It was never easy being an environmental warrior, but it’s even harder now in the Kashmir Valley. Its population is already scared and cynical, and security personnel swarm the place.
Jalal Ud Din Baba has been fighting to save Wular lake, once Asia’s largest freshwater lake but today little more than a big pond. It once occupied an area of 272 sq. km but has since shrunk to 72 sq. km, with only 24 sq. km of open water left.
It’s hard to believe the lake is also only 15 feet deep, especially when you stand at its edge and behold the Pir Panjal mountains in the distance. But it’s the painful price heavy siltation as a result of deforestation and unrestricted dumping of effluents and human excreta.
Baba isn’t afraid of the challenges this state of affairs poses. “I grew up on the banks of the Wular lake in the city of Sopore,” he told The Wire. “My forefathers used to catch fish and harvest water chestnuts in the months of September and October, but all that has changed.”
Industrial and residential effluents from the cities that discharge into the lake aren’t the only reasons Wular’s water has deteriorated. “To make matters worse, the spread of the invasive alligator weed is slowly destroying the beneficial vegetation growing in the lake, with biologists warning that if this is not controlled, it can spread over the entire lake,” Baba said.
Baba was recently in New Delhi to receive the Earth Hero Award from the Royal Bank of Scotland for his contributions to protect India’s natural heritage.
Two decades ago, he reached out to the people around the lake and convinced them to stop dumping waste into the water, including detergents and other. “There are 42 villages with over nine lakh people living there, and convincing them was not an easy task,” he said.
Since Kashmir is a conflict zone, anything Baba wanted to do first required him to secure permissions from the army, the navy, the Central Reserve Police Force and the local police, as well as from the Water Conservation and Management Authority set up in 2012 to clean up the lake.
The navy is involved because its species forces unit – the Marine Commandos – guards the lake, to fight in the event of a terrorist attack. In fact, Wular is the only lake in India to be guarded by the national navy.
But while the lake may be safe from physical threats, its security detail has hampered rehabilitative operations. “I had to personally reach out to villagers, who obviously understood what I was saying because they are the first to be affected. The polluted water has seen a rise of cancer cases amongst villagers living on the banks,” he claimed. “The fishing population has also declined sharply, thereby affecting the livelihood of hundreds of farmers.”
Baba was persistent, and was able to inspire several villagers to clean the lake of weeds and plastic waste. One of them was Bilal Ahmed Dar, a young man who lived along the lakeshore who had lost his father to cancer when he was 13. Dar dropped out of school and spent all his time collecting trash and garbage from the lake, which he would sell for Rs 150-200 per day to support his mother and sisters.
With the rise of the social media, Baba starting producing short videos and other visual documentary materials on cleaning the Wular lake. One of them was a film centred on Dar and his relationship with the lake. Called ‘Saving the Saviour’, the film has been shown across Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir. Once he became more popular, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation appointed Dar their brand ambassador.
Other shows by Baba are scheduled to be broadcast by the National Geographic channel.
But none of this appreciation has eased his fight. Securing permissions from various security groups continues to be a daunting task.
“There has been so much encroachment along the banks of this lake – with the maximum encroachment having taken place along the Bandipora stretch,” Baba said. “I was keen to find out the extent because although the government had set up a Joint Action Committee under the supervision of the Wular Conservation and Management Authority, little work has been done on the ground.”
He’d suggested using a drone to photograph different parts of the lake in different directions to “get a clear idea about the extent of our problem”. Army and navy officials turned him down citing security risks.
Baba also strongly objected to hundreds of Ikhwan that have been allowed to illegally occupy large tracts of land around the lake, where they have built large houses, established apple plantations and rice fields – almost as if the lake wasn’t a high-security zone. “No one is willing to take any action against them.”
The Government of India has developed an elaborate plan to build a barrage on the Jhelum river, at the mouth of the Wular near Sopore, arguing that it will improve river navigation in the valley. However, Pakistan has protested the plan because such a structure would violate the Indus Water Treaty of 1960 and to deny India a strategic advantage.
The Wular lake is crucial to maintaining the valley’s water ecology because the lake acts like a sponge for four rivers and three other lakes in the region. But while he continues to raise awareness and work with the people around the lake and local officials, he remains concerned that if the state government and Centre don’t act fast, the lake will be all but lost within a decade.
Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.