It is called ‘Srinagar’s jewel’ or ‘jewel in the crown of Kashmir’ — the Dal Lake, immortalised by literature as much as by countless popular movies and tourist chronicles. Sadly, today it has become a victim of political, social and economic neglect. Over the last thirty years, the lake has been deteriorating at a rapid rate.
According to a reply submitted by the state government to the J&K High Court on September 18, Rs 759 crores of rupees have been spent on the lake since the year 2002, but the plight of the lake continues to become poorer by the day.
The Court too observed that “crores have been spent so far, but nothing has happened on the ground,” adding “immediate measures were necessary before the situation was rendered hopeless.”
A number of restoration plans by national and international agencies documented over decades — the Srinagar Master Plan of 1971, Lake Area Master Plan by Stein (1972), Enex consortium Report (1978), Dal Lake Development report by Riddle (1985), ODA (1989), Project report under NCLP (1997) and Project Report of AHEC Roorkee (2000) — have been toyed with, but there has been little improvement in the lake environment.
Recently the J&K High Court has constituted a three-member High Level Committee to suggest measures for saving the iconic Lake of Kashmir and the report is most likely to be submitted by the end of November before court.
Conservation efforts: 1997 – the present
The erstwhile Union Ministry of Environment and Forests launched the ‘Save Dal Project’ with a huge allocation of Rs.500 crore to clean the lake.
In January of the year, Rs 5 lakh was released to the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) of Jammu and Kashmir for preparation of a pre-feasibility report on the pollution of water bodies in Kashmir. The proposal made was returned to the state government for their comments in June 1998, as it was found unsustainable in view of the high cost of operation and maintenance.
On July 24th, ‘Green Kashmir,’ a Srinagar-based NGO and Syed Mujtaba Hussain, a human rights lawyer, filed a written petition to the Supreme Court of India against the Government of India, the state of Jammu and Kashmir, the J&K Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (JK-LAWDA), the state pollution control Board (JK-PCB), the urban environmental engineering department and the Ministry of Urban Development, Srinagar. The petition sought intervention to save the Dal lake that had turned into a ‘reservoir of sewage, wastes and effluents.’
That same year, on September 11th, the Supreme Court issued a show cause notice to all the respondents and asked them to specify their respective roles in controlling the flow of pollutants in the lake.
A petition was filed over the expenditure sheet submitted by the JK-LAWDA on account of expenses used for the improvement of the lake. In the same year, the Supreme Court directed the Central and State government and other concerned authorities to file their responses within four weeks to the public interest litigation seeking environmental protection for Dal.
Later in 2001 again, the Supreme Court referred the case to the High Court of Kashmir for further analysis.
Syed Iqbal Tahir Geelani wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of the High Court against the construction around the Dal Lake. The petitioner wrote that the constructions violated the Srinagar Master Plan, 1971. This was later converted to a PIL and tagged to the PIL filed in 2000.
In July 2002, first detailed direction was given by the High court bench to clean the Dal.
A stricture was filed against the LAWDA and SMC for misleading the Court. A three- member committee, headed by District and Session judge Abdul Wahid and co-opted by three officials, visited Dal Lake on October 5th, October 10th and October 15th for the inspection.
The report indicated that many illegal constructions had been raised within 200 metres of its peripheral area. The report further said that the LAWDA vice-chairperson was conscious of illegal constructions raised within lake and its periphery, but pleaded helplessness.
In the same year, the court directed the commissioner to present before it the particulars of all people who have raised structures in the lake and within 200 metres of the same. The High court directed that if a person raises construction after demolition, he should be arrested.
The court also directed houseboat owners to realign the houseboats in a geometric form.
In 2005 itself, the Centre approved Rs.237.7 crore to conserve the Dal. The court directed the Registrar (Judicial) to open a Dal Conservation Fund, which would be opened to the public for contributions to save the water bodies in Kashmir
The High Court directed LAWDA to resume demolition around the Dal Lake and file a status report on the illegal structures from Dal Gate to Mughal Gardens in Srinagar.
In the same year over 300 hotels, restaurants, government offices and residential complexes were put on demolition notice by the LAWDA, following court’s directions.
Justice Bashir Ahmad Khan ordered the demolition of all constructions within a strip of 130 feet from the centre of the road.
In the same year the state pollution control board (JK- PCB) initiated prosecution against the famous Hotel Grand Palace and Urban Environmental Engineering Department for raising unauthorized structures around Dal Lake.
In November of the same year, the Registrar (judicial) in his report revealed that water bodies had not been cleansed of polythene bags. The report further indicated that no illegal structure had been demolished during the preceding two years. Construction material had been freely allowed into the area, which stood partly utilized in the construction of fresh structures.
The dredgers and weed harvesters were found to be non-functional. No scheme for treatment of sewage from house boats had been devised. In response to the report, the court directed the Vice Chairman LAWDA to report on improvements.
On December 5th, the court monitoring committee was asked to conduct another inspection of the area in and around Dal Lake. The committee questioned the discrepancy between the reports produced by the PCB and LAWDA on the Sewerage Treatment Plants (STPs) installed at Grand Palace and Centaur Hotel in Srinagar.
The PCB submitted a report that showed high levels of lead, arsenic, iron, manganese, copper and cadmium present in Dal Lake, affecting the aquatic life in the lake. The report also said that the houseboat lavatories had polluted the lake badly. Following this, courts directed 1200 houseboat to shutdown or take steps to minimize the pollution.
Around the same year, the Houseboat Owners’ Association demanded identification and demarcation of territorial limits of Dal and the Nigeen Lake. In the backdrop of this, the Ministry of Environment and Forests released the first installment under the National Lake Conservation Programme to conserve wetlands of Kashmir.
A sum of Rs 298 crore was released, to be spent towards development of sewerage system, removal of encroachment, hydraulic works, cleaning of channels, solid waste management and conservation works in the catchment area of Dal Lake.
In May 2009, Jammu and Kashmir banned further registration of houseboats.
The High Court imposed a ban on any illegal structure raised in and around Dal.
The High court also set up a committee to prepare a well-defined report on the overall situation of the Dal Lake.
LAWDA was directed to plug all open drains and upgrade STPs. The Authority had submitted before court that the department was already working on upgrading and construction of new STPs, but to this date no such effort has been visible on the ground.
The court-appointed vigilance commissioners were asked to file their reports with respect to the lake. In their various reports, they have continuously informed the judiciary that illegal constructions have been continuing in and around the lake.
The court directed a water quality assessment of the lake to be undertaken and also called for uprooting lily pads.
The court, yet again, called for immediate measures for saving the lake and observed that otherwise the lake’s restoration was ‘hopeless’.
Projects that failed Dal
Unchecked encroachments through human interventions, and inefficient sewage treatment plants (STPs) played a huge role in the deterioration of the lake, as the above timeline shows. But experts also refer to several infrastructure projects that have been detrimental to the health of the lake.
Take for example, the construction of Western Foreshore Road. According to Professor Shakeel Rhomsoo, the head of the Earth Sciences Department at the University of Kashmir and an expert on Dal Lake, this project was a disaster, as tons of filling material choked vital water channels which acted as arteries of the lake.
Not only this, but the construction of macadamized pathways and link roads further killed the ecosystem of the lake.
Other factors frequently alluded to, at various times, as contributing factors towards the slow death of the lake include:
- Unscientific disposal of mud excavated from the lake’s bed by dredging
- Harvesting of weeds by machine harvesters
- Machine driven shutter type outflow gates at Dalgate and Nallah Amir Khan
- Live drains and gravity mains on the periphery of Dal Lake
- Absence of any Solid Waste Management plan
- Non implementation of recommendations of Vision report
- Introduction of imported Azolla (Mosquito Fern)
- Unscientific removal of lily pads and tubers
Rhomsoo says we need to identify loopholes and act upon issues which the Dal is facing; otherwise twenty years hence, Dal will be a sewerage reservoir.
Scant progress despite legal orders
In October 2017, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti visited the interiors of the lake and expressed concern over the rising pollution level. Two committees were set up to conserve the lake: a scientific-advisory committee and a monitoring committee. Their recommendations have already been submitted but nothing has been done so far, says Rhomsoo, who is a member of the scientific advisory committee.
He says, “The suggestions included upgrading STPs, augmentation of artificial wetlands, and assessment of pesticides, water-quality analysis, vegetation mapping, de-weeding and uprooting of lily pads but things are in slow progress.”
While Dal has always caught the public eye, the reality is that Kashmir’s other major lakes such as Anchar, Wular, Gilsar, Khushalsar and Nageen are also in pitiable condition, owing to unchecked pollution and encroachment. The restoration of Dal Lake is particularly important for it holds the key to their future as well.
Also read: “The Dal is dying, and so are we”