An Off-Road Debate

In the last few years, sections within the younger lot take their super-duper vehicles on tracks in the fragile ecological space of Kashmir and it has triggered a fierce debate, reports Firdous Parray

Two 4 x 4 vehicles deep inside mountains.

Kashmir Off-Road, Kashmir’s first-ever car racing club, was founded by Ali Sajid and Farah Zaidi in 2017. The objective was to bring together adventure seekers to explore Kashmir in a unique way and to promote motorsport.

In the last four years, the club organized a number of motor-sport, off-road competition events and overland expeditions in Kashmir. They have also organized Motor-sport events like Frozen Rush, India’s first snow off-road competition and Mudzilla, an extreme 4×4 competition event.

“Our overland adventure travel division has explored and promoted some unique and unexplored tourist destinations in Kashmir,” Ali Sajad said. “Our annual Gurez Overland Expedition, which we have been conducting since 2017, has put this destination on the adventure travel tourist destinations of Kashmir, with tourists coming from all over India. These activities create opportunity and employment for locals.”

But the initiative has triggered an adverse response. Jauhar Rafeeq, a PhD scholar at the Faculty of Forestry in SKUAST Kashmir, wrote detailed write-ups detailing how the off-roading events are a “threat to forest ecosystem”. “Increasing activities of off-Roading in Kashmir forests”, especially during the past several lockdowns, Rafeeq wrote in various Srinagar newspapers is causing “serious ill effects on forest ecosystems” and an increase in such activities affects “not just the flora but fauna as well”. Such activities have resulted in “deterioration of soil, damage to vegetation, habitat degradation, more pollution, habitat disturbances and ultimately [such activities will] pose a serious threat to the wildlife of the region”.

Noise pollution caused by driving these heavy vehicles, playing music and honking has an adverse effect on the animals and birds living in these habitats, he insisted

= Irfan Jeelani, a bird watcher and founder of the Birds of Kashmir group, has an opinion not different from Rafeeq. “Meadows act as important feeding and breeding grounds for a number of bird species and when these vehicles traverse these otherwise silent habitats, it disturbs the birds and sometimes when there is too much noise, birds are forced to leave the place,” Jeelani said.

On July 23, 2021, Hyper Kashmir Adventures and Holidays shared a video clip on their Facebook page captioned “Shopian Mughal road Dubjan off-road expedition” showing motor cars in a meadow but strongly reacted to it.

“Recreational Off-road vehicles are a serious threat to jungle ecosystems,” Jawad Nasir, a social media user reacted on his call. “It causes land degradation, soil toxicity, destruction of root systems, and accelerates the loss of rare species.”  Condemning such an adventurer activity, he labelled it as a “money-making module”. “It disturbs wildlife and pollutes the air. Bringing heavy machines into virgin lands, especially if it is done as a money-making module, is condemnable. This is never a good trend to follow. This needs serious public activism against these activities before it is late.”

When the off-road participants shared some of their photographs on social media, it triggered a chain reaction on June 29, 2021.  “How can a vehicle be allowed to be on such lands? Destruction of meadows and mountains by these rallies goes unabated. The government is silent and so is civil society,” one social media user reacted.  “I think you off-roaders should be booked under the law for ruining the beautiful nature,” Tweeted another.

But off-roading is a trend that lot many people are desperate to enjoy. This essentially is a game for the affluent.  People who love the game wish to see off-roading thrive, but within the boundaries of environmental ethics, legal rulings and keeping in mind the different laws governing the fragile ecology of Kashmir.

Nadeem Qadri, an environmental lawyer, is of the opinion that “there are many routes that can be used for off-roading activities for meadows are not meant for it. It is both unethical as well as against the basic fundamentals of conservation”.

“Off-roading activities should not be carried out in forests keeping in view their negative impacts on forest ecosystems”, said Jauhar Rafeeq.

Apart from the higher levels of pollution like noise and air pollution, the damage to grass cover resulting in disturbance of soil compositions and density are major concerns. The vegetation damage, as a result, is a serious issue and should certainly raise eyeballs. The trend is impacting the fragile ecosystem at microscopic levels.

People who are against the idea of permitting vehicles deep into forests say that the forests are protected to the extent that nobody can extract timber unless it is diseased or fallen material. “IF this is the status of protection, how can dozens of cars race against each other to get deep into the woods,” an environmental science student said. “Race on roads, oceans and deserts is plausible but forests, I doubt.”

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