The government avoided any commitment that it will restore the freshwater lake. Eventually, a social activist threw his hat in the ring, handheld the residents, living on its banks, and initiated the first civilian effort to retrieve the water body. Two months in the muck and the lake is visibly clear but authorities require chipping in to help move the mode, reports Yawar Hussain
For years, the residents of a vast old city belt would chase politicians and officers for the restoration of the fresh waters of Khushal Sar if not the recovery of the encroached patches of its land. It was a perpetual stink that was part of the environs they lived in. Already struggling to manage the Dal lake and Brari Nambal lagoon in Srinagar and Wullar Lake in north Kashmir, nobody was in a position to address their concern.
Finally, they discovered their own strength when a civil society initiative, Nigeen Lake Conservation Organization (NLCO), decided to take up the water body for the basic cleansing of its waters. Initially seen as impossible when the locals finally joined the initiative, the water body seems clearer and cleaner. The stink is around but it is less pungent now.
“Had the residents not joined the initiative, it would have taken us a long time to manage all this,” Manzoor Ahmad Wagnoo, businessman and NLCO president, said. “This all was aimed at rekindling the Ehsaas (Realisation) and it clicked.” NLCO has named the Khushal Sar reclamation, Ehsaas.
Key Navigation Route
Khushal Sar, the tiny water body is crucially located in the navigation map of Srinagar city. Its clogging means blockage of major navigation set up. Khushal Sar extended between Zoonimar and Aali Masjid areas. It is connected to Gil Sar, another small spring-fed lake, by a narrow strait and to Anchar Lake via a channel. Gil Sar is connected to Nigeen Lake through Nallah Amir Khan.
Once upon a time, it was the highway from Srinagar to Ganderbal as Nala Mar would give it the crucial access. After a road sprung up on the Mar canal, all these channels were left to the mercy of encroachers. However, the channel would still have water and there was less stagnation. Off late, these channels became the sprawling dust bins.
The twin Sars’, the Khushal and Gil Sar lakes were once vast and thriving water bodies and source of livelihood to many. Now, these are in shambles with widespread encroachments, illegal construction, and landfills.
Wangnoo said that the initiative Ehsaas to retrieve the twin lakes was an outcome of a 20-second byte that he gave on one of the programmes on Doordarshan in December 2020.
“I told the anchor that the Ehsaas to protect our water bodies should dawn me, the government and even him (the anchor),” Wangnoo, whose family is into handicrafts and hospitality sector, said. “Within days, I got my close relatives and brought them to Gil Sar.”
They want to start the work quickly but had to delay it rill February 2021, owing to the heavy snowfall in January.
“I credit the local people more than everyone for what we have achieved in the past two months,” Wangnoo said. “They (locals) have direct stakes. They will have to be the vanguards in the protection of the lake in the future because I cannot be around all the time.”
For the last more than two months, they have been removing 20 truckloads of muck and plastic. The water would not be visible from the bridge when they started working. The carcasses would be routinely floating on the surface and even dogs would walk on the thick accumulations of plastic and muck. Now it looks a water body.
“What we plan to do is to demarcate the lake completely after its cleansing,” Wangnoo said. “That would prevent any further encroachment.”
His thought process is to get the lake back to its pristine glory and resume tourism. The twin lakes were at the centre of what once used to be the water-trekking.
“We need to dredge out the muck. Then we would create a footpath around it along with creating small islands in between,” Wangoo shares with his resident comrades. “The traditional navigation routes of these lakes have to be restored, which would eventually, pave way for the protection of Dal and Nigeen lakes.”
The project envisages retrieving all the 22 live springs inside the twin lakes while making the water bodies worth Shikara rides. “The water currently is stagnant. At some places, it even flows backwards.”
After the Ehsaas took off, Wangnoo led the residents to various high offices seeking some help in managing the operation mechanically. “We employed labourers for work and the output was too small and we wanted a water-master for which we approached the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority and Irrigation and Flood Control Department,” Wangnoo said. Water Master is an earth-remover that works in water and is usually attached to a floating carrier to carry the muck and other material. “They had different explanations. At one point in time, they said they cannot spare one and then they said it cannot reach the spot and finally they said they would repair the one and then explore.”
This happened despite the involvement of the PK Pole, the Divisional Commissioner Kashmir, who has made two visits to the spot and promised residents everything within his reach. Pole has taken the initiative very seriously and is keen to take it to the next level.
“We finally hired the machine from open market at a rate that is Rs 1000 less on an hourly basis than what the government would have charged,” Wangnoo said. “This helped us manage the basic operation quickly.”
Wangnoo, however, asserted the Srinagar Municipal Corporation played a key partner’s role in the operation. “Every day, they drive away 20-24 truckloads of muck and plastic that we remove from the water body,” he said.
Currently, the Ehsaas has spent less than Rs 10 lakh, which the locals insist is not even a fraction of the resources that the government mobilises on similar projects, elsewhere. They regret that had the government played a partner’s role in the project from day one, it would have emerged as a perfect instance of a public-private-partnership conservation effort.
Creating A Model
The idea behind the Ehsaas, Wangnoo said is to set an example for reviving and reclaiming a water body by involving the local population. “Twenty-two wetlands have vanished,” Wangnoo regretted. “I believe a successful model can help to replicate it at other places in Kashmir.”
The initiative is being funded by donations from people who have come forth to contribute in small as well as a big number. This gives the local communities direct stakes in raising the funds and spending them.
Ali Mohammad is perhaps the eldest resident of the area. For the last 50 years, this handcraft trader has been living on the banks of Gil Sar. He is excited that a process of revival has been initiated because he said he has seen the importance of their water bodies to their lives, their well being and economy. Then, he said, the lake had over six dozen ponds in Lake.
“After every ten steps, there was a spring,” Ali said. “My mother used to fetch water from the lake which we used to drink as well as use to prepare food.” The entire locality and its periphery would consume the same water because there was no tapped water around.
Then, he remembers, there was a stone plinth on which prayers were being offered. That small praying space has been taken over by “illegal” constructions.
“From Rajouri Kadal to Soura, the people who are above 40 years of age are all swimmers because of this lake but we have fewer swimmers now,” Ali Mohammad said. He and his friends used to swim in the Khusal Sar and Gil Sar lakes during their childhood.
Having watched the fall of the water-body, Ali Mohammad said the
opening up of Nalla Ameer Khan to cleanse the Dal Lake is the main reason for the pollution of the twin small lakes.
“All the waste material from Dal Lake is being thrown in Nalla Ameer Khan which then flows into this lake,” he said, adding that earlier there was no pollution in this lake. “The entire pollution comes to the lake through this nulla because locals do not throw polythene into the water body.” During Eid, he said, the water body gets a massive load of offal, hides and other things from the sacrificial animals.
The destruction of the water bodies has undone huge small economics that residents were enjoying. Residents were growing lotus stems and would catch the fish with golden bellies.
Abdul Rehman, another resident, said they lost five years in chasing the officials. Finally, he said, when the Ehsaas took off, we had substantial improvement in only two months.
“We took the water samples to various facilities and they said it is poison but no institution trusted us with a test result in black and white,” Rehman said. “Since we have exhibited what we can do. We believe the government will chip in and manage the rest of the job. We are here to support.”
The lake may take a month more to be in a much better condition. It, however, requires two interventions immediately. The cleansing of the Gil Sar and Nalla Amir Khan, wherefrom the residents insist most of the muck and pollution comes. The second is an adequate water-way for improved navigation beyond Saidpora.
“We have restored the basic navigation route,” Wangnoo said. “That helped us get the machines and we have the waterway operational up to Saidpora. The government must take it beyond that.” Interestingly, the water body beyond Saidpora has been divided by the local population and they assert that they hold inheritance rights over it. The area is witnessing land filing on daily basis.