Wetland versus Sports field

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A concerned citizen and a passionate lover of his immediate environment has stood up to powerful politicians and vested interests to protect a wetland that may soon become a playfield for school children. Abdul Majeed has gone to the court and vows to leave no stone unturned to prevent vandalization of Sheikhsar, the home also to thousands of migratory birds. Shafath Hussain reports.

It was a moment of pride and suspicion in his fight when forest minister Mian Altaf supported his actions to prevent the government from turning a wetland into a sports stadium.

Abdul Majeed, the activist who has taken up a mission for protecting water bodies in his area, charged encroachers, land mafia and some politicians from Sumbal area of Bandipora district, with carrying out disastrous earth filling of Khorwansar and Shiekhsar water bodies.

Majeed smelled fowl play from the beginning and that is why Instead of celebrating the move, he went straight to High Court to file a petition against converting Shiekhsar into a sports stadium.

“I cannot afford an advocate to fight a case so I came to Srinagar to meet some friends to plead the case,” says Majeed. If the plan of constructing the stadium is not halted the wetlands measuring around a hundred hectares will cause ecological disturbance for various species of migratory birds that fly here every spring from thousands of kilometres away.

Majeed was never fully convinced by the claims of the forest minister. For him, the government is simply making a case to suit its own ends. He is sceptical and says that the only reason to move the court was to stop the government in its tracks to finish off important wetlands. Majeed’s suspicion came true when the R&B department re-invited the contractors for the already banned project. In its extension notice, the executive engineer of R&B Division Sumbal advertised for the upgradation of the link road and raising the ground level by earth filling under NABARD.

Majeed is sparing no effort to save the water bodies in question. Born in Sumbal he has lived his life near this endangered wetland and is accusing Mohammad Akbar lone, the speaker of the state legislature, of “political vandalism”.

“I will put my life for this priced possession of our valley but not let them raise even an inch”, Majeed asserts. “I want to stop it. It’s an outrageous attack on our heritage and they must be stopped.”

His efforts are gathering momentum. Many people from different quarters have openly come forward to support him. Building media pressure is slowly putting pressure on the government to take the earlier orders back and retain the wetland.

Ask Majeed about the importance of sports stadium and he is clearly passionate. “I would not have objected had it been a barren or even a grass land but it is a wetland. My heart bleeds when a water body gets mutilated”.

Having grown up in this small town of the newly carved Badipora district Majeed could have been just another faceless citizen among thousands who are least concerned about environment. But he leads a movement against environmental vandalism. He could have been another villager with a crumbling house and a buried story. Instead, he became a storyteller, the “voice of dying Shiekhsar”.

“It is unfortunate that even in 21st century we Kashmiris are ignorant of environmental issues and cannot protect our environmental heritage,” he says.

Majeed alleges that only those people who are concerned about narrow benefits are in favor of turning Shiekhsar into a sports stadium.

As soon as the news about the setting up of the sports field reached Majeed, he immediately went to the Speaker who happens to be the MLA of Sumbal also, but he (Speaker Mohammad Akbar Lone) paid no heed saying people were in favor of the move. When he objected strongly the speaker asked Majeed to complain before the District Magistrate.

“I am all for the preservation of these water bodies but I will not allow land encroachers to grab it under the garb of protecting them,” Lone said.

According to Lone, the government has constructed schools on the encroached land. “Now the people of the area unanimously want that the remaining area of the water bodies to be developed as playing field for the schools. I have also released some funds (from the Constituency development fund) for this purpose,” he added.

Majeed complains that the DM did not cooperate either and instead wrote to Tehsildsar to look into the matter. He blames the authorities have sent him from pillar to post while the earth filling work was progressing speedily day and night and believes encroachers were allowed to take advantage of summer vacation of the high court.

Some part of the wetland has already been filled and the Speaker had himself demarked the land. In an interview to a national TV news channel Mian Altaf has confirmed that the land will not be filled up but no one knows how a subordinate department overlooked the minister’s order.

A few decades back, people say, Shiekhsar was the source of potable water to Sumbal and many adjoining villages and the fresh springs in it were used to irrigate farming land as well. Majeed reminisces having himself hunted many migratory birds in his childhood, this year he turned 61.

It is said that Shiekhsar was spread over more than five hundred Kanals of wetland but today it has been reduced to just one third of that area. Now most of the drainage from Sumbal town also makes its way into Shiekhsar.

“If people in Srinagar demand a playground does it mean that the Dal will be turned into one,” asks Majeed while maintaining that Shiekhsar is no less than the Hokersar – a major wetland in the outskirts of the summer capital- to them. In a petition to chief minister he has accused the concerned MLA and some other politically well connected vested people for filling the wetland for personal benefit.

“During the term of Mufti Mohammad Syeed as chief minister, Majeed says, government had allotted some 80 lakhs to make a stadium just half a kilometer away from Shiekhsar. But when Akbar Lone came he turned it into a college”.

It is said that the other wetland Khorwansar along with Shiekhsar were once a single wetland but a road was constructed bifurcating it and allowing encroachment. The two are now nearly half a kilometer away from each other.

An old man now, Majeed nurtures the desire of restoring the past glory of Shiekhsar and wants to see encroachments removed and make the wetland one of national importance and professionally managed. He wonders why Shiekhsar cannot be developed at a time when other states are spending huge money to make artificial water bodies.

“It has been given to us by our forefathers when they did not encroach upon it, how can we, and what shall we give our next generations,” Majeed exclaims.
The central government has provided liberal funding of almost 1500 crore to the state government to preserve its water bodies.

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