Living on the edge

  • 29/06/2002

They say the eye of the storm is calm. This is what I found when I visited the epicentre of war-tensions in India, the city of Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir. This was a week when foreigners were leaving India, fearing a war, even a nuclear war, between India and Pakistan. But Srinagar was as normal a city as can be. Saifuddin Soz, former Union environment minister, had organised a function to mark the world environment day. And what would have been a prosaic and jaded meet in Delhi was a fascinating experience in this city of conflict.

The meeting was well attended. Amazingly people were keen to do something to improve their environment. Living with death at their doorstep, people carried a deep desire to do better. They wanted development. They wanted change.

My talk about the need to integrate environmental issues into development struck me as absolutely ridiculous. Imagine talking about the importance of environment in a region where life, economy and indeed survival, depends on natural resources. Environment is this Himalayan state's biggest asset and its only development option.

Take forests. Today, between the terrorist gun and corruption, forests are being raped and decimated. Instead the future would be to build a forest-based economy in which local communities can harvest wood on a sustainable basis. Peace will be essential for this development. But not it's only prerequisite. It will demand changes in the way we conduct the business of governance. Kashmir chief minister will have to become the chief environment officer and the officials, environment managers and not environment exploiters.

Then, there is the fruit and speciality products economy. Today wild mushrooms, harvested by local people who get a pittance, are sold at the price of gold in Delhi. Saffron, from the crocus flower, is cultivated with poor irrigation facilities. Because of its unavailability and high price it is losing markets and a cheaper - but less aromatic - Spanish product is finding its way into our food. The state does not lack water resources. But, what it does lack is the mindset and policy to protect its numerous freshwater lakes from encroachment and pollution.

Tourism is, of course, recognised as an important cash cow. It is depressed today because of insurgency, but what must be realised, and fast, is that tourism here is totally dependant on the state of its environment. The Dal lake is a prime example. If the lake dies, so will the revenue from tourism.

This jewel of the valley has officially shrunk from 75 sq km in 1200 ad to under 15 sq km in the early 1980s, when a detailed survey was done. But researchers claim that the lake is less than 10 sq km today, and without urgent steps, could well become a small hole in the ground. City garbage and sewage drains into this breathtaking beauty. A sewage treatment plant was commissioned but does not work.

What complicates matters is that the lake is not a mere body of water. It is also people's habitat. Over 30,000 people reside on the lake. And I do mean reside. There are "roads", shopping "streets", telecommunication facilities and of course, houses and agriculture. Bulk of Srinagar's fresh vegetables supply comes from this "farmed" water body as families eke out their subsistence by farming lotus, using floating gardens and now, extending permanent gardens into the lake area. At 6 am when I visited the lake, its swarming vegetable market was an amazing sight. Shikaras (boats) full of vegetables, were jostling for space, haggling for sale.

These poor farmers share space with another interest group. Over 750 tourist houseboats on the lake are desperately seeking tourists. Trade is more or less dead. These boats also contribute to sewage load. But the owners now want the Dal to be saved. They know that tourists will come if there is peace. And natural beauty for them to see.

The houseboat sees the farmer as a problem. The first instalment of the Central government's scheme to protect Dal has made it to the state. But little has trickled down to the lake. The usual "resettlement" charade has been played. People have been given notices to move. Some money has been promised. A little has even been disbursed. My shikarawala told me that the money has been used by people, not to move, but to extend their houses in the lake.

It is true that the Dal is dying today because of the extraordinary ingenuity of its hapless people who are turning the lake into a floating agricultural field. But is the only option to move them out? My guide to this lesson in lake ecology heads the organisation, hope , which is working against all odds to keep the lake clean, by sending boats to collect garbage from houseboats. He believed this was a futile effort. "It is like taking fish out of water". True.

There is now a case in the Supreme Court on protecting Dal. But resolution will demand new approaches that see people as the custodians of the lake. Today, the embattled poor are forced into a situation where they are destroying the very source of their survival. Can the tourism income be used to maintain their unique lifestyle, but also in a way that makes them limit expansion of land into the lake? Clearly farmers need a vested interest in keeping the lake alive.

Government will argue that without peace no development is possible. But what I saw in Srinagar made it clear that without development, no peace is possible. There is one thing that we all Indians have in common - an indifferent and corrupt administration. This must change. Fast.

- Sunita Narain

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