Beautiful Wasteland

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As Kashmir invests heavily in infrastructure and promotion to improve the visitor footfalls to resurrect the ailing hospitality sector, Shams Irfan visits prime tourist destinations to report the crisis that the waste mismanagement has created

At 10 am, a tractor-trolley snake through neatly carpeted narrow roads in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s winter tourism destination, leaving behind a trail of stench, and garbage. This door-to-door garbage truck makes at least ten dashes daily to a make-shift dumping site, located on the edge of a once virgin forest, on Gulmarg’s outer end.

During peak tourism season, Gulmarg generates around five tonnes of waste daily, which gets dumped mostly in the forests. “This includes the waste generated by the army as well,” said Anees Choudhary, Executive Officer, Municipal Committee, Tangmarg.

In September 2017, 136 truckloads of waste were taken to Achen dumping site in Srinagar for disposal, after High Court rapped the authorities for disposing of the waste in the forests.

A few months back, an old slaughterhouse, constructed on the forest land, was dismantled to pave way for a modern waste disposal site exclusively for Gulmarg.

“It will be ready within a few months,” said Abdul Majeed, a low rung officer in GDA. “Till now, every single piece of waste is thrown into the jungle.”

Officials maintain that the foundation of the facility is ready, but it will take a few more months before the site could be used for dumping.

“We have placed an order for procurement of solid waste disposal equipment from outside Kashmir. It will take some time to reach here,” said Majeed.

But with season’s first snowfall, the inability of GDA to keep Gulmarg clean gets buried under a carpet of white, leaving behind just a mysterious stench for visitors to bear.

Not far from Gulmarg’s meadows, the transit town of Tangmarg too is overflowing with garbage. Every stream, big or small, is filled with polythene wrappers and plastic. “Is it such a big deal to keep a small town like Tangmarg clean,” asks Manzoor Ahmad Lone, 65, a baker who lives in adjacent Qazipora village. “The level of pollution is such, that every stream in even small villages is full of polythene wrappers and plastic bottles.”

Lone, who joined his father’s business of baking biscuits and bread, recalls the times when he started a shop in main-market Tangmarg, some four decades back. “The use of polythene or plastic bottles was not so wide-spread like it is today. People used to come with jute bags to get bread.”

Lone gets agitated seeing people throwing plastic bottles and polythene wrappers from their moving vehicles. “We need to find quick answers if we have to save our paradise,” said Lone with a hint of helplessness in his voice.

The answer perhaps lies in waste management model adopted by little known Manasbal Development Authority (MDA), deep inside Sonawari belt.

Located some 30 kilometres from Srinagar, Manasbal Lake is surrounded by three villages: Jarokbal, Kondabal and Ganderbal. “Since Manasbal is a small tourist destination with almost no hotels around, most of the solid waste is in form of what we de-weed from the lake,” said Zulfikar Mohammad Khan, CO, Manasbal Development Authority.

MDA has outsourced the management of sanitation waste to a private player. There are seven villages around the lake who collectively generate around 1400 kgs of solid waste in a week. “We have distributed dustbins of 25 kg, 40kg and 100 kg capacity to these households,” said Khan.

A garbage truck comes thrice a week to collect these dustbins. In the second stage, polythene is to separate from the waste material. The remaining waste is sent to Safapora, where a government-designated piece of land serves as a dumping site. “There, the solid waste is decomposed and turned into manure,” said Khan.

However, there are around 150 households of Kundbal use Mansbal Lake as a dumping site. “We have sent a proposal to the government regarding their relocation,” said Khan. “I am sure it will happen soon.”

Around 100-km south of Srinagar, the most visited tourist hotspot Pahalgam struggles to stay clean as the footfall of visitor’s peak during summers. As one enters the municipal boundaries of Pahalgam, a strong stench greets the visitors, which almost follows them everywhere.

A few kilometres short of Pahalgam’s main market, near a pristine stream, heaps of garbage, including plastic and polythene, is smouldering continuously. Ironically, this stream-side works as a temporary garbage dumping site. As one drives past it, a strong stench – usually a mix of burning plastic, polythene, dead animal meat, and cardboard, fills one’s nostrils. Pahalgam generates 16.82 metric tons (12.89 commercial and 03.93 residential) of waste per day, during the peak tourist season. This is apart from monthly 12 metric tons of waste that are gathered after sweeping Pahalgam streets. “This waste is dumped untreated at the disposal site because of a shortage of equipment and manpower,” said a Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA), the official who wished not to be named.

As peak tourist season and two months long annual Amarnath Yatra go on simultaneously, the pressure on Pahalgam’s fragile ecology is huge. “During Yatra season, the collection of waste increases manifolds,” said a municipal worker.

During Yatra, an extra of 7.5 metric tons (from Chandanwari) and 3 metric tons (Nunwan), of waste is generated. This waste mostly includes polythene, plastic, cardboard, and plastic wrapping.

“We are trying our best to keep this place clean,” said Sarfaraz Ahmad, Executive Officer, Pahalgam Municipal Committee (PMC).

But a large volume of waste, which yatris (pilgrims) dump on way to Amarnath Shrine, located deep into the mountains, stays there until fresh snowfall buries it completely.

“Unless we do not educate both visitors and locals about serious consequences of polluting Pahalgam, nothing can be achieved,” feels Riyaz Ahmad Lone, a local hotelier and activist who shot to fame after he filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against illegal construction in eco-sensitive forests. “First of all, there should be a complete ban on the use of polythene in tourist resorts. Second, officials must hold awareness camps and seminars to sensitize hoteliers, guests, yatries and locals. This is the only way to save Pahalgam from turning into an ecological disaster.”

In May 2016, a Rs 10.58 crore Sewage Treatment Plant (STP) was commissioned in Pahalgam. With a capacity to drain out two million litres of sewage per day, the fully-automatic STP was supposed to benefit 170 hotels, 650 residential houses and 310 huts. But six months after it was commissioned, the STP developed a “technical snag” and stopped functioning. “It took lots of efforts from locals to get it functional again,” said Fayaz Ahmad, a local activist. “Now we are keeping a watch on its functioning.”

Recently, PMC constructed Sarbal Garbage Treatment Plant, which can disintegrate 1 metric ton waste per day, besides a capacity of 5 metric ton of segregation and composter.

Once a beautiful virgin meadow Sonmarg is now dotted with hotels, huts, restaurants and other commercial buildings. Interestingly, most of these concrete structures are located on the fragile banks of River Sindh. With lack of proper waste management system, most of the waste generated by these commercial establishments end up in the river. Apart from turning Sonmarg into a brick and cement jungle, the forests and glaciers around the once beautiful meadows, now have a high concentration of plastic and polythene.

“You go to any point in Sonmarg and you will come across a plastic wrapper or a plastic bottle,” said Ashiq, a local hotelier, who gets pained by the sight of heaps of garbage with snow-capped mountains in the background. “It doesn’t need magic but a strong will to keep Sonmarg clean. That willpower is missing.”

But according to data available with Sonmarg Municipal Committee (SMC), during summers Sonmarg generates less than one metric of waste from both commercial and non-commercial sources. “We have very less footfall as compared to Pahalgam or Gulmarg,” said Shabir Ahmad Rai, Chief Executive Officer, Sonmarg Development Authority. “Even during Yatra time, we have just two metric tons of waste.”

The waste collected is then transferred to a dumping site in Sarba area, where it is dumped. “We are in the process of constructing a three-in-one (segregator, disintegrator and composter) unit at Sarbal. So far only disintegrator has been approved by the government, but I am hopeful they will approve the remaining two parts as well,” said Rai. “Once we get functional, it will be easy to treat waste scientifically.”

Rai says there were a few hoteliers who would dump waste in the River Sindh earlier, but that practice is over now. “We are regularly monitoring such activities and whenever we find anyone violating norms, we send a notice and take action,” said Rai.

= But the crisis is visible in Srinagar’s Dal Lake, the main tourist belt of Kashmir. At sunrise, the lake looks like a picture perfect location straight out of a fairy tale. But once you move a bit closer and take a look, the tale ends like a heartbreak. With around 550 houseboats with around 1700 rooms, the quantum of waste generated daily inside the lake is huge.

Everyday Srinagar generates a whopping 450 metric tons of waste. Out of it, around 62 per cent is organic, 7 per cent is plastic, and rest is an inorganic waste. “In last three decades, Dal lake and tourist areas around were turned into dumping sites,” said Nazir Ahmad, 67, a houseboat owner. “I would love to live in a neat and clean water body. But for that government has to help us. We cannot do everything on our own.”

Dumping site outside Pahalgam health resort.

Nazir and other houseboat and shikara owners are witness to Dal Lake’s fall from grace, but cannot do much, as they blame tourists, officials and population on the lake banks for polluting the lake. “During marriage season people come with cars full of wazwaan waste and dump it in the Lake,” said Nazir. “Even innards of animals slaughtered during marriages and Eid are thrown into the lake. Now tell me what can we do?”

There are 398 hotels and 75 guest houses registered with Kashmir’s tourism department in Srinagar city, which have no sewage treatment facilities. Having 10785 rooms with 21073 beds, these hotels remain booked with tourists during peak summer seasons. “These hotels directly drain their sewage into Jhelum, Dal Lake and Nagin Lake,” said Abdul Hamid Dar, 56, a shikara owner who lives in a houseboat.“They are influential people so nobody touches them.”

As most of the houseboats lack proper waste collection and disposal mechanism, the waste generated by tourists mostly ends up in the water body. “Even we feel bad for Dal Lake, but we have no other option,” said Dar.

(The report was the outcome of a series of visits during 2018 summer.)

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