Fight Over Future of Kashmir's Iconic Dal Lake

by VR Sreeraman on Oct 15 2009 12:59 PM

"I live here and I will die here," insists Safder Hussain, one of thousands of farmers defying relocation from Kashmir's famed Dal Lake which is slowly choking to death on sewage, silt and weeds.

The iconic mountain-ringed oasis that has seduced generations of visitors has shrunk to half its original size in the past two decades -- and the government has pointed a finger of blame at Hussain and 90,000 other lake dwellers.

For years they have eked out a tough but decent living, growing vegetables and fruit on floating "fields" made of reeds and composted weeds.

But now the Kashmir government wants them out -- by force if necessary.

"We will do whatever it takes to preserve this lake," said Nasir Aslam Wani, minister for preservation of water bodies in Kashmir.

The federal government in New Delhi has provided 230 million dollars for the conservation effort, and the lion's share of that is earmarked for the removal and rehousing of the floating farmers.

"Pesticides used by farmers find their way into the waters, causing colossal damage to fauna and flora," said Ajaz Rasool, a government engineer involved in the preservation project.

"The dwellers also discharge all their waste into the water body. Shifting them is mandatory for saving this lake," Rasool said.

The proposed solution has been to provide the uprooted farmers with plots in eight residential "colonies" not far from the Kashmiri summer capital Srinagar.

The project began two years ago, but so far only 1,300 have been relocated and many of those are far from happy with the trade off for giving up life on the lake.

"They only gave us a piece of land, nothing else," said Malla Begum, a widower with four children who was among one of the first to take up the government offer.

For Begum, the move cut her family off from from its main source of income -- selling the vegetable produce from their floating plot -- and provided no alternative.

"They didn?t give us a shop or a job. Our kids earn something and what little they earn, we eat at night," she said.

Her experience and that of others like her has only served to make those still living on the lake even more determined to stay put.

"Look, it's simple. If I leave this lake, I'll die of starvation," said Mumtaz Hussain, a 65-year farmer. "How will I earn? What will I eat?

"They should provide us jobs before moving us out," he said.

Local officials acknowledge the difficulties in persuading the farmers to move, but say the only alternative is the continued environmental degradation of a lake that is already in need of intensive care.

Over the past 20 years, encroachment, silting and pollution have caused Dal Lake to shrink by more than half to just 11 square kilometres (4.2 square miles) and lose 12 metres (40 feet) in depth.

The pollution is sometimes so bad that the blue-coloured waters run brackish green with the effluent flushed directly into the lake from hotels and houses on the shore.

Among the chief offenders are the lake's other main tourist draw -- more than 1,000 wooden houseboats which were once seen as a complement to the lake's beauty but now stand accused of accelerating its demise.

The first houseboats were built in the mid-19th century by British colonial officials who were attracted by Kashmir's moderate summer climate but were prevented from building on dry land by the state's princely ruler.

After independence they were converted into hotels and many others were built as their popularity grew, with high profile guests from royalty to George Harrison of the Beatles.

For the past 20 years, Indian Kashmir's Muslim separatist insurgency has hit the local tourist industry, but with the level of violence falling off significantly, the visitors are returning -- and the pollution levels rising.

Nearly all the houseboats pump untreated effluent directly into the lake, in which huge underwater tracts of weed that thrive on sewage have grown, choking out other plant species.

Six months ago, the state government told the houseboat owners to install proper drainage or face closure, but compliance with the order has been almost non-existent.

The owners complain that the equipment is too expensive and that they can't afford the investment at a time when business is only just beginning to recover.

Houseboat Association president Azam Tuman also believes his members are being unfairly targetted.

"What about the hotels around the lake? One hotel has more capacity than the houseboats combined together," Tuman said.