollution[xiii] and lack of conservation measures had drastically affected the eco-system of Shalabugh wetland in Ganderbal district. Spanning over 14 sqkm, Shalabugh, which mainly receives its waters from Aanchar lake in Srinagar, spreads from Takenwari Srinagar to Sangam in Ganderbal.
In a meeting held in the first week of May, the administration discussed demarcation issue[xiv] of Hokersar wetland. The report stated that restoration fund for the wetlands would be given by the administration and carried out by the Tourism Department. It was decided that demarcation would be carried out on urgent basis and Regional Director Survey and Land Records would provide necessary manpower and machinery to the demarcation team.
The woes of world famous Gharana wetland remained unaddressed[xv] even after numerous directions from the State HC as negotiations for acquisition of private land to restore original area of the water body failed to yield the desirable results over past almost two years. The administration blamed delay in land acquisition due to unreasonable demand and adamant attitude of the owners of the land.
In December 2017, HC had issued directions for acquisition of around 408 kanals as only option to restore the original area of the wetland. However about 354 kanals of the land to be acquired belonged to the private persons.
As per the report, the government approved rate of the land in the area was Rs 2.02 lakh per kanal while the market rate was Rs 2.50 lakh per kanal but the occupants of the land were demanding Rs 15 lakh to Rs 18 lakh per kanal. Because of the deadlock the conservation and restoration projects were also getting delayed.
District Development Commissioner (DDC), Budgam on July 17 visited the Hokersar and directed the concerned agencies to take up demarcation work[xvi] of wetland and its peripheries from Hajibagh to Sozieth from the next day. Instructing complete ban and strict action against land conversion around wetlands, the DDC stressed on timely completion of all Revenue related issues and asked Tehsildar Budgam to execute the demarcation work as required.
Following this, the authorities started demarcation process[xvii] of Hokersar wetland. A team of officials was formed to complete the demarcation process within a week. After demarcation, the state government was to issue a fresh notification to earmark the Hokersar wetland reserve’s area. According to wildlife department officials, the first demarcation of the reserve was conducted in 1935 and notified in 1945. It was then spread across 13.75 sq km but had shrunk to less than 7 sq km.
According to the study, the wetlands located close to urban areas were showing signs of deterioration due to land use change. The analysis of land cover data from 2016 shows[xviii] that the catchment of Narkara wetland was predominantly an urban setting with built-up areas covering 37.12% of the total catchment area. The pace of urbanization was more pronounced after 1980, the study revealed.
The analysis showed decline in soil erosion in the catchment area from 106 tonnes in 1965 to 62 tonnes in 2016. This reduction was attributed to barren lands and agriculture being taken over by built-up area. The gradual squeezing of wetlands was affecting their buffering capacity to withhold flood waters and storm water runoff. This was seen during the 2014 floods when residential areas in the outskirts of Srinagar, which used to be traditional floodplains, were inundated for more than three weeks.
The Centre had in September 2019, identified 130 wetlands[xix] from all over India for priority restoration in the next five years and asked states to submit their respective integrated management plan. The highest number of such identified wetlands are in Uttar Pradesh (16) followed by Madhya Pradesh (13), Jammu & Kashmir (12), Gujarat (8), Karnataka (7) and West Bengal (6).
In first week of October, the administration planned compulsory acquisition[xx] of 353 kanals of private land in order to restore Gharana wetland. The administration also informed the HC that due to reluctance of land owners to accept government offers, compulsory acquisition was the only option to acquire the land as per Sections 6 and 7 of the Land Acquisition Act.
The Wildlife Department had already transferred Rs 11.70 crore for acquisition of land and the same will be utilized for making payments to the occupants of 353 kanals of land. The Department had also prepared a detailed management plan for conservation of wetland to be implemented over a period of five years with foremost priority to fencing of the boundary and establishment of STP.
Post abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, the natural resources of the J&K were facing lot of threats as series of decisions to convert forest lands for non-forest purposes were in the pipeline. Amid this, officials informed the National Green Tribunal (NGT) that they would restore and preserve[xxi] the Kraeenchoo-Chandhara wetland in south Kashmir during hearing of a petition on pollution and encroachment in three wetlands in Kashmir Hokersar in Budgam, Wular Lake in Bandipora and Kraeenchoo-Chandhara in Pulwama district.
On December 9, before appearing for the hearing scheduled for December 16, the Jammu and Kashmir government filed the report in the Tribunal. As per the submission, the government had already handed over 16 acres of land under their jurisdiction to forest department as the wetland could not be preserved in isolation and it was “imperative” to hand over the entire area to the wildlife protection department.
Kraeenchoo-Chandhara wetlands was first notified in 1945 as a wetland to be preserved. Spread over 150 acres and fed mostly by springs, it was upgraded to a ‘conservation reserve’ in 1978, and brought under the control of the wildlife protection department in 2013.
Meanwhile, in a first[xxii], a flock of 23 Bar-headed geese was sighted in Manibugh wetland of Pampore in Pulwama district on December 6. As per a statement by forest department more than six lakh migratory waterfowl throng Kashmir wetlands during winters.
Similarly, in first week of January 2020, a new species[xxiii], Red Headed Geese, was reported from the wetland of Pampore the area. As the report, around 4-5 lakh avian visitors have landed in the wetlands of the Valley during last three months and the Department of Wildlife is expecting the number to go higher in next two months. However, as per a forest department staff there is a fall in diversity of birds species at Hokersar wetlands over the years due to its deterioration.
Meanwhile, after scrapping of semi-autonomous status and subsequent conversion of state into a Union Territory (UT), the administration made efforts to create “land banks”[xxiv] for investors from outside Kashmir Valley. As per the report, out of a total over 203,020 acres of government owned land around 15,000 acres land was already identified for the purpose and most of the plots were in the floodplains of or adjacent to rivers, streams and wetlands not ideal for infrastructural projects.
As per another report, the approval for diverting[xxv] forest land measuring 727 hectares had been given in a short period, with 198 projects approved over one month. In comparison, in 2018, 97 projects involving diversion of forest land were cleared over 12 months.
Similarly, in Jammu, 42,000 acres of state land had been identified for development. The people argue that it would result in “environmental degradation in the name of development.”
All this was happening when the water bodies were already facing multiple threats in the absence[xxvi] of proper governance and ecologically sensitive land patches were being taken up for military related development projects for years.
Amid this, the Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA) has embarked on a project[xxviii] to cut 21.84 lakh trees inside the lake boundary (as per revenue records of 1911 which is 130 sq km) to “reclaim” the shrinking Wular Lake and cutting of 2 lakh trees is already underway in the first phase.
The project was started on the basis of a 2007 report by Wetlands International South-Asia suggesting removal all trees from Ningli plantation inside the lake boundary for enhancement of water holding capacity of the lake by one metre. Another study by Wildlife Trust of India, while recommending the cutting of trees, has called for proper studies to assess the impact underlining that on an average, 33 kg of carbon dioxide is trapped by each tree annually, making it over 72,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide by 21.84 lakh trees.
The administration claims that these trees are not part of natural ecosystem and were planted over the years. However, experts have demanded a study on the ecological impact of cutting trees in such large numbers.
As per the report, Wular has considerably shrunk over the past eight decades. Officials records show that 27 sq km of the lake has silted up and turned into a land mass. In the 1980s, the central government proposed to dam the water by constructing Wular barrage. The project, however, was shelved.
As per a latest report, almost all the water bodies in the Kashmir region including wetlands, lakes and rivers are being treated as solid waste dumping sites[xxix] by none other than municipalities themselves in open violation of directions from NGT.
The report also reveals that in the last ten years the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) has not able to acquire even 50 acres of land for creating an alternate landfill site as the existing site at Achan is already choked and solid waste is being dumped in and around water sources. Even the drains are choked with the solid waste and get blocked during rains.
As per the report, the Municipal Committee of Bandipora dumps all the MSW collected from this north Kashmir town on the banks of Wular Lake at Zaalwan village. Similarly, MSW collected around the Parimpura Fruit Mandi and other areas of Budgam and Srinagar is dumped on the banks of Hokersar wetland at different locations, especially around Haji Bagh.
The report also mentioned that SMC has created garbage collection point on the banks of Doodh Ganga river at Bagh-e-Mehtab area in Srinagar where around 800 to 1000 kg of garbage is dumped regularly. In Kulgam district the local municipality dumps all its MSW on the banks of Vishaw river which is one of the tributaries of Jhelum river. Likewise, most of the dumped waste is washed into river Poonch river during monsoon.
Summary The wetlands in the Jammu and Kashmir continue to suffer from impacts of unplanned development and government inactions. The problems of siltation in Wular, sewage pollution in Dal lake and encroachments of Gharana, Hokersar, Narkara remained unresolved. These are the commonest threats looming on most the wetlands in the region.
On the one hand, the years old court orders directing immediate administrative action of demarcation of Hokersar and restoration of Gharana lands are still moving at snail’s pace for various reasons, on the other, the poaching of migratory birds in large numbers visiting the wetlands of Hokersar and Shalabugh has emerged as new and significant threat enlarging the list of worries.
Apart from these, the dumping of solid and bio medical waste in and around the water bodies including Wular and Hokersar shows the lackadaisical approach of authorities.
Clearly the combined impact of growing concretization in catchment, encroachments and siltation is playing havoc on the hydrological functionality which can be termed as a sure recipe for flood disaster in the making.
It is surprising to see that despite having so many important wetlands, the state government for years lacked a specific department or agency competent enough to work for the cause of the wetlands. However, conversion of state into Union Territory has so far brought no change in the scenario.
On the contrary, the administrative exercise of land demarcation for investment purposes, can be seen as new threat further jeopardizing the fate of wetlands as reported explicitly and exclusively that large chunk of demarcated land includes forest lands and areas around rivers, wetlands and water bodies. The short-sighted decision of axing down over 20 lakh trees in the catchment of Wular lake citing decade old study seems a move in that direction. The communication blockade had only added into the woes of wetlands.
Unfortunately, the wetlands people, all concerned and wetlands itself of the Jammu and Kashmir have no way but to wait and watch hoping and praying for the things to turn better in times ahead.
Bhim Singh Rawat (firstname.lastname@example.org)