As Kashmir’s Dal lake went under a sheet of ice last month, the mayor and deputy mayor of Srinagar got into a public spat over who was to clean it.

Junaid Azim Mattu, the newly elected mayor who is now affiliated with the People’s Conference, went on Twitter to question the Army’s participation in a cleaning drive launched on December 24.

Mattu also said the Srinagar Municipal Corporation had not entered into any “collaboration” with the Army to deweed the Dal.

Two days earlier, Deputy Mayor Sheikh Mohammad Imran had tweeted pictures of soldiers clearing weed extracted from the Dal and dumped on Srinagar’s Boulevard Road, which curves around the lake.

Imran, who won the municipal election on the Congress’s ticket, also said it was at his “request” that the Army had volunteered for the job.

For its part, the Army said it had joined a “pilot project” to clean the lake after the “state administration approached” it. “Dal lake is the pride of Kashmir and one of the most popular tourist attractions in India throughout the year,” it said in a statement on December 24, the first day of 21-day joint cleaning drive. “Due to various reasons, the health of the lake has been deteriorating, which is a serious cause of concern.”

This may be the first time the Army has ventured into the Dal lake for cleaning purposes. Cleaning drives on the Dal are not new to Kashmir. The famous lake’s shrinking size, pollution, encroachments in and around its catchment area have long fuelled public anxiety. In the last quarter century, the promise to save the Dal has often featured in election campaigns. But even though the lake’s preservation has been among the “priorities” of successive governments, there are fears it is dying.

Dire warning

In September, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court, ruling on a 16-year-old petition against encroachments on the Dal, observed that “despite this court monitoring the matter since 2002, despite over rupees four hundred crores of public money being pumped into the issues by the government, the authorities within the state have proved helpless and unable to effectively ensure some meaningful outcome.”

It was not the first time the authorities had faced the court’s wrath for their failure to conserve the Dal. According to the order, directions issued by the court on the matter over the last 16 years run into 13 volumes.

The court went on to issue a warning: “The matter has assumed criticality and unless some time-bound efficient measures are ascertained and implemented the Dal lake would be lost for ever.”

Conservation plan

Efforts to conserve the Dal date back to 1978, when the state government hired the ENEX consortium of New Zealand to study pollution in the lake. Based on the ENEX report, conservation work was taken up by the urban environmental engineering department in the late 1970s. Until 1997, the department had spent Rs 71.60 crore under various conservation projects, but with little success. “The state lacked the resources to restore Dal to its old glory, so we approached the central government and formulated a conservation plan for the lake as per the format laid down by the National Lake Conservation Plan,” said Ajaz Rasool, a retired hydraulics engineer who has worked on the lake’s conservation. “Under NLCP, Dal was the first lake to be taken up for conservation and we were granted Rs 298 crore for it. Since it involved borrowing of funds from other countries, a need was felt to create an autonomous body with clear cut objectives to conserve and preserve Dal. That autonomous body came to be known as the Jammu and Kashmir Lakes and Waterways Development Authority.” The authority was set up in 1997.

The conservation efforts were beset by two major problems from the beginning. First, the problem of sewage flowing into the lake. Second, the failure to rehabilitate people who had lived on the Dal for generations.

Most of Srinagar's sewage is flushed into water bodies like the Dal lake and the Jhelum river. Photo credit: IANS

Murky waters

“The ENEX report touched upon two aspects of the lake. Firstly, it said that the Dal lake’s catchment area, which is around 334 square kilometres, requires treatment. The erosion of top soil in the catchment area due to snowfall and rainfall had led to the increase in silt ingress in the lake. ENEX said it should be arrested,” said Rasool. “Secondly, it talked of houseboat sanitation. The question arises why only houseboat sanitation and not the sanitation of the peripheral population. They thought that treatment of the sewage emanating from the peripheral population would be taken care of by the local civic body, Srinagar Municipal Corporation.”

There lay the catch. “Srinagar is the only capital city in India which is still devoid of a sewerage system and a holistic sewage treatment mechanism,” explained Rasool, who now runs a private engineering consultancy firm in Srinagar. “With the population growing and civic amenities lacking, ultimately, the impact of bad things will be felt by environmental assets like a pond, river, lake.”

According to a study published in the International Journal of Scientific and Engineering Research in 2017, 15 major drains of Srinagar “empty into the lake, bringing along 18.2 tonnes of phosphorous and 25 tonnes of inorganic nitrogen nutrients”.

Last year, the State Pollution Control Board noted that of the 201 million litres of sewage generated in the city daily, the civic authorities had the capacity to treat just 53.8 million litres. As a result, 73% of the remaining sewage is flushed into water bodies like the Dal and the Jhelum river. This despite the fact that the city has five operational sewage treatment plants.

“All the STPs need to be upgraded and we have already started the process,” said Malik Tariq, public awareness officer of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority. “Besides, a major portion of the city is yet to be connected to the Brari Nambal STP. It is the job of urban environmental engineering department officials and they have not been able to do it until now.”

Out and in

In June 1986, the state put a moratorium on construction within the lake. In 2002, the High Court observed that the ban should apply to any kind of construction within 200 metres from the centre of the Foreshore Road, the Dal’s northern boundary. As of today, the lake is home to around 60,000 people, living in 58 hamlets. Over the years, hundreds of these families have been relocated in order to conserve the lake. But the rehabilitation schemes have been overwhelmed by problems, from botched housing plans to the failure to provide alternative livelihoods to those who depended on the Dal.

In 2007, the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority announced a plan to prepare housing plots for Dal dwellers at the Rakhi Arth wetland colony in Bemina, on the outskirts of Srinagar. The project was to be completed within three years, at a cost of Rs 416.72 crore. When the 2014 floods hit Srinagar, the colony was submerged. By 2018, the authority had been able to allot only 2,600 of the proposed 10,500 plots.

A 45-year-old Dal dweller shifted to the Rakhi Arth colony after being allotted a plot of land in 2017. “Soon, I was out of work,” said the father of three who asked not to be identified. “From my grandparents to my son, we have eked out our livelihood from the Dal. I could not do that anymore since it would mean travelling around 40 km daily. The government needs to understand that a Dal dweller has to be around the Dal. For centuries, manual deweeding by us cleaned the lake and the same weeds helped us grow vegetables. I cannot learn a new skill now to earn my livelihood.”

Just a few months after he built a house at Rakhi Arth, the man said, it started developing cracks. Left with a crumbling house and no source of livelihood, he constructed a makeshift shed on the edge of the lake. “At least I am close to the Dal now,” he said. “Thankfully, my agricultural land is still here. Otherwise, I would have had to start begging.”

He is now among the hundreds of manual labourers hired by the state to clean the Dal. He claimed many other relocated Dal Dwellers have sold their plots or moved back to the lake after finding themselves without work.

Not that those who stayed behind have fared much better. In Moti Mohalla, in the heart of the lake, few expect the Dal to survive. Many are bitter with politicians and the lake authority. “Dal is a goldmine for LAWDA and a vote bank for politicians,” said Ghulam Hussain, 65, a resident. “Politicians know that nobody comes out to cast their vote in Srinagar. That is why they throng the Dal’s interiors during elections to woo our voters because we are vulnerable. They make promises of giving us drains, constructing roads and building hospitals in the Dal’s interiors. Unfortunately, many of us succumb in hope and go out to vote. Once they are elected, nothing happens.”

Given the Dal’s vast expanse, conservation and rehabilitation involve four of Srinagar’s eight assembly constituencies.

Officials in the lake authority claim there are other reasons why rehabilitation schemes have not been popular. “Since most of the population in the Dal’s interiors belongs to the minority Shia community, there is always a danger of the drive being viewed through a prism of sectarianism,” explained a top official. “It is not an easy job.”

Several other officials complained of “political interference”. “We are autonomous only on paper,” another top official rued.

The Lakes and Waterways Development Authority is accused of misspending Rs 759 crore allocated for the Dal lake's conservation since 2002. Photo credit: Athar Parvaiz

Funds not spent?

In the interiors of the Dal, residents complain about a nexus between the lake authority officials and a chain of brokers that ensures the allocation of plots is expedited for those ready to grease palms. Indeed, several officials of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority face corruption charges while the authority has also come under the scrutiny of the State Vigilance Commission. For one, it stands accused of misspending Rs 759 crore allocated for the Dal conservation since 2002.

But the authority’s officials countered that it is a “negative perception” that the funds were misused because there are no visible results of conservation. “This Rs 759 crore was not to clean the Dal,” said Haroon Ahmad, financial adviser to the lake authority. “Some 65% of the money was utilised for the rehabilitation of Dal dwellers. Only 35% was meant for conservation of the Dal.”

He listed the many heads under which money had to be spent. “People need to understand that when we are talking of conservation, it includes preservation of catchment area, soil erosion, deweeding, machinery, enforcement of the ban on construction,” he explained. “We have to understand that LAWDA was created for the Dal and the department had no prior machinery, infrastructure, technology and other essential manpower and salaries. It can be said that the funds we have got until now were not directly for cleaning the lake but to first establish necessary mechanism for that.”

Ahmad said the state needs at least Rs 7,000 crore to conserve and manage the Dal. “We have finalised the estimates for the second phase and we will be submitting a Rs 1,500-crore plan to the government in April,” he added.

Is Dal really shrinking?

There is a general consensus that the Dal is shrinking, but the debate about the lake’s original size continues. Many claim that at some point, it measured 50 to 75 sq km. According to the lake authority officials, the earliest credible estimate of the lake’s size comes from the 19th century British settlement commissioner Walter Lawrence. In his book Valley of Kashmir, Lawrence wrote that the lake was spread over an area of 25.86 sq km, of which 18.21 sq km was water surface while 7.65 sq km comprised landmass, habitation and vegetation. This assessment was seconded by the various government agencies tasked by the High Court to measure the lake in 2009 and 2012.

“It’s a perception that Dal is shrinking in size,” said Malik Tariq. “We issued notices to the general public to come up with some documentary evidence establishing that the Dal was once 50 to 75 sq km. However, till date, we have received no such evidence.”

Rasool predicted that any effort to measure the Dal would fail. “As per the ENEX report, the government had to delineate the lake’s border on its northern and western shores,” he explained. “While the northern boundary of the lake was delineated, there is no clear boundary on its western shore. If done, it would have prevented encroachment of the lake and people would have got an idea that they cannot go beyond a certain line.”

Failures like these have led many people to blame the lack of political will and a lackadaisical bureaucracy. But the lawyer Zafar Ahmad Shah, who was appointed amicus curiae in the Dal Lake petition by the High Court, claimed that no one agency can be held responsible. “So much work has to be done within and outside the Dal,” he said. “Cumulative deficiencies retard the work. The directions given by the High Court are commendable. The awareness has increased and all officers have been made accountable. There’s some expert opinion now available as well and there is a desire and anxiety within the government to do something. But the human element is there and it takes time.”