Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Is Kashmir's Civil Society Finally Waking up to Dangers of Impending Ecological Disaster?

Two eminent writers - one a seasoned journalist and the other a retired senior bureaucrat - who were very vocal in their opposition to constructing brick and mortar comfort facilities for Hindu pilgrims trekking at 10,000 ft in unpredictable weather conditions turn their attention to serious ecological damage taking place in the valley, but lacking a religious angle is mostly ignored by the masses

India’s 120th rank in Environmental Performance Index (EPI) opens new debate


Kashmir has often been compared with Switzerland, unarguably for the right reasons. As times passed by, Kashmir’s murky power politics made its marketing USP to go haywire. When it comes to its brand value as a visitor’s destination, deplorably, we are talked about for wrong reasons. Slowly but surely Kashmir is turning into a cesspool, while Switzerland is making headlines for different reasons. Global environmental concerns are so grave today that the standard tool of measuring nations’ wealth and well being – Gross National Product – or GNP is being talked as “out-fashioned” nowadays. We have long stepped in an era wherein the human race is facing an existential threat – a sort of environmental catastrophe-in-the-making that is necessitating measuring nations’ wealth and well being with what is being called Green GNP.

A considerable beginning has already been made – in the form of global Environmental Performance Index (EPI), which has been jointly produced by the Yale’s Centre for Law and Environmental Policy and Columbia’s Centre for International Earth Science Information Network. The EPI idea has gone even further – it has just come up with a global index of countries based on their environmental performance. The findings have jolted the world. So guess who the top performers are, and who are the worst ones!

The EPI is said to reflect the best available data of all the world’s countries in 25 categories, which range from forests to water quality, fisheries to carbon emissions, assessing the hospitality of a nation’s environment to humans, and plants and animals. Generally, the small and wealthy Scandinavian countries of Europe are at the top of the index, while poor, war-torn African nations, including India, are at the bottom. In the index of 142 countries, India is at rank 120! Below it are some of the poorest and worst-governed countries of the world, mainly from Africa. Switzerland is at number one position, followed by Sweden, Norway, Finland and Costa Rica.

The United States has ranked 39th, while the only South Asian country to make it to the top 50s is Sri Lanka, which is at rank 50. Only three Muslim countries make it to the top 50 rankings, with Malaysia at an impressive 26th position, Albania 27th and Bosnia Herzegovina at 48th. Niger’s score is a mere 6 out of the EPI’s 100 point scale, which makes it the most inhospitable country on the planet to live on. When it comes to India, greater devil lies in the details of the EPI. Its air and water quality rankings have been rated as ‘poor’. On EPI, India scores a miserable 21 on sanitation, compared with 67 for the region and 48 for its income group. It is indeed hard to imagine that India’s 120th ranking is below all its income peers, except Angola and Cambodia – a position which stands in sharp contrast to its image of an emerging economic power house. The report has also noted that corruption and lack of accountability plague India’s efforts to enforce regulations and set priorities.

In its special report on India’s EPI last week, Newsweek, wrote, “If anybody needed a reminder of how crippling bureaucracy can be, consider the campaign to clean up the sacred Yamuna River in Delhi. The river oozes through town like a putrid ribbon of black sludge. Its level of faecal bacteria is 10,000 times higher than what’s deemed safe for bathing.” Beyond individual performance, the developers of the EPI have done some interesting comparative analysis as well. To assess how well countries are protecting biodiversity, they overlaid a map of national parks and other wildlife areas with satellite images, showing how much human encroachment had been forced upon these regions, allowing researchers to identify which countries have kept protected areas truly wild. The results showed the US, New Zealand and Botswana having done it well. And, yet again, India was found to have done poorly in preserving its protected areas.

Coming to Kashmir, the saddest part of the debate surrounding the Amarnath Yatra is that it has attained communal colors, when the question is fundamentally environmental. Kashmiri Muslims have exhausted their vocal chords telling the world and Hindu faithful that they are not communal, nor are they against the Yatra or their going on the pilgrimage. The environmental argument surrounding the Yatra has been lost in the communal din.

India’s EPI performance has also to be seen from the prism of its failure to make faith reconcile with nature. The country has lost most of its pristine natural reserves, particularly virgin rivers, streams, mountain eco systems and wildlife habitats to certain acts of faith, which were required to be reconciled to the imperatives of environmental preservation. Be it Gangotri, Yamuna, Ganga or other numerous places of faith falling in sensitive ecological areas, today’s ecological realities there are hardly heartening.

Promotion of large-scale and indiscriminate religious tourism in Kashmir – in disregard to the fragile ecology’s carrying capacity and the irreversible environmental loss – is self defeating. For the State to make laws which serve to destroy environment and ecology – rather than preserve them - is a great pity. Kashmir does not have an environmental policy, nor does it have policies for water and forests. If we do have some unwritten policies – they are at best paper-based documents of intent rather than implementable policy and practice guidelines.

One of the many misfortunes of Kashmir is that it has inherited the messy form of India’s democracy, where public good has gone into the drain of democratic anarchy. Byzantine bureaucracy and the overkill of democracy – basically a form of anarchy without responsibility – leave hardly any space for effective governance and laws based on common good. Abysmal governance is now being put to another test – a kind of faith which does not recognise and appreciate the God’s command to respect and protect Mother Nature.

The reason Kashmir and Switzerland can no longer be compared is that we are on two far divergent paths. The Alps are part of the whole Swiss mythology, just like Kashmir’s Pirpanjal, Zanaskar and Himalayas are rooted in our history and heritage. Swiss mythology promotes environmental protection, we are made to follow myths. Swiss can demand a referendum on the issues of their liking. They voted recently to construct world’s longest and deepest rail tunnel beneath the St. Gottard massif in the Alps – to divert heavy freight traffic off the roads. They also voted to ban heavy foreign trucks.

When Hans Peter Fricker, head of the Swiss office of the World Wide Fund for Nature was asked to comment on the country’s EPI distinction, he was quoted saying proudly, “You can swim in any of our lakes, and turn on any tap and drink the water with pleasure”. And Kashmir? At home we now drink bottled mineral water. Rivers and streams are drains for human excreta. Wild animals, like humans, are on the run. Air is turning toxic. There is a massive human onslaught on a small and beautiful vale which once upon a time we compared with Switzerland. Alas!

“Money-Minting Machine”
Mere admission of failure does not help restoration of the Dal Lake

M. Ashraf

On the World Environment Day, the former Chief Minister made a public admission of the failure of his Government to save the Dal Lake. He declared that the project to save the Lake had become a “Money-Minting Machine for the Politicians”. He failed to state that the “Machine” was a part of the set up of which he had been the Chief Executive. One cannot escape responsibility for any failure by simply admitting it. Morality demands that either the Chief Executive should summon the political will to immediately disband the corrupt “Machine” and handover the project of saving the Lake to some resourceful international agency on a turnkey basis or have the courage to resign from the post of the Chief Executive for his failure to save this living heritage of Kashmir! He did neither but ultimately had to go for some other reasons which among other things also included a major environmental disaster in the mountains! The declaration made by him on the World Environment Day appeared to be more emotional than rational. He could be held responsible only for last three years of inactivity in regard to the restoration of the Lake.

The former Chief Minister could be faulted for having been paralysed by political pulls and pushes preventing him from taking a decisive step at the highest level in handing over the Lake restoration to a resourceful international Consortium on a turnkey basis. Under the State Constitution he had all the residuary powers and could have taken a momentous decision if he had the will to do so! It must be emphasised that he did have a will to do things if he wanted. For his pet project of “Tulip Garden”, he paid almost 140 visits to the area. He was totally involved in setting up the Asia’s largest Tulip Garden and he made it a point to do so. He can take credit for having created an important tourist attraction for Srinagar. But what about Dal Lake? Why did not he have the same drive and enthusiasm for saving the Lake? Political compulsions or too many hassles! In any case, the Lake has been under restoration for more than 30 years and the failures too are that much old. The first failure occurred in 1977 itself. The best ever report for the restoration and conservation of Dal Lake was prepared in 1977 by a team of New Zealand consultants (Enex Consortium). The consultants had made some very practical recommendations for initiating measure to arrest the further deterioration in the condition of the Lake as also to restore it to previous glory. In a recent article, Mr.Rafique Khan from USA has detailed these recommendations.

These measures would have stopped accumulation of nutrients in the lake and over a period of time this would result in a net loss of nutrients that would in turn curb weed growth and thus improve the water quality. The Enex report provided cost estimates and based on analysis deemed the proposed improvements economically feasible. Unfortunately for some unknown reasons the Government of the time handed over the Enex Report to an “Expert Committee” which not only messed it up but totally retarded its implementation. It is said that the people not interested in taking responsibility and practical decisions always constitute committees. A committee is said to be a group of people who are incapable of taking individual decisions and reluctant to take collective responsibility! The greatest tragedy of Dal is the number of committees, expert groups, and consultants engaged for confirming a stark fact obtrusively visible to a common man that it is dying. Had the Enex report been implemented in true spirit by some resourceful agency, the Lake would have been fully restored by now. For some extraneous reasons another study was got conducted by Roorkee University. Then Austrians offered to take up the restoration with substantial assistance but their offer was spurned for some “understandable” reasons. Earlier the Overseas Development Agency of U.K. had also offered assistance but again it is reported to have been spurned. At one time the World Bank was also said to have agreed to provide Rs 250 crores for restoring the Lake but the fate of this offer is also not known. Recently, the University of Kashmir has offered to get actively involved in saving the Lake. However, once again it is going to be a survey and preparation of reports. Dal does not need studies or reports.

A simple drive along the Boulevard from SKICC to Nishat amply demonstrates that the Lake has already turned into a marsh! It needs action and that too drastic action and fast. For that we neither have the expertise nor the machinery and resources. LAWDA has been moving like a tortoise. To make it run like a hare it has to be overhauled and empowered. It is not functioning like a Statutory Authority, which normally it should have been, but as a normal Government Department under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. They are unable to take any independent action. The creation of a Statutory Authority is again a lengthy procedure. The Government needs to take direct action at the highest level. The ideal situation would be identification and constitution of a consortium (group) of multi-national companies having specialised expertise in all matters. These matters would include setting up of genuinely functioning STPs, drainage, sewerage, delisting, de-weeding, and also establishment of self-contained housing colonies on identified land for people to be taken out of the Lake. These companies would be able to work in unison on an accelerated pace within a given timeframe on a turnkey basis to implement the total project for the restoration of the Lake. The consortium should also have the responsibility of overseeing the Lake for at least ten years even after the completion of their initial turnkey project. There is no dearth of such companies in Europe, America or even in South East Asia such as South Korea and Japan. In fact all the non-resident Kashmiris who are very much concerned about the fate of the Lake can do the initial work of identifying the specialised agencies or companies that can undertake the project on a turnkey basis. They can even identify international investments for this globally important environmental project. The ultimate thing is the will of the highest political authority. Fortunately for us, at present all our politicians are on a forced holiday. There is only one single authority that has undoubtedly the will to do things, even the most difficult and impossible ones! Jagmohan is recalled for some bad patches in Kashmir’s history but he is also remembered for his fantastic town planning approach. The two roads which he tar macadamised during his first tenure namely Maulana Azad Road and the Boulevard Road have withstood travails of time for more than 20 years! Kashmiris in spite of his bad patch nostalgically recall his town planning acumen and vision.

The present Governor does not have any bad patches. However, he has a very short time as an independent decision making authority. Historical decisions do not need lots of time. These occur sometimes in a fraction of a second. If only he could engage himself in sorting out this most threatening environmental disaster facing Kashmir in consort with the highest authorities in the country, he will have his name carved in Golden letters in the history of Kashmir.

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