Spewing Black

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Quick cash was the key factor for hundreds of farmers in Budgam to lease their lands to brick kiln owners. Decades later, they have understood the costs they are paying and have launched a campaign to reclaim their paddy fields, reports Shams Irfan

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

A short walk from almost a non-descript Batpora village square in Budgam, around 35 km from Srinagar, the trek leads to the top of a karewa where two huge chimneys blow black-smoke non-stop from behind a tree-line. Once a symbol of the area’s prosperity, these brick kiln chimneys are now seen with disgust and concern.

Directorate of Agriculture (Kashmir) data suggests around 4447 kanals of land is under 280 brick kilns in Budgam district only. The central Kashmir district is home to 60 per cent of Kashmir’s lucrative brick kilns.

Close to these brick kilns, almost half-a-dozen new houses are under construction. Just like the unending karewas, these brick-kiln chimneys dot the entire landscape in Budgam.

Under a fresh initiative, the Agriculture Department is helping farmers retrieve their lands leased to kiln owners and convert it back into farms. This has renewed the hope of locals who have for decades watched helplessly their fertile land turn into waterlogged fields.

In quite Waterwani village, Ghulam Hassan Mir, 40, is busy tending to his 14 kanals of farmland, where he has sown maize and pulses. Apart from the uneven landscape around him, there is no sign of destruction caused due to excessive extraction of soil by brick kilns. “This entire land was leased to brick kilns for soil extraction,” said Mir in a matter of fact tone. He points towards a 20-feet high pyramid-like mound of soil that stands not far from his fields and said, “This was the original level of our fields. Now you can imagine how much soil was extracted.”

Surrounded by almost half-a-dozen brick kilns, mostly owned by Srinagar-based businessmen, Waterwani residents were among the first ones to respond when the government offered to help. “No doubt I used to earn good money from brick kilns but it left my land barren and our village in crisis,” said Mir.

A decade back, when Mir leased his land to a nearby brick kiln owner for soil extraction, he was paid Rs 12,500 per kanal per year. Now the same land gets Rs 32000. Mir now earns just Rs 10,000 by selling pulses and maize. “But I am happy,” said Mir. “At least my kids can breathe freely now. Earlier whatever I used to earn, half of it was spent on medicines for my family.”

Workers on the job at a brick klin somewhere in district Budgam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Workers on the job at a brick klin somewhere in district Budgam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Given the highest number of brick kilns in the area, Budgam has the worst air quality in Kashmir with a high concentration of carbon, dust, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide.

But with more farmers refusing to lease their fields to brick kilns, a number of them have shifted their bases out of Waterwani. However, given the availability of soil and space, these brick kilns remain within the limits of Budgam.

Why Budgam?

The emergence of Budgam as Kashmir’s brick factory started some six decades back. Till late 1960s, brick kilns were mostly confined to River Jhelum belt in areas like Lasjan, Sumberbug, Shalina and Tengan. Small karewas fed these over two-dozen brick kilns, which catered to small towns and cities on the path of economic prosperity. However, in rural Kashmir brick-making was done locally using makeshift kilns called koondieh. The tradition has still survived in some remote parts of southern Kashmir.

As new avenues of wealth opened up for Kashmiris in subsequent years, there was a major boom in the construction sector, especially in Srinagar city. It instantly created huge requirements of bricks forcing kilns in Lasjan belt to work overtime to meet the demand.

But given the limited availability of raw material in Lasjan belt, and saffron soil still not up for loot as it is today, people started moving deeper into Budgam where karewas were not as precious as inPampore. “Soil in Budgam karewas is perfect for making quality bricks,” said RajaMuzaffarBhat, a social activist and RTI activist.

This proved both blessing and curse for locals as brick kilns quickly mushroomed in Budgam, turning small beautiful villages into waterlogged dungeons. “At one point, the landscape in Budgam villages was akin to barren Chambhal valley of Uttar Pardesh,” said Bhat ironically. “However, now people realise that these brick kilns are actually destroying their environment, orchards, and their once lush green fields.”

At the turn of the decade, in the mid-1970s, hundreds of large chimneys became a permanent fixture of Budgam’s once beautiful landscape. Surging brick demand-led farmers to axe apple, pear and almond orchards to pave way for the new economy.

“In 1979, our grandfather started a brick kiln in Wathoora as there was huge demand,” recalls Bhat. In the next two years, the fields around Bhat’s brick kiln vanished altogether. At its peak, there were around 60 brick kilns in Wathoora, a small village in Budgam known for producing quality plum and apples. With new wealth came new challenges as unplanned soil extraction left behind hundreds of creators, which would get filled with water during rains.

It bread diseases turning the once happy village into a land full of sorrows. “Within four years my grandfather realized his mistake and closed his brick kiln forever,” said Bhat.

It took almost a year to restore the land back to its fertile glory and another decade to turn it into a plum orchard. Copying Bhat’s grandfather, around a dozen brick kilns located in the immediate vicinity were closed within a few years.

But it didn’t help as rising demand for bricks gave birth to new players who would stop at nothing short of turning Budgam into an environmental disaster.

“Most of these new brick kiln owners were big businessmen from outside Budgam,” said Bhat. “These people had no local stakes, neither any sensitivity towards the environment.”

Soon these brick kiln owners started plundering village after village, turning Budgam into Kashmir’s highest carbon-emitting place.

According to a study published in the Journal of Pollution Effects and Control (2014), all brick kilns inBudgam are old Bull Trench kiln type with a huge appetite for coal. Each of these kilns consumes an average of 3 tonnes of coal in a season, spanning just six months. During the operational phase, the air in Budgam is filled with dust, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, all lethal for humans and the environment.

Panzan village ofBudgam literally sits on an environmental bomb which can go off anytime. In a diameter of just two sq km, there are 15 brick kilns, all emitting black smoke filled with sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the atmosphere. “It is difficult to breath when all brick kilns are operational,” said Ali Mohammad Bhat, 65, a local shop owner. “Our generation was strong and had better immunity. I am concerned about newborn babies and school going kids.”

The lone chemist in Panzan is the busiest person in his village during the brick-making season.

However, not all is lost. The lush green fields of Bugam, the vegetable bowl of Kashmir, are the perfect inspiration to emulate.

The Change

The first wave of rapid conversion of lush green fields into brick kilns, or leasing ones land for the extraction of soil for brick-making, reached Bugam village almost simultaneously as other parts of Budgam. By the early 1980s, almost 80 per cent of fertile land in Bugam village was leased to powerful brick kiln owners. Apart from setting up over twenty brick kilns in Bugam, they used adjoining fields to extract fertile soil for brick-making. “These brick kilns were owned by both locals and outsiders,” said Bhat.

Within no time, other villages like Wathora and Doniwar got carried away by the riches brick kilns offered. It earned these villages wealth but turned them into a wasteland filled with smoke and dust. “It was a painful sight to watch,” said Afzal Shah, 75, a farmer from Bugam.

However, by mid-1990s, as health concerns overshadowed wealth and air became unbreathable, a group of elders decided enough is enough. Their intervention ensured closure of every single brick kiln in the area within a year. “It was a right decision at the right time,” said Shah. “Else we would have been doomed by now.”

The destruction left behind by brick kilns has turned the soil in Bugam and other villages dry and hard, making it unfit for paddy or other crops. Rather than giving up, villagers started cultivating seasonal vegetables.

Two decades later, the trio villages of Bugam, Wathora and Doniwari are at the forefront of revolutionising Kashmir’s vegetable production. Led by Bugam, which produces over 1.6 lakh quintals of vegetables yearly on just 2500 kanals of cultivation land, the belt is witnessing a green revolution.

“Those who have travelled through Bugam before the 1990s can understand the quantum of shift,” said Bhat.

Crushing Almonds

While Bugam has successfully reinvented itself as Kashmir’s vegetable hub, a large stretch of almond orchards in Chadoora, Newa and Khandah belt are vanishing because of brick kilns.

Ghulam Hassan Mir at his farm in Waterwani village, Budgam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Ghulam Hassan Mir at his farm in Waterwani village, Budgam. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

What used to be beautiful almond orchards just a decade back are now house to over fifty brick kilns; their chimneys emitting black smoke into the once clean sky.

In April, when the almond trees would be in full bloom, locals used to visit their almond orchids for day-long picnics.

This has changed now. According to local estimates, thousands of kanals of such orchards were cut to make way for new brick kilns, depriving the area of its beauty and fresh air.

The smoke from these brick kilns forced birds and insects, both pollinating species vital for agriculture, out of Budgam’s hazardous limits.

“The plunder of fertile soil in these karewa’s started during the construction of a new highway connectingQazigund with Srinagar,” said Raja MuzaffarBhat.  “What was left of these karewas is unfit for any agriculture activity.”

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