In areas that experience more political tensions including those relating to conflicts, environmental problems tend to be sidelined and neglected. This can lead to less remedial actions than in other comparable areas, while problems continue to increase.
This can be seen in Jammu and Kashmir. While environmental problems have been widely discussed in the context of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, despite the issue being equally serious in Jammu and Kashmir, these have not received the same attention here.
So it is nice to see several members of the younger generation taking keen interest in environmental issues in Jammu and Kashmir. One example is the way in which several young persons have taken the initiative to clean the polluted and badly threatened Tawi river in Jammu for quite some time. They certainly need, and deserve, much more support from the authorities.
Another good sign in an overall bleak scenario is the positive role of the National Green Tribunal in the context of checking the harm to Tawi and Chenab rivers. In the course of highway widening work massive amounts of muck was being thrown into rivers and the NGT stepped in to not just check this but also ordered a plan to repair the damage already done. Again the initiative to approach the Tribunal came from courageous local persons committed to environment protection.
The authorities should make use of this increasing awareness and zeal of particularly the younger generation to take up ecological protection responsibilities in a more planned way with greater commitment.
The overall context here is of fragile ecology and geology of the Himalayan region (including foothills and adjacent plains), coming under increasing stress in times of climate change. In addition militarization inevitably leads to greater ecological stress in any such region. On the other hand, peace with justice and environment protection go hand in hand and contribute to the sustained welfare of all sections—this should be well appreciated on all sides.
Conditions of strife and tensions, while harmful in themselves, allow powerful persons to use this as a cover to get away with ecologically destructive activities like river sand mining, hill-side mining and illegal felling of trees.
Shrinking glaciers will increase several longer-term problems, so it is all the more important to look after the health of rivers and other water bodies. Yet sand mining and muck deposition have played havoc with the health of important rivers, as also solid wastes, sewage and industrial pollution. Official data tells us that the area of the Dal Lake has reduced from 2547 hectares in 1971 to 1620 hectares in 2008. Less discussed is the vanishing of so many water bodies in big urban centers like Srinagar, due to construction boom, rising land values and encroachment. Naturally endowed paddy land has faced similar fate at several places.
Some critical changes in landscape certainly have the potential to increase disasters like landslides and floods, as denial of natural water-flow paths as well as water bodies which can absorb water can increase the frequency and the intensity of floods. The recent aggravation of very disastrous floods in Uttarakhand by hydro projects and other indiscriminate constructions has raised similar worries here.
Environment protection should also be linked to improved food security in terms of sustainable production of more staple food with higher emphasis on natural and organic farming and protection of indigenous seeds and crop varieties. In the past the thoughtless takeover of natural paddy land as well as introduction of polluting industries in areas known for such valued local crops like saffron has been very harmful. Orchards of apples and other fruits should follow environmental precautions like avoiding vast monocultures and the resulting higher dependence on chemical pesticides. Natural pollinators should be very well protected and this should get high priority. Biodiversity relating to farming, orchards as well as forests should be well protected.
The steady degradation of forests should be checked on the basis of urgency. Sustainable livelihoods linked to protection of forests and wild life should be promoted so that people have a higher and better involvement in protection of forests from illegal felling, poaching, fires and other threats.
Tourism and pilgrimage should be given ecologically protective orientation in various ways. Visitors should be encouraged to behave in ecologically responsible ways, and also contribute to afforestation and ecological rehabilitation of various sacred sites and their surroundings. The recent directions given by the National Green Tribunal relating to various precautions in the expansion of highways should be carefully followed. In the case of such construction projects local communities should be consulted so that better ways of minimizing ecological cots can be found and followed.
Nature no boundaries and the tasks of environment protection will progress much better on both sides of the border if there is mutual cooperation. On the other hand tensions and discord will make the challenges more difficult, particularly in matters relating to rivers and water. Peace will help much to promote environment protection as well, particularly to protection of shared rivers.
All well-wishers of the region hope that its increasingly serious environmental problems can get much better protective attention in the near future.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Protect Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril’, ‘Protecting Earth for Children’ and ‘India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.’