The Queen on Deathbed: How Kashmir Is Losing Its Prime Wetland

Hokersar wetland is constantly encroached. District Administration Budgam hasn’t acted on NGT’s advise to utilize funds under Rural Waste Management programme

WETLANDS of Kashmir are a hit on orders and advisories. On paper, the concern shown towards them is flattering. However, once known as the Queen of Wetlands due to its great ecological value, Hokersar is on the deathbed.

Hokersar wetland has been an important refuge for many kinds of shorebirds, waterfowls and trans-Himalayan species during winters. It has been one of the major flood basins of Kashmir. However, due to constant human intervention and urbanisation, Hokersar is being pushed towards destruction.

The wetland was first designated as a conservation reserve under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978 and was declared as a bird sanctuary falling under India's National Wetlands Conservation Programme.

But over time, this wetland, spread around large parts of Srinagar and Budgam districts, continues to be encroached and choked with solid and liquid waste. Many areas of the wetland have been converted into paddy land. Discharge of the domestic waste into the wetland, primarily through the inlet streams, has led to excessive weed growth and eutrophication, both of which pose a great threat to the reserve's flora.

Some years back, a study carried out by the Department of Earth Sciences, Kashmir University revealed that Hokersar was being destroyed by people for their own benefits and the Government’s apathy was also responsible for its continuous degradation.

The wetland, according to various reports, was spread over an area of 18.75 Square Kilometres in 1969. This has shrunk to 12 square kilometres as on date. In addition to illegal encroachment, Hokersar continues to be used as a garbage dump site by the local population from Hajibagh to Soibugh and from the areas around HMT Zainakot. Mounds of waste can be seen scattered around this wetland.

NGTs April 2019 Order  

NGT, in its April 2019 order, had directed for the constitution of a joint committee of J&K Pollution Control Board (PCB), Wildlife Department and Deputy Commissioners of Budgam, Bandipora and Pulwama to look into the illegal encroachments and dumping of municipal solid waste in Wullar, Hokersar and Kreentchu Chandhara wetlands in Pampore.

The NGT’s three member Principal bench headed by Justice A K Goel issued a notice after this author moved a petition through my counsel Advocate Rahul Chowdhary who prayed before the NGT that authorities be commanded to stop illegal encroachment and unscientific waste dumping these wetlands.

Advocate Rahul Chowdhary argued before the three member NGT bench that some municipal authorities, local residents and Government institutions were dumping municipal solid waste in Wullar and Hokersar wetlands respectively. In addition, a full bench of NGT was apprised that Kreenchu Chandhara wetland in Pampore was being earth filled at many places on National Highway at Gallander (NH 44) where an irrigation canal was converted into a road.

The Municipal Committee Bandipora had been dumping municipal solid waste in Wullar lake at Nussu Zalwan area for many years. The Wullar Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA) was a mute spectator to this illegal activity in-spite of providing 1.30 crore rupees to the municipality for scientific waste disposal several years back.

Solid waste was being lifted from HMT and Parimpora Fruit Mandi and dumped into Hokersar around Haji Bagh area on Soibugh road in Budgam.

In this regard, NGT’s principal bench sought a report from PCB, Wildlife department and Deputy Commissioners of Budgam.

NGT’s August 2020 order 

After more than a year, yet another order was passed by NGT to utilize the money available under Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM-G) to undertake waste management in rural areas of Budgam which are located around Hokersar.

The NGT had directed Divisional Commissioner Kashmir to consider these suggestions regarding utilisation of funds available under Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM-Gramin) so that solid waste management could be taken up in Kashmir’s wetlands on a regular basis. NGT’s principal bench’s order dated 27th August 2020 further stated that suggestions be duly considered and acted upon to the extent found viable.

However, even as there are enough funds available under Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin (SBM G) for waste management under ODF-Plus programme, the money is not being utilized.

The information provided under RTI Act 2005 by District Panchayat Officer Budgam last year, revealed that not a single penny was utilised in Budgam district on Rural Waste management while the Government of India had provided more than 100 Crores to the Directorate of Rural Sanitation which is the nodal agency under SBM Gramin in J&K.

NGT’s August 27th 2020 order reads:

“Let further action be taken by the joint Committee headed by the Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir. The above suggestions be duly considered and acted upon, to the extent found viable. We also direct that the National Wetlands Committee may compile data of status of compliance of environmental norms in respect of all significant wetlands in the country to ensure remedial action. The State PCBs/PCCs and State/UT Wetland Authorities in India may give the status of management of wetlands in their respective States to the Secretary, MoEF&CC within three months. On that basis a joint Committee of the Secretary and Chairman CPCB may give a consolidated report to this Tribunal before the next date by e-mail at [email protected] preferably in the form of searchable PDF/ OCR Support PDF and not in the form of Image PDF”

Again, the Government, especially District Administration Budgam failed to utilize these funds in Soibug block where several villages dump their waste near Hokersar wetland area.

Personal Appearance of CS 

Taking non-compliance of NGT’s order seriously, the tribunal in July 2021 directed the Chief Secretary to appear personally before the Tribunal at the next date of hearing. On Nov 28th 2021, the Chief Secretary J&K, Dr A  K Mehta appeared before the NGT Panel. The tribunal directed the Chief Secretary to consider my suggestion that local preachers, NGOs, theatre groups and religious leaders be involved in creating awareness on the conservation of wetlands.

Advocate Saurabh Sharma who had appeared on my behalf told the NGT that the Government of J&K had not acted upon the previous orders and advisories of the tribunal, as only paperwork was being done while wetlands like Wullar, Hokersar, in particular, were being encroached and polluted by solid/liquid waste dumping.

During the hearing, several suggestions were put forward before the NGT principal bench by my counsel Saurabh Sharma which included the holding of monthly meetings on Waste Management in Wetland areas by Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir Wildlife Department, Mission Director SBM Gramin (Rural Sanitation Deptt) J&K and Director ULB (Urban Local Bodies). It was also suggested that Chairpersons of District Development Councils (DDCs) Budgam, Bandipora & Pulwama and Principal Secretary Rural Development J&K Govt be taken on board while executing Solid and Liquid Waste Management Programmes in Wetland villages/areas.

“As regards the suggestions of the applicant, the same may be duly considered by the Chief Secretary, J&K, to the extent not already considered,” the bench said.

The Pledge

Amid the growing flak, Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, Pandurang K Pole wrote on a Pledge Wall to save and protect Hokersar wetland: “Wetlands not wasteland, wetlands are natural wealth lands.”

Kashmir has a chain of wetlands supporting vast biodiversity most of which circumvent Srinagar and Budgam with huge potential of tourism and employment generation, said Pole while visiting Hokersar wetland on the occasion of World Wetlands Day celebrated by the Department of Wildlife Protection, J&K.

Besides Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, the Pledge Wall was signed by Regional Wildlife Warden Kashmir and Officers of Deptt of Wildlife Protection, president, NPWWF, NGO and Wetland Mitras and civil society members.

Div Com underlined the responsibility of people for the protection of wetlands and said that encroachments shall be dealt with strict action. “Wetlands are biological hot spots and play pivotal roles in the conservation of nature. Our wetlands attract aves from Siberia and other cold places which presents beautiful views for bird lovers,” Pole said.

The Government has prepared a detailed plan to promote wetlands including Wular, Hokersar, Hygam, Shalbugh and other places, he said. Meanwhile, he appealed to people residing on the banks of wetlands not to treat wetlands as wastelands but get involved in protection of these natural resources. Instead, he asked them to create watch towers which would attract tourists and generate income for them.

Pole informed that Hokersar wetland used to have low water level but efforts have been made to increase the water level and further added that Irrigation and Flood Control Department will raise the water level which would be instrumental to attract more birds as well as tourists. “The Wildlife Department is creating awareness and training the people residing around wetlands to create legally permissible tourism infrastructure of watch towers on their own land to earn livelihood,” he said.

A signature campaign to save and protect Hokersar Wetland Conservation Reserve was inaugurated by the Chief Guest by signing on the Pledge Wall. Rashid Yahya Naqash, Conservator of Forests, Wildlife/Regional Wildlife Warden, Kashmir Region Srinagar even highlighted the importance of the Wetlands in Kashmir valley and their role for the sustenance of the endemic flora and fauna and for the upgradation of the water bodies in Kashmir region.

Conclusion 

But despite the pledge and the personal appearance of the Chief Secretary and multiple assurances given to NGT by J&K Government that encroachments would be stopped and waste management programmes will be undertaken by local District Administration, the deliverables from the end of the District Administration Budgam, have been disappointing to say the least.

It was only after the Chief Secretary visited Budgam a few months back and expressed his displeasure over unscientific waste disposal in the town and surrounding area that Deputy Commissioner Budgam ordered the cleaning of all villages.

Ironically, the Rural Development Department, instead of collecting the waste in rural areas, is burying the same under soil and muck. The District Development Council members of Chairpersons have not been taken onboard by the Government to manage waste in rural areas. The District Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin committees are yet to be constituted.

On the previous Sunday, this reporter along with noted NGT Lawyers Ritwick Dutta and Rahul Chowdhary who are the recipients of Right Livelihood Award 2021 visited Hokersar. The wetland continues to be polluted and encroached and no action is being taken to remove the illegal encroachments by administration. The local bird watchers like Reyan Sofi and the group whom we met are feeling suffocated. The Wildlife Department is trying its bit but they need more Government support. Illegal encroachment and earth filling around Abanshah, Haji Bagh and Soibugh continues which too needs immediate action.

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Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow and Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement. Feedback [email protected]

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