by: Nibedita Saha
Bandipora: Rampant pollution and mindless waste dumping in Wular Lake; Asia’s largest freshwater lake, is taking a heavy toll on the production of fish, which in turn is destroying the livelihood of the fishing community living around the lake.
Wular Lake contributes around 60% of the fish production in Jammu and Kashmir. But waste dumping and pollution have resulted in a significant decline in fish production over the past few years and also deteriorated drinking water quality. According to a report by Wular Conservation & Management Authority,
“Fish production in J&K has recorded 20.39 thousand tonnes in 2016-17,”
According to a study published on India Water Portal, “during 2017-2018, the annual fish production from the lake was only 3728 tons”.
Gulam Mohamad Rashid, a resident of Zirmal village near Wular Lake, District Bandipora, said,
“In the last few years production of fishes in the lake has been significantly decreasing due to polluted lake water. I have a family of five-people to feed and the income is falling day by day,”
Rashid is a fisherman, who mostly goes to Bandipur or Sopore market to sell fish. He is completely dependent on the lake for fishing purposes. “Earlier I used to make 400-500 rupees per day, but these days I am not even making 200 rupees every day,” Rashid informed.
SSZee Media visited four villages near Wular Lake including Zirmal, Shalpora, Bangladesh and Sarmali. The community in these villages mostly comes from economically weaker backgrounds. As informed by the people, “There are around 800 houses in these four villages and more than 4,000 people are dependent on Wular Lake for their livelihood.”
As per a report published by the Department of Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing, Government of Jammu & Kashmir, between five to seven thousand fishermen earn their livelihood from the lake. Speaking to SSZee Media, villagers claimed that the main reason behind the significant fall in fish production is due to extreme disposal of solid waste in the lake which mainly comes from the city (Srinagar) via the Jhelum River. Household liquid wastes are also dumped in Jhelum and that water eventually flows into Wular.
Apart from fish, Wular Lake is also a great resource for Nadru ( Lotus stem grown in shallow parts of water bodies) and water chestnuts. Around 30% Nadru yield in the Kashmir valley is provided by the lake, however, the production has declined drastically in the past few years “due to rampant pollution, degrading water quality and encroachments in the Lake.”
The production of water chestnuts has also been affected and has seen a huge decline in the last few years, which was once used to be the major crop for people living near Wular Lake.
Rashid further said,
“If water chestnuts are grown properly, we can make 300 rupees easily per day. Even girls from our community can earn by selling chestnuts in nearby markets as women mostly pick and sell Nadru and Chestnuts,”
Abdul Bhatt, Sarpanch of the four villages spoke to SSZee media and raised concerns over the deteriorating quality of lake water, which has serious implications on the health of villagers. He says,
“Only one well is available for four villages and majorly people drink the lake water after boiling it as we don’t have any other option,”
He further added,
“Even after boiling the water, people have health issues including viral fever, stomach ache and other water related diseases due to massive pollution in the lake,”
Talking to the group of villagers clearly indicated that it is the negligence of the administration. Bhatt said,
“I have tried to reach out to the District Collector of Bandipora and even officials in Srinagar but nothing has been done,”
Bhatt informed us that he has been urging the government to take some initiative to clean the lake water or stop dumping household liquid waste into the river which eventually flows into Wular. Last year, the central government approved a Rs 200 crore project for the conservation of Wular Lake. The Wular Conservation & Management Authority (WUCMA) floated a tender of Rs 148.59 crore to Reach Dredging Limited Company for the desilting of Wular Lake.
However, the villagers claimed that despite many promises and approvals there has been no groundwork nor any kind of work seen to tackle the crisis.
While the waste dumping problem persists, the villagers also face challenges like proper road connectivity. Bhatt told us,
“Every year during monsoon roads are flooded with overflowing water from the lake and villagers have to struggle to commute to nearby towns,”
SSZee Media also observed that no proper road facilities are available in the village and access to clean drinking water remains a major threat to villagers’ health. Bhatt added that the road conditions are so bad that during “medical emergencies like delivery cases, we have lost the mother as we could not reach on time to the hospital.”
From July-October, villagers are left with only one option to commute and that is “kishti” (a small boat) for communication—be it a medical emergency or children going to school. Villagers also informed us that a hospital construction started a few years ago but was never completed. Bhatt added that “The hospital construction stopped four years ago and only a cement structure has been made so far,”
Wular is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, is also a Ramasar site, the degradation of the lake becomes a national interest. Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an RTI activist from Srinagar, filed a petition regarding the “prevention of unscientific dumping of waste and encroachment of Wular Lake, Hokersar Wetland, and Kreentchoo-Chandhara Wetland in Jammu and Kashmir”.
Speaking with SSZee Media Raja Muzaffar Bhat said,
“Unscientific disposal of solid waste in wetlands is the major issue for the people living near that area”.
Raja claimed that the “municipal solid waste is being unloaded and dumped into water-bodies of Kashmir, particularly wetlands and rivers by none other than municipal institutions themselves.” Bhat accused the municipal council Bandipora of corruption and said,
“The district administration did not do anything about treating the waste scientifically rather they misused the money and kept on dumping the waste in wetlands.”
“The Municipal Council of Bandipora in North Kashmir has been dumping waste on the banks of the Wular lake near Zalman village for 15 years. This was also highlighted in my petition before the National Green Tribunal, which sought a report from the government,”
Besides providing livelihood to a huge population, the lake plays a significant role in the water security of Kashmir valley. Also, the total area of the lake has shrunk to 86 sq, nearly half of its original area mainly due to the conversion of agriculture, plantation and encroachment on its shores. In 2020, The Jammu and Kashmir High Court banned construction within 200 meters of the boundaries of Wular Lake.
However, the issues of waste dumping remain unchanged. On July 22, 2021, the Principal Bench of NGT, New Delhi slammed the action taken report (ATR) submitted by the joint Committee of Jammu & Kashmir Pollution Control Board (PCB) on January 1, 2021 over the unscientific dumping of waste and encroachment of Hokersar Wetland, Wular Lake and Kreentchoo-Chandhara Wetland in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir.
NGT has sought action plans from the Union Territory government for each of the wetlands within one month for further action in a time-bound manner. On September 1, 2021, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh directed the state government authorities to furnish an action-taken-report (ATR) as to how 640 canals of Wular Lake have been encroached upon illegally and what action has been taken in this regard.
The court also asked the state government to inform as regards the manner in which Rs. 200 crores, provided for conservation and management of Wular Lake, are to be spent.
“The action-taken-report be submitted within three weeks,” the court said while hearing a Public Interest Litigation—Kashmir Environmental Protection Coordination Organisation, Bandipora through its chairman.
In Kashmir, water bodies are a critical source of livelihood and job opportunities for a large number of populations in the form of fishing, farming, tourism, etc. The draft report of State Environment Policy 2018 revealed that the wetlands area of Wular Lake, Hokersar, in the state had decreased at alarming levels over a period of time due to urbanization, deforestation, siltation, etc. This is important in the light that more than 50 percent of water bodies in Srinagar and its suburbs were lost over a century.
The report also said,
“Unfortunately, our unique wetlands are facing tremendous ecological stress primarily because they are visualized only as a source of water, ignoring their vitality as a holistic biotic system.”
The Himalayan wetlands play an important role in storing and cleaning the water that flows into major rivers like the Indus and acts as a buffer between glacial melt waters and outflows to smaller rivers and streams. Any change to these wetlands will affect flooding and the availability of water for communities living in downstream river basins.