Harassed Hokerser

A sponge of Srinagar city and the key destination of the migratory birds, Hokersar is facing problems within and around involving almost everybody, reports Tahir Bhat and Aala Bukhari

Gradually but surely, the Hokersar wetland is dying. The queen of wetlands, located on Srinagar’s outskirts has remained the destination of tens of thousands of migratory birds from Siberia, Northern China and Northern Europe for centuries. Once a game reserve open for bird hunting, it is now the best spot for bird watching.

However, it is facing a serious crisis. While the people living on its fringes are converting the wetland into a garbage dumping site, various groups including the government are literally encroaching on it. Gradually, it is decaying.

The irrigation and Flood Control Department has dug a deep outflow channel into the wetland. It has resulted in the wetland losing its natural mechanism, and capacity to hold water up to the desired level. This outflow channel is draining the water and solidifying the area. No wonder its large areas present sight of landmass with cattle grazing instead of presenting a look of a water reservoir.

Gusts taking siesta in Hokersar wetland

An Old Eco System

Hokersar as a part of the ecosystem for centuries has played an important role in controlling the environment, sustaining animal and plant life, providing sustenance to humans, helping water purification and regulating flood fury.

The Hokersar wetland is one of the four Ramsar sites in Jammu and Kashmir. Other sites include Wular (1990), Surinsar-Mansar (2005) and Tsomorori- Ladakh (2002). While this distinction should have helped the wetland to stay distinctly on the top of Kashmir’s fragile ecosystems, it is facing a crisis. A major part of Hokersar has been earth filled and built upon both by the government and the private agencies.

The registered area of Hokersar under the Ramsar Convention as of 2005 was 1360 hectares or 27200 kanals. However, astonishingly its present area is between 6000-8000 kanals meaning that about 20000 kanals area of this internationally acknowledged Wetland stands lost to the encroachments by the government agencies and the land mafia. Even government data suggest that its area stands reduced from 14 sq km to less than six sq km.

Shocking it sounds when people say that the road and the green fields are actually the Hokersar wetland and have been “reclaimed”. Photo: Special Arrangement

“Very recently, a police station building was constructed around Haji Bagh – Soibugh Road near Butt No 3 of Hokersar. It is around this area that the construction of a Degree College has also been started,” Faiz Bakhshi, who heads the NGO Environmental Policy Group (EPG), said. “At some places, roads have been made by earth-filling the wetland. At one point in time garbage was dumped in Hokersar by local bodies in connivance with the land mafia which EPG got stopped after pursuing the matter at an appropriate level.”

Dumping Continues

The wetland continues to be used as a garbage dump site by the local population. Mounds of waste can be seen scattered around this wetland. A number of education institutions in Budgam and SP College Srinagar organised cleanliness drives in and around the wetland. However, they could manage part of it as the huge mounds would require a permanent set-up.

The rims of the village located on the wetland banks are the real source of the crisis to the water body. While these are spots wherefrom the encroachment starts, the carcasses, dead chickens and every type of garbage is thrown from these spots into the wetland.

At various places, the people are raring animals on the vast patches of land “reclaimed” from the Hokersar wetland. Photograph: Special Arrangement

“Many built-up areas, which have come up in the last two decades near Hokersar exhaust their sewage drains into the wetland,” one resident, who also lives in the area said.

It is not just one village but various clusters. These include Soibugh, Hajibugh, Daharmuna, Zancort, Sozeith, Gund Hashibat, Gotpora, Shariafabad, Khushipora, Lawaypora and various other new localities, some of which have come up from within the wetland.

Litigations for Conservation

Faiz and many of his friends have taken the case to the court and the National Green Tribunal (NGT).   In its April 2019 order, the NGT directed the constitution of a joint committee of the Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Board, Wildlife Department and Deputy Commissioner Budgam to look into the illegal encroachments and dumping of municipal solid waste in Hokersar wetland.

A year later, yet another order was passed by NGT suggesting the utilization of the Swachh Bharat Mission Gramin funds to undertake waste management in Budgam periphery, especially around Hokersar. The administration, however, failed to utilise these funds in the Soibugh block where several villages dump their waste near the wetland area.

Divisional Commissioner, PK Pole recent said they have prepared a detailed plan to promote the Hokersar wetland. He asked people residing on the banks of the wetland not to treat it as wasteland.

Constructions in deep areas of the Hokersar wetland are a 24 x 7 activity. Photograph: Special arrangement

Official Speak

Afshana Dave, Wildlife Warden, in charge of  Hokersar admitted that the area is without fencing and the people are throwing waste into the wetland. “We are waiting for funds to cover the fencing wall in these areas,” she said. “In the coming days, we will organise a massive cleanness drive for 15 days in these areas.”

Ifshan Dewan, Warden Hokersar Wetland

Besides, Dave said the department is also going to patrol these areas where the waste is being thrown openly into the water body. The district administration says they are planning restoration and de-silting of all the streams that discharge into the wetland.

“Apart from being the habitat for the migratory birds, the wetland is a natural sponge of the Srinagar city,” warns Bakhshi. “It helps the city survive during floods when it accommodates most of the surplus discharge. Encroaching upon the wetland would mean compromising the safety of Srinagar, the city of Kashmir.”

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