Home to over three lakh migratory birds Hokersar is fast turning into Srinagar’s dump-yard. After September floods 31000 shoes were retrieved from the famed wetland. Shakir Mir visits Kashmir’s famed bird guest house to understand the costs of neglect

A migratory bird taking flight at Hokersar wetland in Srinagar outskirts. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Fifty-year-old Ghulam Hassan Dar kicks open an iron gate, guiding visitors along a curved walkway – surrounded by tall poplars and bulrush plants – and arrives at the dead-end, overlooking large expanse shallow water. As distant strains of cackling drift across, everybody gets into the boat.

Every year, when the summer nears end, over three lakh avian visitors start coming to Kashmir in hordes from parts of Siberia and Central Asia. Escaping the harsh cold which grips their habitat by the onset of winter, some 68 species of Waterfowls swarm here to luxuriate in the relatively tolerable milieu.

Wetlands and water bodies across Kashmir play host as the breathtaking spectacle unfolds where countless birds burst into a cacophony of sounds, breaking the routine silence.

Among the dozen odd resting places for these winged-guests, Hokersar – some 10 km from the Srinagar city – has assumed a paramount importance.

When winters draw close, vegetation spreading over hundreds of kanals of wetland turns pastel beige. More than ten known plant species grow in these marshes, some of which serve as food for these birds while few other are believed to have deleterious effect on the local biology.

“It is not that we just sit and wait for the birds to come,” says Dar, a security officer at Hokersar. “We refurbish the place for them just like a host does for its guest.”

An extensive program precedes arrival of these Waterfowls. Hundreds of locals, acquainted with the knowledge of vegetation which grows in this swamp, are employed by the Wildlife department to weed out the invasive plants, creating water pools. “The creation of these pools ensures that enough space is available for the birds,” says Rouf Zargar, erstwhile wetland warden now posted in Jammu.

Besides pool creation, canals are also dug out enabling the Shikara-borne officials to meander through them and maintain tab to keep out poachers.

Workers cut loose and extricate the floating gardens tied to the subterranean roots. “Their removal creates more open water space for migratory birds,” Dar says.

Flocks of birds settle in those open water areas, splashing around and quacking, at times in unison.

But over the years, the Hokersar wetland has been at the receiving end of a range of harmful factors. Its attrition, experts warn, is likely to impact the bird migration in winters.

Estimates reached by conservationists reveal that the popular marsh has depleted by more than five sq kms since 1947. Presently, it spans the area of about 13.75 sq kms.

Although officials claim that encroachment has been progressively arrested, experts maintain that vast tracts along Southern peripheries of the marsh have been filled by the locals and turned into agrarian lands.

According to government figures, encroachers have appropriated some 208.6 acres of area out of which 198 acres have been turned into agricultural land where paddy cultivation takes place. On the rest of 10.74 acres of land, residential plots have come up.

Most of this encroachment is believed to have taken place during the Grow More Food campaign launched in the subcontinent in 1940s.

“It was probably then, when locals reclaimed the silted up area and capitalized it for agricultural purpose,” says Imtiyaz Lone, Wildlife Warden, wetlands.

Gusts taking siesta at Hokersar wetland in Srinagar outskirts. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

But it is not shrinkage that alarms experts, but sedimentation, as ecological succession in the prized marsh has picked up pace threatening to turn it into grassland.

The change has worrying implications and is likely to make low-lying habitations in Srinagar more vulnerable to foods in future.

“Ecological succession is the change that happens in the ecology over a large period of time,” explains Intesar Suhail, a Wildlife Warden with J&K government who takes keen interest in environment. “Wetlands turn into grasslands and to woodlands eventually. It takes very long time to happen but in Hokersar, the process has accelerated.”

Hokersar wetland splits into two as Doodh Ganga stream along with the flood channel rips through it. The other rivulet feeding the marsh is Sukhnag nalah flowing from west.

The channel was constructed in 1903 as part of flood management plan to ease the greater water discharge during heavy rainfall. It begins near Padshahi Bagh in South Srinagar, making its way through Hokersar, before ending in Sopore in North Kashmir by merging back into the River Jhelum.

Since its inception, the rivulet has unloaded tons of silt, waste and nutrient rich pollutants into the water body increasing its shallowness. It has lost its depth from 14 feet during the last 40 years to just 2 feet; occasionally going 4 feet at handful of spots.

In fact, the rising silt level has chocked the handful of natural aquifers that fed the wetland. “Post floods, we recovered some 31,000 footwear from the marsh,” Lone says.

In spite of a depleted staff, Lone succeeded fishing out tones of solid-waste. “I told them that I would give you 1 rupee for every pair you dig out,” he says.

Weapons seized from hunters by wildlife officials in Kashmir.

Industrial and household pollutants replete with nitrogen and phosphorous have sped up the eutrophication leading deadly weeds to creep over. Conservationists say that the weed invasion has far reaching consequences. “In fact some of the palatable food species of these migratory waterfowls have been suppressed,” Lone says.

“There is visible decline in growth of Trapha or water chestnut which birds consume,” he says.

“The silt is very fertile which helps the growth of invasive plants like Nymphoides and many other which outgrow and suppress other species.”

In fact, during the last 40 years, studies reveal, some three plant species have disappeared from the marsh.

“The reckless use of fertilizers and pesticides which ultimately find their way into wetland is responsible for the deterioration,” says Earth Scientist Shakil Romshoo. “Due to the increased deposition of these nutrients, the ecology of the wetland is changing and adversely affecting its flora and fauna.”

Wildlife officials have repeatedly raised apprehensions that the growth of such weeds are encroaching upon the open water surface. The aftermath of last year’s devastating floods have only made the matters worse. The silt-deposition has happened on the industrial scale, experts say. “There has been a sprawling growth of large weed plants like Typha and Phargmites which are choking the wetland,” says Rouf Zargar.

Increased shallowness is posing great threat to Waterfowls like Pochards and other deep diving ducks. “Red Crested Pochards and other species require deep water where they can swim, dive and even cruise,” Intesar Suhail says. “Even Grey Lag Geese, Mallards and Common Coots need large open water space with sufficient depth. But since the water body is increasingly becoming shallow, the migration of these species to Kashmir is jeopardized.”

A wetland like Hokersar should have 30:70 ratio of marshy and open water area. “In reality it is the other way round,” says Mohammad Shafi Bacha, Chairman, Wildlife Conservation Fund. “Just 89 acres of open water space is left now.”

Yet at present, the birds are visiting in large numbers, data has shown. But the increase in the visiting numbers, experts warn, in fact, signifies a lull before the storm. “It is an indication that the wetland in increasingly turning into marsh,” Romshoo says. “Migratory birds precisely prefer these places. But they don’t know that in few years to come, if the current trend keeps up, open water area will empty out leaving nothing for them to come here.”

In fact, some species of Waterfowls have already migrated towards more open water spaces like Dal Lake and Wular. “Common Coots are more visible in Dal these days,” Lone says. “That is because they need deep diving space which Hokersar lacks.”

But Dal Lake has its own problems. There is no availability of food or space for breeding. “Marshy area is required for breeding. There is a scant presence of marsh in Dal,” he says. “As a result birds find themselves in dilemma where to go. In the longer run, they might well stop coming.”

The understaffed department is facing tough time to keep poachers away. Hokersar has 21 entry points from where poachers sneak in.

Besides its indispensable ecological significance, Hokersar plays key role in averting the flood crisis in the Srinagar city by absorbing increased discharge.

But the silt deposition has drastically reduced Hokersar’s bed-level; losing its retention capacity, impeding the flow of water into the Wular.

In fact last year, it was the back flow of water from Hokersar that actually inundated HMT, Bemina, Parimpora and some parts of Budgam.

In 2010, Irrigation and Flood Control (IFC) department, alarmed by its flood frequency chart, warned that a catastrophic flood was imminent. They devised a restoration plan under a central sponsored scheme. The plan envisaged the upgradation of the flood channel which cuts through Hokersar to ensure uninterrupted flow of water.

But Hokersar is declared as protected area under the Jammu and Kashmir Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1978 which means that IFC could undertake no work until it procured permission from National Wildlife Board and a Central Empowered Committee of the Supreme Court. When IFC hammered out its plans, Wildlife authorities refused to give clearance.

“The restoration plan did not follow certain prerequisites,” Imtiyaz Lone says. “For instance, they had to create strong embankments to ensure river water does not directly go into Hokersar unloading sediments and waste. They also had to install drop gates to regulate the entry of water.”

Houses constructed on almost all major water bodies in Kashmir. Pic: Bilal Bahadur

Initially, it was also proposed that the channel must be diverted to the peripheries of the wetland. But later, the proposal couldn’t go through as it was realized that the plan could have puts lives of nearly six lakh residents living along peripheries at risk, who would be first to get washed away by floods.

“It could have threatened the very existence of the marsh by drying it out,” says Mohammad Aslam Zargar, official at IFC Narbal division. “It was more feasible to upgrade it along old-age alignment.”

On October 5, 2015, green bench of SC gave clearance to the project. Restoration is likely to happen in accordance with all the twenty one conditions laid out by the National Wildlife Board. Officials told Kashmir Life that they are awaiting clearance from the Forest Department after which they will start the work.

Meanwhile, the Wildlife department has also submitted a proposal for the extensive clean up and refurbishment of Wetlands and sought package of over Rs 80 crores. Under the package, the authorities will de-silt the Hokersar and create more open water space for the migratory birds. So far, the proposal has been unforthcoming. Officials say they have pinned hopes on the package which is likely to give stimulus to this ailing water body.


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