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Saving the“Frozen” Dal Lake!

An article by M. Ashraf
former Director General of Tourism, Government of Jammu & Kashmir

Recently the Deputy Chief Minister accompanied by a large posse of his staff surveyed the Dal Lake to check its environmental conservation! One wonders how could the Minister check the environmental status of a frozen lake? May be the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority in Kashmir has invented some latest technology to check the health of a frozen lake?

  Dal Lake during winters
Dal Lake during snowfall winters

For some unknown reasons, most of the concerned authorities whether local or from outside judge the health of the lake on the Boulevard side. Ironically, the Lake is primarily taken as a tourist attraction and not as the living and throbbing heart of the 2,000 year old city of Srinagar. The Lake is not to be saved or restored for Tourists only!

The authorities as well as the people at large are yet to realize the extent of the deterioration in the health of this Lake and its connected water bodies. For last thirty years or so “efforts” from all sides are on to save the dying Lake. Unfortunately, the process is too slow and has failed to keep pace with the speed of its deterioration. Even though there are many plans formulated by foreign as well as domestic consultants, agencies and other technical organisations, yet the implementation of the measures to arrest the rapid pollution of the Lake and restoration of its health to earlier times is abnormally slow. Things are proceeding in piecemeal fashion and there is no concerted and comprehensive time bound plan.

We have been watching inauguration of weed cutters, excavators and so on. However, the number of these machines is miniscule compared to the enormity of the task. If the efforts to at least arrest the mushroom and uncontrolled growth of harmful weeds are to be realistically undertaken all over the Lake at one and the same time, it may require couple of dozen machines and a similar number of excavators. Moreover, one does not have to go for random and blind cutting of all weeds. The Lake has some useful weeds which are essential for the marine life. The cutting has to be on a selective basis. One hopes the concerned authorities are taking good care of that aspect?

The story of mismanagement of Dal Lake conservation has been told and retold umpteen times. It is a well known fact that the Comptroller General of India in their annual reports has pointed out the malaise of corruption involved in the conservation of this water body. Even there are some vigilance cases under trial in the relevant judicial forums.

However, the worst enemy of the Lake has been the politicization of the conservation effort. Some years back the judiciary had become very active in speeding up the conservation efforts. One had thought that the re-activation of the judicial process would give a fillip to conservation measures but if some of our politicians have the final say, then the Lake is doomed. Political interference has always been there in almost all developmental or other projects in the state. One would have appreciated if a project like the restoration and conservation of the Lake had been kept above politics.

It is the very heart of Kashmir and if it stops beating not only will Srinagar disappear but the “Paradise on Earth” will also lose its very meaning for the rest of the world. Dal faces two major problems. First is the shrinkage of the water body due to encroachments and the other is the deterioration of quality of water because of silting and flow of raw untreated sewage into the Lake.

The problem of the quality of water can be managed by involving internationally renowned agencies with appropriate technical expertise and sufficient resources by way of equipment and machinery. It needs political will at the highest level to go in for a turnkey job to be assigned to a resourceful agency to undertake the project on a time bound basis. The technology and expertise is available and needs only to be harnessed by brushing aside all political or other considerations.

For the first time all the top brass in the administrative department as well as in the field is fully prepared and eager to go for this alternative. They had even mooted the requisite proposals in this behalf. That proposal has been lost in the maze of Cabinet sub-committee! A decision at the highest political level both at the central and state level could have fructified the proposal. The million dollar question is will someone have the urge and honesty to take such a momentous decision? On that depends the fate of the Lake, which is not only a national heritage but a world heritage! In fact, there was a move to get the Lake declared as a “World Heritage” but that proposal too has been lost in some administrative maze!

The most important and decisive factor for restoration of the Lake to its ancient glory is the removal of encroachments. The water body has been reduced from more than 32 square miles to less than 11 square miles during last couple of decades or so. This is because of the land reclamation in the form of islands in the very heart of the Lake on which full fledged localities have come up. There are about 60,000 people living inside the Lake on islands. Government has been dithering with the removal and rehabilitation of these encroachers for last couple of decades.

Now, something seems to have been worked out but the process is again quite slow. In the meantime, fresh encroachers are having a field day! Apart from these encroachers within the Lake, its surroundings have an uncontrolled growth of hotels, guest houses, and private mansions. The new houses coming up around the Lake especially on the Boulevard-Nishat belt are truly mansions of the rich. Kral Sangri is a living example. A bureaucrat who raided these places and brought the violations to the notice of the authorities was very conveniently removed.

What annoys one is the total apathy of Kashmiri leaders towards the health of this invaluable treasure of Kashmir. The valley without its living water bodies is a dead land. Recently some of the leaders had been talking about some pressing issues such as power which are affecting the daily lives of the people. The most pressing issue is the wanton degradation of the environment of which the Dal Lake is the starkest example!

The Minister’s tour over the Frozen Lake reminded me of my days at the Regional Engineering College which used to be located in Naseem Bagh. In December, 1964 when the Dal Lake froze, we walked over it right up to Dal Gate. The water was crystal clear and it had turned into a thick sheet of ice on the top. At a number of places we could see fish moving below the thick ice layer. I wonder whether the Minister too was able to see the moving fish or the water is now too polluted to allow such a view?


Mohammad Ashraf  
This article has been contributed by Mohammad Ashraf IAS, of kashmirfirst.com who spent over 30 years in Jammu & Kashmir Tourism Department and retired as Director General Tourism, Governemt of Jammu & Kashmir. Mohammad Ashraf has been associated with the Adventure Sports at National level and is a past Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. He was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss at Les Diablerets in 1993, to commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the Patron of the Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.


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