SRINAGAR: In furtherance of the policy towards social and environmental responsibility, the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry Wednesday held an interaction with stakeholders for the preservation of the Dal Lake.
The interaction was presided over by Tufail Mattoo, Vice Chairman LAWDA and Zaffar A Shah, Senior Lawyer and Amicus Curie and was attended by experts including Prof S. A. Romshoo, HOD Earth Sciences Kashmir University, Saleem Beig, Environmentalist and former DG Tourism, Irfan Yasin, former VC LAWDA, Yasin Tuman and Ghulam Rasool Akhoon represented the Dal Dwellers, Wahid Malik President Kashmir Hotels and Restaurants Association (KHAROF), Abdul Rashid Kolu, General Secretary Houseboat Association, Ghulam Rasool Siah Former President Houseboat Association, Shamim Shah Tourism Trade and others. The Kashmir Chamber was represented by Nasir Hamid Khan, Senior Vice President, Dr A M Mir Junior Vice President and Manzoor Pakhtoon, Treasurer.
Nasir Hamid Khan while welcoming the members stated that the KCC&I, as part of its policy of social and environmental responsibility, was keen to support the efforts for the preservation of the Dal Lake and redressal of problems of people associated with it.
Zaffar A Shah apprised the participants about the preservation of Dal Lake being a multidimensional issue comprising of environmental, scientific, humanitarian, economic and legal issues which required a cooperative effort from all stakeholders. He stated that regulation of the existing commercial establishments including hotels, houseboats and residential areas needed to be seen in light of their functional needs as well as the conservation of the lake.
He stated that the Government Departments like LAWDA lacked the infrastructure required to properly maintain the lake. He stated that legislation was proposed which included major improvements like the creation of Scientific Divisions, Drainage Divisions and other suggestions for not only the Dal Lake but which would have benefited other integrated water bodies as well. The proposal had been delayed for one reason or the other.
Shah explained that the most critical role in the preservation of the lake was of the administrator and the scientists. He said that above all the legal and technical requirements what the Lake needed was spirited zeal from the stakeholders.
The involvement of multiple departments also created complications and interminable delays in execution of urgent decisions which many times defeated the original intent. He said that the society needed to take a comprehensive view for the preservation of all water bodies like Dal, Nageen, Khusalsar, Wular, Jhelum and other springs and streams. He stated that the primary responsibility lied with the Government and it’s departments like LAWDA which also possessed the required resources. Stakeholders needed to work for ensuring that measures undertaken had proper direction.
Prof S. A. Romshoo stated that the although the 25 sq km area of the lake had remained at a constant since decades, there had been a rapid reduction in the water surface due to increasing area under land mass, habitation and vegetation. He stressed on the need for having a clear vision regarding how the lake needed to be after 20 years from now and then strategise towards achieving that vision. He gave examples of water bodies and lakes in the much worse condition being restored to pristine conditions through financial and technological interventions. He stated that DPR’s had been based on the scientific data prepared decades ago. There was a need to constantly update the data and accordingly the response. He appreciated the role of Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry for initiating discussions which he said would be critically important for the development of a vision and formulation of a strategy for its achievement. It was for the Government then to decide as to which would be the best strategy to adopt.
Saleem Beig and Irfan Yasin shared informative experiences of management of the lake. Beig while apprising the members about the environmental aspects of water bodies of Kashmir and expressed concern over the massive reduction in Water and Glacier Budgeting in Jammu and Kashmir and underlined the importance of an integrated approach for preservation of the ecosystem. He stated that Dal Lake was different because it was not only about the preservation of the lake but also included addressing the issue of it being a habitation for a large number of dwellers, whose needs were also to kept in mind.
He lauded the practical wisdom Zaffar A Shah had acquired through his years of extensive dealing with all the stakeholders, especially the Government. Shah urged that the technological part of preservation was well settled and now the push should be more on speedy implementation. He also stated that it was important for the LAWDA to develop an in-house scientific branch to ensure consolidation of data and focused research.
Yasin Tuman and Ghulam Rasool Akhoon speaking on behalf of the Dal Dwellers stated that the dwellers were targets of negative portrayal by the newspapers and social media. Giving specific examples, they stated that they were victims of non-compliance of Court Directions, the involvement of multiple agencies, funding issues and Governmental delays in policy implementation which had caused severe disruptions in their lives including depriving their children of proper education. Plans remained on papers for decades together for one impediment or the other. Without providing basic infrastructural facilities, they were being dumped to far off settlement areas.
The consequent suffering had resulted in a gross trust deficit of trust. They said that very few re-settlements had been successful like the Fisherman’s Colony Rehabilitation Project. They said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the dwellers had proved to be a major support to the community by ensuring a substantial supply of fresh vegetables to the City. The habitat provided habitat and livelihood to thousands of families of the dwellers and urged for their genuine concerns being addressed. They appreciated the role of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry for highlighting their issues earlier also.
Wahid Malik, President, Kashmir Hotel and Restaurants Association (KHARA) highlighted the functional difficulties being faced by the hoteliers in and around the Dal Lake. He supported the view taken by the dwellers regarding wrongful maligning of the stakeholders. He stated that the lack of proper drainage/sewerage systems in Srinagar City had resulted in the contamination of the Dal Lake. The Hotel owners had duly complied with the various directions passed by the High Court. He stated that the existing structures were quite old and needed the necessary freedom to carry out routine repairs, maintenance and up-gradations.
Abdul Rashid Kolu, General Secretary of the Kashmir Houseboat Owners Association highlighted the difficult situation the Houseboat Owners were undergoing. The licences of the registered houseboats in Dal Lake, Nageen Lake, Chinar Bagh and Jhelum were not being renewed by the Tourism Department. He stated that the Government of J&K announced the New Houseboat Policy in April. He stated that the policy was announced with any consultations with the stakeholders by the Government and had created serious impediments for this fragile sector. He stated that the Policy had banned construction of new houseboats and had also laid down stringent conditions for renewal of the licences of the existing houseboats. He said that the houseboats were being made to make structural changes on the pattern of boats of Kerala.
He gave several examples regarding frequent changes undertaken by them. He appreciated the role of Tufail Mattoo who personally came on spot when the Dal levels were rising and settled their problem. The houseboat owners had always cooperated with the policy makers and the decisions taken by them but the frequent chop and change was creating disruptions in earning of their livelihood. He thanked the KCCI for inviting them and giving them an opportunity to voice their concerns.
Shamim Shah said that the many natural springs feeding the Dal Lake had been encroached upon creating bottlenecks in the smooth flow of fresh water to the lake. He identified many spots where the sewage drains were directly flowing into the streams polluting the Dal and Nageen lakes. He stated that in the name of saving Dal the basic rights of the stakeholders were being constantly being interfered with. He stated that unlike concrete structures, houseboats needed continuous nurturing and care which was not possible if the people were settled away from them.
Ghulam Rasool Siah, Past President of the HBOA stated that he had been associated with the Dal preservation projects since five decades and it was then that the plans to shift houseboats to Dole Demb was first discussed with the then Chairman of their Association Haji Ghulam Mohammed Wangnoo. Since then the process was ongoing till date. The necessary infrastructure was never provided there in order to enable the shifting of the houseboats. He questioned why the stakeholders were being made scapegoats for the failure in implementation of policies.
Tufail Mattoo thanked the KCC&I for providing this platform to all stakeholders for voicing their genuine concerns. He said that the preservation of the Dal Lake was not only the responsibility of the High Court or the Government but was equally to be shared by all the stakeholders.
He stated that in March 2020 he had requested the Committee of Experts appointed by the High Court to Dole Demb for an on spot assessment for shifting of the identified 384 number of houseboats there. During their visit they had a first hand look at the status of the project. He appreciated the efforts put in by his Mr Irfan Yasin during his tenure as Vice Chairman of LAWDA in the procurement of critical equipments and machines for de-weeding. He stated that the tendering processes need to be made less time consuming and more result-oriented. He apprised the participants about the status of various projects.
He said that they were examining the viability of getting world-renowned freshwater conservation experts involved in the process. He agreed that fresh scientific studies were required to be carried out to ascertain the current status of the Dal Lake and prepare a response accordingly. Functional and cost-effective common sewage treatment systems needed to be put in place with the capacities to cater to the huge volume of sewage Srinagar produced on a daily basis.
The participants were informed that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all the attention and resources of the Government were diverted towards ensuring the protection of the population. He announced with improvement in the situation, now the dredging operations at Brari Numbal were being resumed. He said that regular interactions with the people on ground such as this one provided critical understanding of their problems to the Government and appreciated the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry for providing such a platform to interact.
Zaffar A Shah stated that over a period of eighteen years, there had been extensive deliberations and critical examination of issues by the High Court. It was a result of such directions helped in preservation of the Lake and kept the Government on alert in this regard. He stated that the delays in implementation of directions had greatly escalated the costs for the Government also. Difficult decisions needed to be taken and inconveniences endured by all the concerned for the preservation of the Dal Lake.
He said that the shifting of identified houseboats was directed on the recommendations of experts who reported that they were impeding the free outflow of waters. He assured them that all their concerns would be taken care of and proper infrastructure ensured. He urged the various stakeholders to repose their trust in the High Court and extend full cooperation.
Nasir Hamid Khan, Senior Vice President of the Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industry thanked all the participants for their valuable inputs and said that such interactions would regularly be facilitated by the KCC&I as part of their social and environmental responsibility. He said that the discussions had helped in identifying issues like pollution by the disposal of major drains which emptied tonnes of phosphorous and inorganic nitrogen, millions of litres of sewage being flushed into water bodies like Dal and Jhelum due to incapacity of the STP’s to treat them, need for mapping of encroachments, maintaining of desirable water levels and regular flushing, delays in execution of projects, strengthening of enforcement unit, choking of streams and canals, de-weeding and dredging operations, plantation drives to prevent soil erosion, suitable rehabilitation of the dwellers, facilities for the smooth operation of business establishments including hotels and houseboats, beautification and creation of public facilities which would now be prioritized and followed-up one by one.
He assured the stakeholders that the KCC&I would also represent their concerns before the High Court to take care of their day to day issues as well as long term requirements.
He said that the KCC&I being deeply concerned about the rapid environmental degradation taking place in Kashmir especially the unbridled plunder of the forests and the ruination of our water bodies were taking meaningful counteraction for protection of these essential assets of the public.