As the Kashmir periphery is witnessing a literal mass conversion of rice fields into apple orchards, the changes manifesting itself by serious ecological tensions which could have long-term consequences reports Javid Sofi
Kangan Marg was a sprawling paddy field spread over around 1000 kanals of land till 2003. Located on the outskirts of Pulwama town, this erstwhile rice field is now an unending jungle of apple orchards. The conversion was the outcome of the temptation of high returns on cash crops. As the early apple growers took fortunes of horticulture home, others were lured to follow.
A few farmers were happy in doing what they had inherited. Ghulam Mohammad Dar, 56, and a dozen other farmers including Abdul Gani, Khursheed Ahmad, G.M Malik and Bilal Ahmad resisted initially.
After partial conversion of Baed Koal (big stream), a tributary of Romshi rivulet, which was irrigating the Kangan Marg, these fields faced a catastrophe of this transition. Dar said that the irrigation stream lost its prime importance because apple growers became least dependant on it. The orchards raised on Aabi Awal requires an occasional supply of water, a need sufficed even by routine rainfall.
With irrigation not required unlike rice, farmers gradually shunned Koal-e-Waan of this stream, a perennial de-silting that has been happening for ages on a voluntary basis. The lack of look-after did away with watch and ward rendering these vital water bodies vulnerable to encroachment.
The situation is now worse. This 70 feet wide stream and its offshoots were squeezed by encroachment to that extent that it became difficult for Dar and other diehards to get uninterrupted water supply for their paddy fields.
The aggrieved farmers sought action against encroachers. Through a series of representation before authorities of irrigation and revenue department, they expressed their desperation for having water but to no avail. Eventually, these farmers were left with only one option: to go for changing the use of their land. So, the Kangan Marg was reborn as a huge orchard. This led to the literal extinction ofBaed-Koal as all the apple growers took their own pie and annexed with their orchards.
But Kangan Marg is not the only such instance. Pulwama that was one of the key rice bowls in south Kashmir, villages ofGudoora, Inder, Uricherso, Gundipora, Hassanwani, Hakripora, Newa, Ashmander, Monghama, Chewakalan, Wahibugh, Gusoo, Rahmoo, Fresipora, Phaligam, Zagigam, Shangharpora, Akhaal, Balov, Rajpora, Tikuna, Thamuna, Babhara, Tahab, Trichal and Naira,all have similar stories of land conversions. Almost 90 percent of the rice fields in these areas are already apple forests.
“The change in land usage pattern in Aabi Awal had a deep impact on water bodies”, said Mushtaq Ahmad, a junior scientist in SKUAST, “The huge conversion from paddy to apple cultivation caused depletion in water table which is one of the big factors for drying up of many springs in the area.”Besides, he said less rainfall or snowfall also added to this crisis.
Ahmad said during irrigation, water would stay in paddy fields for longer durations which would maintain the water table.“A decade before it was uncommon to hear about drying of springs or wells but these days it is a usual phenomenon,” he said.
Environmental activist and assistant professor of environmental studies, Tahir Hussain believes that lowering of water table, along with other global factors, have started exhibiting itself by drying of springs in and around Pulwama.
Pulwama had 80 natural springs, mostly located on banks of Dhob-i Koal, another tributary of Romshi rivulet. Once the main source for drinking and irrigation water, these springs were habitat for many native species of trout fish.
“Only three natural springs exist now,” elder residents in Pulwama said. Those which have ceased to exist include Chamb-e-Naag, Sonar Naag, Aarim Naag, Baed Khah Naag, Watal Naag, Dhob-e-Naag and Khar-e- Naag.
“Chamb-e-Naag was a magnificent freshwater spring, which was regarded sacred,” a resident said. “It was located in a cavity of an elevation near central mosque.”
Inder village, in the town periphery, was abundant in freshwater springs. Around three dozen springs in this village have become extinct. Those currently rotting include Indraaz Naag, that legendary Kashmiri poet, Wahab Khar has mentioned in his poetry. Interestingly, the village takes its name from this spring which is already on the deathbed.Dhobi Naag, Mir Naag, Mandar Naag, and Wani Naag are witnessing significant outflow decrease.
Mohammad Abdullah, a resident of Inder said, theIndraaz Naag, which was spread over 15 Kanals, has shrunken to a merely a kanal. The dead springs include Bulbul Naag, Nangaar Mohalla Naag and Ganie Mohalla Nag.Some self-interest farmers were blamed for encroaching them. The dried springs were filled with soil and annexed for apple cultivation.
Gusoo is located almost 6 km from Pulwama. It was also abundant in natural springs.Villagers claim they were proud owners of around 18 springs.
Abdul Hamid, a resident said that during past couple of years eight springs have dried which include Naagraad Naag, Bulbul Naag and Sonar Naag.“Others too are drying, slowly. Over past few years, there has been 80 percent decrease in their flow”, Hamid said.
Some of these springs were harnessed by public health engineering department. They tap the water and supply it to a big chunk of the population. However, the decrease in their flow has caused a crisis of drinking water in a dozen villages surrounding Gusoo.
Drying of natural springs has also been reported from Trichal, Tahab, Naira, Tumlihal, Zasav, Drusoo, Gudoora, Thamuna, Wahibugh, Uricherso and Seal villages of Pulwama.
Khalid Iqbal Malik, executive engineer PHE in Pulwama said that their department has no dealing with protection or preservation of springs. He said they lack any plan for preservation of irrigation streams.
“There is no doubt that extent of encroachment has increased after farmers converted from paddy to apple cultivation as their reliance decreased on them,” an officer, who is not authorised to talk, said. “The irrigation department too was relieved to some extent after demand for irrigation has come down. The department even didn’t felt the need for de-silting these streams during past decade.” The official said the department is aware of the fact that small irrigation canals were plugged and annexed to the apple orchards and scores of such Kohls including Dhob-i Koal, Nallah Parigam, Nallah Lar, Nallah Drabi and Nallah Yari have been hugely compromised.
Sections in the civil society have been expressing their concern over the conversion of these irrigation canals into garbage cesspools. “Land conversion has not affected streams and springs alone,” Abdul Rehman Khan, a former revenue official said. “In areas like Sangerwani, Bagh, Abhama, Chowtal, Bhatoo, Sonebanjre, Anderwali and Kand Pathri, even forests were cleared for apple cultivation.”
The pine and fir trees would form canopies preventing sunrays to reach earth beneath them. Under these dense canopies, snow would melt at a slow rate and would last for long. The dense forests would also stop rainwater from getting astray and creating the havoc in soil erosion.Fir and pine trees having needle-shaped leaves would transpire less water. This would keep the level of groundwater table maintained but deforestation for apple cultivation changed all this.
In contrast, the apple trees have broad leaves and transpire more water, sunrays penetrate through causing dryness in earth’s surface.