Thursday, July 28, 2011

The threatened environment of Kashmir

As the plane came to a halt at the Srinagar Airport one of the cabin crew denied us exit from the rear door. She said passengers had to go out through the front door as the Airport had an aerobridge. Surprised, I thought to myself that through the twenty-odd years of militancy the process of development in Kashmir had mercifully not been discontinued. It said much about the Centre’s patience with the turmoil that persisted all around in the Valley as also its belief in the efficacy of improvements in physical conditions on the ground. Perhaps, these were paying off now as this year Kashmir, seemingly, broke all previous records of tourists’ arrival. Our plane flew with a full load of passengers. It was not the only one; many more were flying in everyday as a result of the government’s “open skies” policy.

My wife and I were revisiting Kashmir after a hiatus of more than four decades. I had visited Kashmir once in 1957 with my parents and, then, I was there on a posting in the late 1960s. The changes we noticed during our brief visit, therefore, appeared to us to be remarkable. Hence, the surprise at being told about the aerobridge and the numerous jets that zoom in and zoom out every day. Time was when Srinagar had a non-descript airport – like the ones in many smaller towns of the country. It used to get only a couple of Indian Airlines flights every day – one hopping that connected Delhi via Amritsar and Jammu and the other connected Delhi directly – not by a jet but by a propeller-driven twin-engine Viking. The first jetliners to arrive were the French-built Caravelles that used to fly into Srinagar generally on alternate days. It is a far cry since then, with jetliners with full passenger loads now virtually milling around at the Airport.

Yes, Kashmir has changed and one sees drastic changes at practically every step. As we moved out of the terminal building to get to the travel agent’s vehicle we had to walk quite a distance to the parking lot where there was a veritable jungle of sport utility vehicles (SUVs) – mostly of tour operators. Forty years ago there were no SUVs and the few cars, mostly government vehicles, which would ferry passengers to and fro would be parked near the entrance to the terminal. It used to be a quiet place with few people hanging around before and after a flight – not the multitude one comes across today in a place that is now much larger yet gives one a feeling of being cramped.

Taken to Gulmarg on first leg of our visit to the Valley changes were visible right through the fifty-odd kilometre journey. Srinagar seems to have expanded towards Tangmarg for miles. Even villages looked somewhat bloated and, more importantly, with better housing. While concrete structures have apparently proliferated old houses have no longer the conventional roofing. Almost all seemed to have shiny corrugated tin roofs gleaming in the sun. Signs of progress and prosperity were amply visible and, happily even rural families have been touched by them. The numerous roof-top DTH mini-dishes testified to that. One could see an occasional tractor preparing the soil for the next crop. Farmers evidently have taken to farming of strawberries in a big way. Not only wayside stalls have been set up offering the fresh stuff, passersby are also invited to visit the strawberry fields.

Gulmarg is no longer of the same expansive green meadows I remembered from my first visit in 1957 where only a few stray horses grazed, presenting a picture-postcard view. It seemed to me to have shrunk, having become somewhat like a bigger-sized Khajiyar, a now ruined and over-built once- beautiful hill-station of Himachal Pradesh. Too many hotels and other structures have come up that seem to have the sinister motive of ‘crowding out’ the famous green spaces. There were too many tourists and, naturally, too many SUVs and far too many horses which have munched away the grass with gusto in some patches of the meadows down to the bare earth. It was only half way through the season and yet the things did not look very encouraging. Clearly, the place was being over-exploited; tourism pressure, particularly in summer, was seemingly adversely impacting its ambiance and ecology.

Down in Srinagar once again one noticed changes. Flyovers and over-bridges have come up to tackle that 21st Century menace of wanton automobile traffic. Apparently, those had become inevitable as was amply evidenced by the situation at Dal Gate – the place from where the famed Boulevard takes off. It was choked with traffic and the traffic-cops, (would you believe?) wearing gas masks, were trying their best to manage it. Far too many hotels, restaurants and shops have come up around the place, No wonder there are frequent jams. The Boulevard used to be the place where people used to go to take long walks and catch some fresh air. But, I saw locals sitting on the parapets along the waters of the Dal wearing gas masks to fend off the noxious fumes – a telling symbol of the current state of affairs. In and around Srinagar traffic jams have now become usual – on the main highway to Jammu near Badamibagh or near the saffron town of Pampore. We faced jams even in Khanabal near Anantnag on way to the other famous tourist resort of Pahalgam. That such jams have deleterious effects all round need hardly be emphasised.

While the beautiful Mogul gardens are doing well the fabled Dal Lake is not in a happy state. It was devoid of its blue hue and appeared green despite the uncluttered blue skies above. The recent efforts at cleaning the Lake do not seem to have helped. Acute eutrophication has caused intense weeding. The Central Government has intervened with massive aid but it hardly seems to be working. The machines deployed for de-weeding are proving to be unequal to the job. Sewage from houseboats continues to go into the Lake. Unless that is stopped infusion of cash may not help. The ring of sewer line is yet to materialise. No wonder, one can see the slogan of “Save the Dal” painted on walls. Will mere slogans help?

Cricket bat manufacturing seems to have become big business. Kashmir willow bats used to be available even when we used to play cricket about sixty years ago. If I recall, they used to be made in the Punjab then. But bat manufacturing has now become a thriving industry in the Valley. The Indian Premier (cricket) League has given it a fillip. On both sides of the highway we saw thousands of clefts stacked up, presumably to air-dry them to reduce the moisture content. Quite obviously, willows are being cut down in large numbers. In England for every willow tree felled for manufacturing cricket bats two are planted and carefully tended. One hopes this is what is being done in Kashmir too or else the industry will die a natural death.

The climate, too, has changed. The summers have become warm. We found Srinagar too warm for the month of May and had to use electric fans which were just not there forty years ago. Now they apparently are standard fixtures in all buildings. Though it could be because of the general warming of the globe but it would be a folly to put the blame entirely on it. Legal and illegal felling of trees, too many tourists and too many vehicles should also be reckoned among the reasons. Perhaps, it is time for the authorities to objectively evaluate the pros and cons of uncontrolled tourism. One does appreciate that tourism is the mainstay of the local economy yet one wonders whether unrestrained influx of tourists during the short season is sustainable. Every place, whether the tourist spots of Gulmarg or Pahalgam and suchlike or the places that are environmentally ravaged every year during the Amarnath pilgrimage by ever-increasing numbers, has a “carrying capacity”. An influx beyond that capacity surely is unsustainable, at least in the long run.

Although nothing can, probably, detract from its fabled scenic beauty, yet unless care is taken to ensure environmental conservation Kashmir known as the “Paradise on Earth” may not remain so for long.