WATER: Fading glories

Kashmir's dying lakes are choking their dependants

 
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015 | 11:25:17 AM

WATER: Fading glories

-- status: Most of the major lakes are dying

potential: Just three lakes provide economic sustenance for close to 500 villages

strategy: Revive these water bodies to generate livelihood

Over a mile above sea level, around the Wular Lake, a few of India's once richest villages are fighting a losing battle against poverty. It is a poverty that is induced as much by a callous state government as by degradation of the Wular.

What the Nile is to Egypt, Wular is to j&k. It supplies around 40 per cent of the Valley's fish. About 80,000 people depend on it for survival. The turnover of the lotus stem trade from this lake is worth about Rs 2500,000 a year and involves close to 20,000 people. Abdul Ahmed Dar, a resident of Kema village, collects about 100 kg of lotus stems from the lake every day during September-March. In return, he only gets a measly Rs 3 per kg. The government leases the produce to private contractors, who sell it at Rs 15 per kg. For fishing, locals get a license by paying Rs 220 per year. But the condition of the lake has deteriorated and it is impossible to get any fish.

India's 'largest' freshwater lake -- as the Wular is known as -- has probably already lost its superlative: siltation and expanding human settlements have reduced this 202 sq km-lake to just 74 sq km in three decades. It is also under siege -- probably India's only water body to be under night curfew since 1992. "The curfew has almost halved our access to our only source of livelihood. Whatever is left is also threatened as the lake is shrinking," says Dar, who now works in crop fields four months a year.

If the Wular is dying, j&k's most famous icon -- the Dal Lake -- is already being prepared for its funeral. The Lake and Waterways Development Authority, created to save the lake with a budgetary support of Rs 500 crore, is busy preparing software that will decide when the Dal Lake would die!

Death of the Dal means a life sentence for the 40,000 people who reside in and eke out their livelihoods from it. According to London-based Kashmir Environment Watch Association, the Dal has shrunk in size: compared to 1907 records, the lake has decreased by 50 per cent in volume from 22 to 11 sq km. The lake is also getting polluted with an estimated 30,000-45,000 litres of urine and 30 tonnes of human waste dumped into it every month. Add to it the runoff of chemical fertilisers from the vast drainage basin around it, and you have a lake whose internal life processes are under severe stress. Since 1978, when the state government first initiated a study on the ecology of the lake, 24 reports have been prepared on the Dal at an expense of Rs 267 crore, with nothing to show for all the effort.

Tourism has been a major casualty. Militancy has left around 1,400 shikaras (houseboats) bereft of business. "In the last seven years, I have earned just Rs 1,000 from my shikara ," says shikara owner Noor Muhammed. With the loss of revenue from tourism, more people are depending on vegetable gardening -- on floating gardens. The lake is already clogged with such gardens, which over a period of time develop into residential hamlets. Also, "vegetable gardens are becoming smaller in size and the output has reduced," says Gulam Mohammed Dar, the president of Shikara Association.

The state's other lakes, some 1,400 in number, suffer a similar fate. Besides sustaining huge populations, these lakes are also the sources for the state's web of irrigation canals, which feed about 25 per cent of j&k's crop fields.

Of late, the state has been gearing up for another conflict: rights over water. On March 2, the j&k assembly passed a resolution asking the Central government to review the Indus Water Treaty with Pakistan (see box on previous page: Ire over the Indus). Said the cm, "Though we understand that the treaty cannot be rescinded, but the state must be compensated for its loss." The treaty has hampered, among other things, power generation. For example, absence of a storage reservoir (a stipulation of the treaty) has meant the Lower Jhelum Hydel Project can generate only 35 mw in spite of an installed capacity of 400 mw. The August 1998 Report of the Committee on Economic Reforms in J&K noted that "on the recently commissioned Uri and Salal Hydroelectric Projects, the energy loss is to the order of 44 per cent and 50 per cent respectively".

The result: the state's power purchase bill has assumed gargantuan proportions. Almost the entire tax revenue of the state is consumed in purchasing power, with revenue realisation not exceeding 35 per cent. By March 2003, the state had purchased power worth Rs 1,135 crore against an expected revenue realisation of just Rs 400 crore. The arrears, if realised fully, can finance at least one five-year plan, says a senior official of the finance department.

Part of the problem is poor marshalling of resources. Hardly 10 per cent of the state's hydro potential of over 15,000 mw has been harnessed till date. The Ranbir Canal, built in 1870, was intended to carry 1,000 cusecs per second of water to feed the areas of Miran Sahib, Vijaypur and Madhopur. Poor maintenance has ensured that it can now carry just 300 cu ft per second. The Ravi Uplift Canal, meant to service southern Jammu, has gone dry -- because Punjab is unwilling to provide any water and there is no electricity to pump it up. As of March 31, 2001, there were 111 incomplete projects in which official investment worth Rs 296 crore was tied up.

The financial results of six irrigation projects with a capital outlay of Rs 88.66 crore at the end of March 2001 showed that revenue realised during 2000-01 (Rs 12.44 lakh) from these projects was only 0.14 per cent of their capital outlay and was not sufficient even to cover the direct working expenses (Rs 1.04 crore). After meeting the working expenses (direct and indirect) of Rs 1.28 crore and interest on capital outlay (Rs 9.05 lakh), these schemes suffered a loss of Rs 1.25 crore.

In March, the state government decided to opt for a power policy with focus on micro projects. "The policy will make arrangements for each and every potent area to have its own power project according to its requirement," says Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. To expedite action on this, the government has opened its power sector for investment from non-government bodies.

The treaty's implications are not limited to power; farmers in the state are also pushing the government to take a rigid stand against it. j&k is facing severe water scarcity as a result of a six-year dry spell. The spread of agriculture has created a demand for water that j&k's canals simply cannot meet in years of poor rainfall. In 1998, rainfall in the state was deficit by just 1 per cent; in 2001, the deficit shot up to 42 per cent. In the last six years, the annual yield in rice has come down from 152 lakh quintals to 109 lakh quintals. Finance minister Beig points out that this may deteriorate the economy further, as the state would be diverting its already low purchasing power to buy rice from external sources.

The problem has been compounded by reducing forest cover, leading to top-soil erosion: every year, about 5 per cent of agricultural land is losing fertility. Diseases and pests have also been the bane of almost 70 per cent of cultivated fields. The state's changing climate has nurtured the blast disease in paddy fields, and apple scars and fungal infection in apple orchards. According to the state agriculture department, about 40 per cent less apples would be harvested in the coming five years if the diseases were not taken care of.

The cultivation of saffron, one of the mainstays of the sector, has been badly hit. Farmers in the state have traditionally returned to their saffron fields with the onset of sont , or spring. But the season has vanished, climatologically as well as metaphorically. "This season is no more, and snow and rain are erratic," says Imtiaz Ahmed, a 25-year-old saffron farmer in Pampore, India's largest producer of saffron. Some 226 villages comprising about 700,000 people are solely dependent on saffron for livelihood, according to the j&k Saffron Growers Association. In Pampore, the saffron fields are parched and farmers are gradually abandoning this cash crop. Kashmiri saffron, the state's most profitable cash crop, is losing its market to low grade saffron from Iran, which is cheaper.

Militancy dried up the flow of buyers for saffron. Middlemen stepped in to fill the vacuum, but with the rise in violence, they vanished as well. Then came the drought, and the yield dipped to just a few quintals a year. In the early 1990s, the yield was 2.8 to 3 kg per ha; this year, it was a mere 500 gm per ha. More agony -- in the form of the corn rot disease -- was in store for saffron cultivators; it has afflicted almost all fields in Pampore and is spreading.

Imtiaz, however, has not lost hope. His father had decided not to take up saffron cultivation this year, but he insisted on it. "I know that a bit of facilitation would revive the lucrative business," he says. But for Saukat Ahmed Bhatt, a 50-year-old saffron farmer who would soon be working as a daily wage labourer, everything is lost. Saukat used to cultivate 10 kanals (half a hectare) for saffron. Usually 1 kanal fetches about 1 kg of unprocessed saffron worth Rs 40,000. Last year, Saukat could manage to sell only 200 gm.

The j&k Saffron Growers Association has demanded seed banks where farmers can buy seeds at subsidised rates or on credit. Usually, out of 10 kanal lands, farmers keep two-three kanals for preservation of seeds. Many desperate farmers have used this reserve up to earn a few hundred rupees more.

Horticulture, another cash-earning sector, is similarly afflicted. Currently, of the state's one million families depending on agriculture, five lakh (25 lakh people) are practising horticulture. The sector contributes about Rs 400 crore to the state's gdp. But low productivity, poor quality and lack of processing facilities have taken their toll: growth is stagnating in almost all orchards. The state does not have a single processing unit, and is also suffering from a scarcity of wood for packaging apples.

In view of these issues, management of water in the state assumes critical importance. In the Kandi area (Jammu), for instance, water management programmes need to utilise the 500 ponds that are in ruins at the moment. Some of these ponds, spread over 10 acres, can meet almost the entire water needs of the region. Apart from feeding them with rainwater, small constructions can help divert runoff from seasonal rivulets into the ponds. Conservation tanks can be constructed along nullahs , from where water can be pumped into these ponds for distribution through pipes for limited irrigation.

The government's two major irrigation programmes -- integrated watershed development programme and the Ravi-Tawi irrigation project -- still have lessons to learn on water management. A case in point is that of the proposed Rs 57 crore Kandi Development Project. The World Bank (wb) has expressed its inability to finance the lift irrigation component of the project, but nabard has offered to bail it out. According to Paryavaran Sanstha, a Jammu-based ngo, providing limited irrigation to 5,000 acres through lift system up to a height of 300 ft would cost Rs 4 crore to install and Rs 6 lakh for annual maintenance. This works out to be Rs 20,000 per ha of irrigation potential creation, which is double the Rs 10,000 per ha irrigation potential cost for pond irrigation. Pond irrigation, thus, has obvious advantages, particularly in the short term. Some government departments -- including the Ravi-Tawi command area department -- are now toying with the idea of pond irrigation.

During an interaction with farmers in January, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed admitted that the state must revert back to traditional means for ensuring water security at the grassroots. The wb-funded integrated watershed development programme would be completing its second phase in 2004. Though beset with rampant corruption, the programme did convince people that a localised watershed development programme can bring respite. Some 28,500 ha of land were brought under the project in Pulwama district. The programme was successful in integrating local economic activities with water management and could be replicated for saffron growers as well.

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