Author: Saadut
•11:39 AM

The paradisiacal beauty of Kashmir has been attracting travelers, tourists across centuries and  of the main attractions of Kashmir, its water bodies have stood out for their charm. The Dal and Nigeen (twin lakes of Srinagar) were described by Sir Walter Lawrence as ‘Lake Par Excellence’ being the jewels in the crown of the Kashmir. Dal and Nigeen lakes had always had their fair share of the tourism economy of the valley, also being used for navigational and water channeling proposes. The sparkling waters, huge expanses of the lake and the canopied shikaras travelling in the lake would mesmerize any body. Once these lakes were main attraction of tourists and film makers, but now they are being quietly buried by human greed, state indifference and bureaucratic corruption. Beatles guitarist George Harrison and Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar once created music on these shores. British actor Michael Palin, actress Joan Fontaine and former United States Vice President Nelson A Rockefeller all spend their holidays by the waters of this lake. But now the lakes are losing out against human invasion and could soon become legends of the past. 

Some geologists believe the origins of Dal & Nigeen Lakes lie in the Pleistocene Oligotrophic Lake that once covered the whole Kashmir valley. The open area of Dal Lake was reported to have been 75sqkm in 1200AD. While driving around the boulevard road that runs along one side of the lake, the front waters with picturesque houseboats seem just frame perfect, but there is a major part of the lake hidden being these house boats, a picture uglier than any. Dal Lake is dying a human driven death, with rampant encroachments, massive pollution and the waste disposal of almost all habitations in and around the lakes coming directly into these lakes. Adding to the woes is the blockage of fresh water inlets to the lake and the natural springs that once fed the lake.

The lake having shrunk from 25 sq kms to 10.56 sq km, its depth having decreased by four meters, has seen imminent death staring it while the state and concerned departments have shown continued apathy. Thousands of tones of sewage spew directly into the lake, resulting in excessively high levels of toxic metals and choking the lake, its aquatic life of oxygen and accelerating its demise. Water samples from the lake have shown arsenic levels almost 1,000 times above permissible levels.
Once described as "the most beautiful lake in India" and a must see tourist destination in Asia, the Dal lake now figures among the 100 most polluted lakes in the world. 

Who is responsible? 

Encroachments, pollution, nepotism & corruption all have contributed to the present crisis in the lake. According to the reports at least 3350 encroachments were recorded in Dal Lake just during 1991-1993, since then the number of encroachments has increased manifold. These encroachers are not only refilling the lake for converting into massive farming tracts, but huge residential and hotel constructions have come up on encroached water converted into land mass within and around the lake. In many cases automobile workshops and machine shops have come up on encroached and refilled lake, disposing their refuse and hazardous waste directly into the lakes. While all these years small habitations within the lake grew and encroachments intensified, the state looked the other way. A full fledged authority ‘Lakes & Waterways Development Authority’ was formed by the state government to rescue these lakes from extinction. Instead of making substantial progress in saving the lakes the authority has been continuously accused of misappropriation of Lake funds and massive corruption. On September 9, 2000, state vigilance registered a case (33/2000-VOK) against sixteen officials including a director of LAWDA. Registration of more cases followed against many other LAWDA officials over the years but all these had no impact in stopping the accelerating decay of the lake. Lack of any punishment or conviction by the state against the accused has ensured that the allegations of negligence, nepotism and massive corruption continue against the Lake development Authority while the condition of the Dal & Nigeen lakes is getting from bad to worse. 

Concerned by the pathetic condition of the lake in 2003 public internet litigation was filed in the state High Court by a law student. This public internet litigation ensured that many land mark decisions were passed by the Honorable Court for restoration of the lakes. The court directions instructed the state on removing encroachments, removing illegal trees planted to reclaim lake, directing establishment of proper sewage treatment plants, de-weeding and cleaning of the lake among many other decisions. After the many follow-ups by the honorable court and court directives in the past few years, LAWDA felled almost 400,000 trees within the lake because environmentalists believed they were constricting Dal waters. But since last year thousands of more trees have been planted by the encroachers and the trunks left from the old trees have grown since again, bringing all these halfhearted restoration efforts and exercise to a naught.

The state drafted plans to spend nearly $80 million of central funds for relocation of 58 habitations with 65,000 people within and around the lake. 5000 families were planned to be moved to 7600 kanals of land at Rakh-e Arath, Bemina in Srinagar some years back. Even though deadlines after deadlines have passed, this relocation of settlers from the lake to Rakh-e-Arth has not started yet and keeping in view the track record of the lake conservation authority LAWDA, it is unlikely to start any time soon. Meanwhile encroachers ignoring court directions have started replanting trees, refilling large areas of the water body and are busy constructing within and around the lake, the conservation authority having become an alibi in their crime.  The ineffectiveness of the LAWDA and encouragement given to criminal elements and encroachers has now ensured that all such criminal acts are performed openly during day light, all legislation and law enforcement conveniently forgotten and ignored. Even though the state government banned construction in and around the lake as early as 1978-79, encroachments on the lake continued unabated and the speed of these constructions is faster than anywhere else.

In its report (May 2007) the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) criticized LAWDA on its lake conservation methods and sewage treatment projects.. CAG of India pulled up the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) for going ahead with the construction of these inefficient Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) around the periphery of Dal Lake despite central government's serious reservations about these and also pointed out that the Lake has been used as a receptacle for large quantities of waste water and untreated human wastes from the adjoining areas by the countless sewage and waste drains emptying directly into the lake : in simple lexicon ‘a massive sewage dump’. Did the LAWDA take a cue from such observations? Certainly not, the present condition speaks volumes about their ‘give a damn attitude’. What everybody in Kashmir can notice happening inside and around the lake in terms of illegal constructions and encroachments right during day time, the government prefers to turn a blind eye. For what consideration is the state mum? 

The huge influx of nutrients with human and household sewage invading the lake has resulted in massive growth of unwanted and floating weeds that have engulfed the lake no end. The latest Truxor Machines procured at a cost of 32.5 million rupees from Switzterland, have been rendered virtually non-operational and the LAWDA has seemingly no answers for this debacle, watching as a mute spectator. Add to this the use of chemical fertilizers by lake vegetable growers who have extended their floating vegetable gardens within the lake, the fertilizer residue getting washed away into the lake thus contaminating the lake to epidemic proportions. The lake waters that were once so pure and clean that dwellers would drink directly from it now contain liberal portions of deadly elements such as arsenic, cadmium, manganese, copper, lead, nickel. The water of the lake thus becoming extremely contaminated, aquatic life of the lake has been affected with ever dwindling numbers of fish in the lake while some important species have either declined or completely disappeared. 

Another angle to the decay of the lake is the problem of siltation, which according to reports Dal receives 80,000 tonnes of flow annually. The red algae bloom in the lake which was first noticed in 1993 is as a result. Since then the obnoxious algae and weeds have taken over the remaining lake.

Overwhelming growth of obnoxious weeds and Azolla, a deadly water fern which if left unattended has the potential to kill the water bodies

Accelerating the demise

The real faces of Dal & Nigeen are not the ornate house boats that line up the front of the lake channels, nor the idyllic shikaras that wade through the limited front waters of the lake. The reality is hidden at the backside of these house boats, in the crammed interiors of the lake, in the expanding expanses of the refilled land tracts. And even within these front lined house boats the rising obnoxious smell from the lake and the pollute wading around these once picture prefect tourist attractions has already threatened their economic sustenance and survival. Numerous appeals made to the state, politicians and bureaucrats via newspapers and social media has not been able to wake them up. Seems the state government has made up its mind in private to let the water bodies die while conservation authorities and lake encroachers split the spoils to this tragedy between them. The Chief Minister who is active on twitter has been frequently reminded of the pathetic condition of the lakes, even informing him of the open encroachments happening in the lake with place and date details: unfortunately none of these have evoked any response from him or the state. What could be the reason for this silence and inaction?

The land is invading this lake faster than we can comprehend, the habitations are extended into the very interior of the lake and we may soon seen the two ends of the illegal habitations meet up in the middle of the lake, leaving no space for any water body in between. These jewels of Kashmir are dying due to state apathy and greed of a few individuals. According to experts the lake may completely die within 30 years and till then the stink of this decay will fill the once pure and refreshing air of Kashmir making it pungent and foul.
Very soon the water bodies will be extinct and nature’s bounties will have fallen to human greed. Billions of rupees have been siphoned off in the name of saving the lakes efforts but fact remains that the lakes are running faster than before towards a human driven destruction.

 Will our posterity ever believe that such jewels of nature existed?

May 09, 2011)  

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