July 28, 2021 11:27 pm

No Leisure This: Mountain Trips Turning Toxic in Kashmir

A Kashmiri eco-volunteer cleaning Baltal area.

Amid eco-invasion caused by filthy expeditions, experts say more stringent rules and a constant lookout for violations are needed to prevent further environmental damage, which can be irreversible if not checked in time.

By Aaqid Andrabi

MIDNIGHT, May 9, 2021…

Blood-curdling shrieks pierce the engulfing pitch-black night in a small, obscure hamlet of Ashpora in Central Kashmir. A few kerosene lamps come alive, and a flurry of hurtling silhouettes scurry towards the house of Abdul Majeed Gojri. His home and its compound are filled with wails of its inhabitants. There lies the limp, lifeless body of Asif, thick foam around his mouth.

“He was just eleven years old! I wouldn’t wish on anyone such a horrible and gruesome death. He was weeping and writhing in pain; there was froth coming out his mouth,” laments Mahjabeen, the mother of Asif who drank from a local spring and died a few days later. The spring was septic.

Over the past few years, remote hillocked places in Kashmir have witnessed an upward tick of picnickers, campers, trekkers, off-road enthusiasts, to name a few. The rush indubitably brings significant economic value and well-being for the locals and the region.

Still, it brings with it issues that the valley is either too ill-equipped to deal with or not at all. It has led to situations where the ecological balance of sensitive zones gets disturbed because of the lack of comprehension of the environment.

Asif fell prey to the poisoned waters of a spring feeding his family and his community for generations. What changed within the water body that killed Asif?

The boy belonged to a remote area of district Budgam that has received overwhelming attention in the past few years. A cursory look at the place shows it littered. Plastic wrappers and discarded bottles cover a good part of the area, thus leading to the inevitable seepage of toxins into the soil and underground water.

“It’s an issue with significant and terrifying consequences that will leave its impact on our environment and our lives,” says Abdul Hameed, a conservationist.

“Take the example of young Asif; he lost his life because someone was callous enough to leave behind their trash, without even thinking twice what ramifications it shall have on the place and the people who call it their home.”

Hameed lobbies for stricter regulations and better upkeep of ecologically sensitive areas in the valley.

“Take the holy Amarnath yatra as an instance. It’s a source of massive human influx into incredibly fragile geographical areas, ecologically speaking. During the yatra, colossal amounts of plastic waste are generated, and the same is either dumped into nallah Sindh or is left lying around the track or in meadows, not to mention the defecation in the waters of Sindh. The administration puts in little to no effort to clean the affected areas after the conclusion of the yatra. We have established a group of volunteers, and every year we visit Pahalgam and Sonamarg and other affected areas and clean the place to the best of our abilities. But we are a small group with minimal resources. We cannot do it all on our own. There is always the option to do more,” he adds.

A view of tourist place in Kashmir.

Another aspect of the excessive and unregulated human presence at the ecologically sensitive zones lends another facet to the environmental predicament — man-animal conflict.

In the past two months, Kashmir valley has witnessed an alarming rise in the number of mauling cases. Several adults and, in some cases, a couple of young children too fell prey to wild animals. The advent of the beasts into human inhabitations isn’t something new in Kashmir, but this alone has seen such occurrences quadruple. Often, the beasts had to be put down, which is a significant loss on its own.

The overwhelming human footprint at hill stations has opened up an alternative food supply for the animals, says Mansoor Nabi, an environmental activist and a conservationist who has worked with World Wildlife Fund.

“The wild animals forage for their food in their habitats, but with the man constantly going deeper and further into the woods has established an informal supply of food for the beasts,” Mansoor says.

“If they get an easier food source, it’s natural to expect the beast to look for more, leading to man-animal conflict. There’re hotels in Sonamarg where you will find a brown bear at your window. The easy availability of food is one of the factors driving the upward spike of the said conflict and mauling of humans.”

There’s little to no ecological sensitisation when it comes to Kashmir, the eco-activist says. “We cannot and shouldn’t make it the responsibility of the administration alone. As constituents of Kashmiri society and the world, we need to do better and more on our part.”

A tourist place littered with plastic waste.

Environmental awareness and associated responsible behaviours, he says, are highly crucial for people to manage the ever-growing man-animal conflict.

“We’ve been trying to inculcate an environmental sense of responsibility in our kids, and for that, we’ve conducted several campaigns and workshops in schools and colleges. The change certainly is visible on the ground, but we need to do significantly more.”

An overwhelmingly unanimous agreement across the board is that there need to be stricter regulations of the hill stations, picnic spots, and camping sites. More stringent rules and a constant lookout for violations preserve the pristine nature and prevent further damage, which can be irreversible if not checked in time.

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