The Cambridge Dictionary has two definitions of the word Environment. As related to Nature, it says, “the air, water, and land in or on which people, animals, and plants live.” In relation to surroundings, it says, “the conditions that you live or work in and the way that they influence how you feel or how effectively you can work.” Wikipedia defines Natural Environment as, “The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things occurring naturally, meaning in this case not artificial. The term is most often applied to the Earth or some parts of Earth. This environment encompasses the interaction of all living species, climate, weather and natural resources that affect human survival and economic activity”. Kashmir is world over known for its natural environment. The beautiful snow-capped mountains, lush green forests, enchanting meadows, gushing mountain streams which appear like milk pouring from the mountain sides, shimmering lakes and beautiful flowers of all varieties growing on their own all over without the efforts of a gardener!
Unfortunately, over the years due to extreme material greed we have made every move to destroy the natural environment. The lush green forests have been indiscriminately cut down by the timber smugglers with the connivance of the forest officials and the security personnel. In fact, the State Governor recently made a statement to the effect that he knew the people who have become rich because of the exploitation of Kashmir’s forests. There is truth in his statement as not only the timber smugglers but the forest lessees who got the assignment of extracting legal timber made millions by illegal felling! At one time timber sleepers for almost all railway lines in India were supplied from Kashmir. The practice subsequently stopped when concrete sleepers replaced the timber ones. However, most of the forest damage has been done next to the population areas. There are still very dense forests deep inside mountain valleys unapproachable through roads. In fact, if the state forest department had used modern means of ropeways, lot of timber and firewood could be extracted from the deeper forests where it normally rots away. They do it in Canada.
The worst environmental damage has been done to water bodies and the vast agricultural land. Kashmir was a natural habitat for the migratory birds coming all the way from even Siberia. These birds used to spend entire winter in the wetlands of Kashmir like Hokersar, Haigam and so on. In fact, Wullar used to be known as the second largest sweet water lake in Asia after Lake Baikal. That is no longer true. It is virtually filled up with willows and all other type of vegetation. It has been encroached on all sides and only a small portion of clear water is left. In earlier times there were many stories about people having been caught in the storms of the lake. That is all gone now. Dal is a worst tragedy. We have physically eaten it away through vegetables grown all over its banks and even in the middle. There are 50,000 people living inside the clear water body of the lake on artificially made islands. Many schemes have been made to move these people out of the lake and settle them in different areas. But the project has always got delayed because these people represent a particular political “vote bank” for elections! The other water bodies like Gill Sar, Khushal Sar, Anchar and so on have virtually disappeared due to encroachments. These are now virtual marshes! Another serious threat to natural environment which is becoming a health hazard is the indiscriminate disposal of waste water into the river and the water bodies. There is no sewerage system and there are no treatment plants except a few around the Dal Lake. Same is the case with garbage. Tons of it is produced in the city but all is dumped in just one particular area without any treatment or proper disposal. The people living around the dumping ground have been regularly protesting as the stench has been making their life miserable!
As regards the agricultural land, it has been everywhere converted into colonies, shopping complexes, and so on. Ours is an agriculture based economy and we used to be self-sufficient but now we are getting everything from outside the state. Not only have we converted our lush green fields by raising brick and concrete structures on it but even the occupation of agriculture has been assigned by us to Biharis and other outsiders. We have become so lazy that almost a million skilled and unskilled workers are doing the jobs which normally Kashmiri youth should have been doing!
Recently, the Government has constituted a State Level Environmental Impact Assessment Authority Jammu & Kashmir and formulated State Level Expert Appraisal Committee to assist the Authority. The objective of the authority is to promote environmentally sound and sustainable development. In J&K there has hardly been any prior assessment of various developmental projects especially in regard to natural environment. Most of the projects are virtually started on ad hoc basis without determining the long term impact of these projects on the environment. Well, it is a very good move for future projects but what about some existing ones and what about the continuous damage being done to the natural environment everywhere? Who is going to take care of this? There are several laws on the statute book for taking care of the natural environment including the forests, water bodies and so on. However, there is no enforcement. A law without means of enforcement is meaningless!
Failure to take care of natural environment has resulted in what is a buzz word these days, the “Global Climate Change”! God Almighty has been very kind to us so far if one compares the weather here and in some other parts. The entire sub-continent and the Middle East experienced the worst heat wave. The temperature in some parts has even touched 68 degrees Celsius. There have been instances of trees starting burning and even setting nearby automobiles on fire. Even Europe and America have experienced severe heat waves! Some days back some parts of USA were caught in a severe heat wave. It may be too late for these places to take preventive action but we have a choice. If we even now wake up and try to save various components of the Natural Environment, we may escape the drastic consequences of the “Climate Change”. It needs a universal movement involving the entire civil society regardless of political affiliations or religious beliefs. The movement has to start even from the toddlers. Will someone give us a lead please before it is too late?
About the Author
Mr. M. Ashraf, IAS
Mr. M. Ashraf had been Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir in 1996 from which post he retired in 2003 after a total service of 30 years in Tourism.