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Above: Labourers de-weeding the Dal Lake to restore its former glory/Photo: UNI

Quite like other water bodies in India, the Dal Lake too is dying a slow death. The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has now stepped in with time-bound measures to rescue it from sewage and effluents

By Pushp Saraf  

Efforts are on by the judiciary to save the iconic Dal Lake. Recently, a division bench of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court headed by Chief Justice Gita Mittal and including Justice Sanjeev Kumar said that the “Dal Lake will die” if “Herculean”, “multi-pronged” rescue operations are not undertaken on a “war footing”. It has fixed a time schedule for government authorities to take numerous steps to save this historic water body.

The Dal Lake is the pride and joy of the Kashmir Valley, especially Srinagar, and one of the key tourist attractions. A boat ride on its placid waters in the backdrop of the picturesque Zabarwan range is a must for tourists. However, human greed is consuming the lake. Its area has shrunk to 13.5 sq km from 50 sq km half a century ago. It is inhabited by about 70,000 people living in pucca houses, houseboats and dungas (old-fashioned houseboats not as luxurious as modern ones which have top-class furniture and intricate wood panelling). There are 911 houseboats, all but one registered. In addition, there are 140 dungas where cooking and other activities are undertaken for guests living in houseboats.

The sewage from all these, including night soil, sullage and solid waste are released into the lake. There are floating gardens where chemical fertilisers and pesticides are used to increase production, harming the quality of the water. Existing sewage treatment plants (STPs) have outdated technology. A substantial part of the northern side of the lake is inundated by effluents from nearby habitats which don’t have STPs.

In addition, the catchment area, covering 337 sq km is extensively cultivated. As a result of this, weeds, commercial fertilisers and chemicals flow towards the lake, causing its “slow death”.

All these details are based on court judgments from time to time, a reported study of Kashmir University and findings of the first report of a Court-appointed Committee of Experts (CoE). The coordinator of the CoE is Nivedita P Haran, a retired IAS officer credited with experience in disaster management and labour migration. Its other two members are MC Mehta, a well-known environment lawyer hailing from Jammu and Kashmir, and Mangu Singh, CEO of Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.

After 2002, a whopping sum of Rs 759 crore was spent in the name of the lake, but, shockingly, has gone down the drain. A bench headed by Chief Justice Mittal and including Justice Dhiraj Singh Thakur had in a judgment on September 18, 2018, stingingly observed: “Over four hundred crores of rupees have pumped into the issues relating to the Dal Lake by the Govt. of India. The authorities of the State claim to have spent Rs. 359.93 crores from 2002-03 to 2018/19 ending 08/2018 with nothing to show for it as so far nothing appears to have happened on ground. We are of the view that given position on the ground deserves to be investigated. However, saving the Dal Lake being more critical, we shall defer this issue as at present… We have no manner of doubt that immediate measures are necessary before the critical situation is rendered hopeless.”

The September 18 judgment reflected the renewed determination of the Court to save the lake despite lack of response by concerned authorities. It appointed the CoE and on the basis of its report, the division bench has now ordered time-bound measures. It recalled past experiences and said the matter has “engaged the attention of this Court for a period of almost 16 years”. Expressing its anguish, the Court said: “The order sheet in the case runs into 13 volumes. A cursory examination thereof would show that the repeated agony has been expressed by the Division Benches with regard to the failure as well as inability of the respondents to take effective steps for discharging their constitutional statutory as well as public law responsibilities.”

It specifically recalled at least three previous rulings. A ruling on August 18, 2015, attributed the decrease in the lake’s area to “illegal constructions and encroachments because of such construction” and remarked that “a large area of Lake has been eaten up by ever expanding neighborhoods and commercial buildings like hotels, guest houses and restaurants. Lackadaisical approach on part of law enforcing agencies has emboldened land mafia, tresspassers and encroachers to undertake earth filing of peripheries of Lake resulting in further decrease in its area”. Another judgment on March 23, 2009 declared the lake “custodia legis”, while a judgment on July 19, 2002, disallowed construction activities “within 200 metres from the centre of the offshore road” and in restricted and green belt areas.

CJ Mittal and Justice Thakur observed: “Despite all of the above, the situation of the Dal Lake continues to regress and the position remains dismal… the authorities within the State have proved helpless and unable to effectively ensure that some meaningful outcome results.” Competent authorities did not inform the Court about violations and citizens largely stayed back for fear of reprisal by violators.

The High Court’s latest order follows an unambiguous warning by the CoE: “If the situation continued with business as usual, the Lake will not survive beyond 30 years maximum.” Based on the CoE’s finding, the Court in December said that “the Dal Lake is dying. The pollution load in the Lake has reached such alarming levels that unless something is done with urgency and alacrity, it may be impossible to save the Lake”.

The CoE reached the conclusion after collecting “first hand evidence” and interacting “with a host of experts, both scientific and technical, officials at every level and non-state actors”. One of its findings was that there was a mismatch between intentions and performance: “…there is no dearth of authorities or regulations. The problem seems to be primarily of enforcement and implementation”. It pointed out: “The flow-in of pollutants into the Lake has continued unrestricted for so long now that it has turned the Lake into a congested, sludge-filled, weed-infested body. If the Dal is to be saved, many of the cruel, inconsiderate, and some criminal activities need to stop and stop at the earliest.”

It has cited scientific data to support its arguments.  This prompted CJ Mittal and Justice Kumar to stress preserving “the continued existence of the Dal Lake”. This, in the CoE’s opinion, “is imperative for climatological, geological, ecological, economic and socio-cultural reasons” as “the Dal is the epicentre of Kashmir and a pride of this place, nay, our country” and “tourists visit Srinagar only for a glimpse of the lake, to admire its beauty and to take a ride on its once-sparkling clear water”.

The division bench gave a slew of directions. These included: Secretary, Department of Environment and Forest, to make available geological or any other maps, satellite, digital or other imageries setting out the boundaries of the lake and the variations thereof over a period of time; dismantling and clearing floating gardens within six months; creating a fully-dedicated body called the Dal Lake Conservation and Development Authority; the existing Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) responsible for the maintenance of the lake to ascertain within one week details of families exclusively dependent on vegetable cultivation within the lake and rehabilitate them by providing avenues for gainful employment including agriculture and to undertake effective steps for simultaneous cessation of all vegetable cultivation over the next three months; to issue notices asking commercial establishments to instal technically suitable and environment-friendly arrangements within three months for treatment of sewage and sullage within their premises without releasing them into the Dal or any nallah that flows into the Dal or any other lake and seven-day notices to houseboats for removing illegal constructions.

The Court made it clear that it would evoke the “polluter pays” principle: a polluting unit shall have to shut down its operations and deposit a penalty of a minimum of Rs 50,000 with LAWDA, subject to enhancement upon consideration of the nature and magnitude of the violations. The Court’s other directions include creation of general awareness, fixing the number of houseboats that can be ideally anchored; fitting them with bio-digesters and clearance of effluents in accordance with norms.

Observers are keeping their fingers crossed about how much follow-up will be done in view of the dismal record earlier. Rising Kashmir, a leading English daily of Srinagar, in an editorial after the September 18 judgment, put it succinctly by saying, “the keen interest shown by J&K high court in saving the lake is worth appreciation, especially given the fact that successive governments have not gone beyond lip service in restoring the pristine glory of the world famous water body”.

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