Peace isn't elusive

After the Pulwama terror strike, the Kashmir debate has reopened. We bring to you an older article from brighter times, which underscores the importance of natural resources as a solution to the region's problems 

Published: Monday 18 February 2019
Photo: Surya Sen/CSE

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's May 31, 2003 edition, and yet it still holds true)

Tourism, handicrafts, agriculture, forests, lakes... these have formed Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) basis of survival. They still constitute 98 per cent of the state's economy and sustain 90 per cent of its population. Kashmir's economy is nothing but a sensitive and organised use of its ecology. After 15 years of living under the shadow of the gun, finally, when hope is making a comeback in the state, Kashmir will have to turn to its immense environmental resources to sustain this resurgence.

Beginning September-October 2002, when people voted in the assembly elections defying a boycott call by militant organisations, to new chief minister (CM) Mufti Muhammad Sayeed's almost obsessive agenda of giving a "healing touch" to his people, there are unmistakable symptoms of a rebirth in j&k. "There is a genuine desire for peace in the state now," says Jammu-based veteran journalist Balraj Puri. But forest cover has come down by 20 per cent in the last two decades, and agricultural productivity has decreased by 50 per cent, particularly in the last five years. Lack of access has served to speed up the depletion. There is intense pressure for timber and other resources on a few patches, and these are being stripped bare. Grazing, for instance, has taken a heavy toll. The state has a huge livestock population. Of the 20,18,200 ha under forests, not more than 50 per cent is available for grazing. Assuming 3000,000 cattle graze in the forest areas, the grazing intensity is more than three cattle per ha. For proper grazing, cattle require two ha per head. Thus, the grazing intensity is at least six times the permissible level.

AR Wani, a retired principal chief conservator of forest (PCCF), says, "Political instability has facilitated the process of environmental degradation." Tourism, the mainstay of the state's economy, has taken a severe beating. The j&k government estimates that the economic loss from tourism alone is worth Rs 500 crore every year.

The only way ahead, therefore, lies in sustainable management and utilisation of the state's natural resources. According to 'Jammu and Kashmir: Vision 2020' (a seminar jointly organised by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the j&k government), the state's natural resources can generate close to Rs 10,000 crore in a few years given the right policy focus and political will. This is what the cm's healing touch has to act on -- and immediately. Violence has bred economic stagnation, which in turn has nurtured unemployment. The state has 1,60,000 registered unemployed; 50 per cent of its labour force is underemployed. "They are potential agents of both peace and death," says a senior official.

"Employment is a crucial factor in bringing in peace," admits the cm. But at the same time, the government does not have the resources or the ability to absorb such a large segment of the work-force. While the state government — the biggest employer — has 50,000 vacancies, according to Muzaffer Hussain Beig, "We can't fill them up due to resource constraints."

What, however, is essential in this proposed use of ecology is people's participation; the state will have to loosen its iron grip and let the people take over. For instance, community-based forestry can ensure sustainable harvesting of the willow tree, which caters to the multi-million rupee cricket bat market. Agriculture, which depends on rain for irrigation, could get a boost if the traditional canals are revived and managed by the community.

It is a course of action that needs the highest degree of political will and structural changes in policy and governance. Without this, the cm's healing touch may not heal. "The doctrine of the healing touch is to bring back normalcy," says J S Jamwal, a former member of the state legislature. In a recent opinion poll by a leading daily, 91 per cent of the people surveyed cited economic development as the best way to bring in peace. Mufti Muhammad Sayeed carries an immense responsibility on his shoulders: that of being the state's chief environmental officer, as well as its cm.

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