Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Hokersar or Hokera was designated as a wetland of international importance under the Ramsar Convention on November 8th 2005. This wetland of international repute (Ramsar Site) is spread around a large part of Srinagar and Budgam districts. The area of this wetland is around 1375 hectares or 13.75 square kilometres which is equivalent to around 27,500 kanals. Hokersar, also known as Queen of Wetlands, is fed by two freshwater streams namely Doodh Ganga from eastern side and Sukhnag which enters into this lake from western shore. The wetland continues to be encroached upon by illegal constructions and is choked with solid and liquid waste as well.
Hokersar is the abode of thousands of migratory birds who come all the way from Siberia, Eastern Europe and several central Asian countries to Kashmir during winters. Local young birdwatchers like Riyan Sofi and Javid told this writer that due to shrinking of Kashmir’s wetlands, including Hokersar, less number of birds have been seen in Kashmir especially around in the last few years. “Not only have many local residents encroached the Hokersar wetland, which is a Ramsar site but even government authorities are also responsible for its encroachment”, said Rayan & Javaid
Hokersar is the only site with remaining reed-beds of Kashmir and pathway of 68 waterfowl species like Large Egret, Great Crested Grebe, Little Cormorant, Common Shelduck, Tufted Duck and endangered White-eyed Pochard, coming from Siberia, China, Central Asia, and Northern Europe. It is an important source of food, spawning ground and nursery for fishes, besides offering feeding and breeding ground to a variety of water birds. Typical marshy vegetation complexes inhabit like Typha, Phragmites, Eleocharis and Trapa”
Construction of Degree College
There is a sort of competition between different towns and rural areas of J&K to get a Govt Degree College in their area. Unfortunately these degree colleges are only providing employment to a handful of teaching and non teaching staff while the rest of the students who pass out from these institutions are not well trained to face the challenges of the job market. In a place like Jammu & Kashmir where trained engineers, MBBS doctors or PhD scholars are jobless, how can we expect that simple BA or BSc degree holders will get good jobs? The Government on the other hand is setting up Degree Colleges in every town and village which according to me is completely a futile exercise.
The J&K government has allotted around 65 kanals of state land near Hokersar wetland reserve for construction of a government degree college at Soibugh. The J&K Projects Construction Corporation [JKPCC], a public sector undertaking under the J&K Government, has started earth-filling the wetland area. The Department of Wildlife Protection tried to stop this work but it has failed. The Range Officer, Lakes, Hokersar, Srinagar from the Wildlife Protection department, in his letter dated April 25, 2022, alerted the Wildlife Warden, Wetland Division, Kashmir and sought his intervention, but the officers from Regional Wildlife Warden to Range Officer seemed helpless as earth filling was not at all being stopped.
Clay dumping permission
The district administration Budgam through District Mineral Officer (DMO) Budgam gave permission for earth filling the site for Degree College near Soibugh. The permission was granted by DMO to one Khursheed Ahmad Dar R/O Nadigam Magam to lift 3885 metric tons from Bundgam village (Karewa land) near Magam against a royalty amount of Rs 83,474.
“The validity of disposal permit is with effect from 8.04.2022 to 2.05.2022 or till the permitted quantity is lifted or whichever is earlier” reads the short term disposal permit issued by DMO Budgam
Sources say that the required quantity of clay has been lifted already and the deadline date of 2nd May has also come to an end, but the tippers continue to dump clay around the construction site. The Range Officer of the lake area (Hokersar) earlier made a communication with his officer (Wildlife Warden) wherein he said that earth filling around the proposed Degree College site near Soibugh will affect the wetland ecology. The letter of the Range Officer reads
“As per your instructions, the undersigned along with a party of staff has visited the site located alongside Soibugh Road alongside Beat 3 (Geo-coordinates 34° 04’844’’ N 74° 42’815’E) where construction/earth filling is ongoing. Upon initial inquiry, it has been revealed that a degree college will be constructed at the site, and the project has been taken up by JKPCC. As the site is close to Hokersar and will seriously affect the water regime of the wetland, such mega projects will greatly affect the wetland ecology and birds that migrate through Hokersar each year.”
Pertinently, on March 8 this year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) imposed a penalty of three crore rupees on erring officers of the J&K government and polluters for not taking steps to control pollution and illegal mining in Doodh Ganga, which is prominent waterbody (stream) flowing through Srinagar and Budgam and a lifeline of Hokersar. In another case filed by this author for protection of Wullar, Hokersar and Kreenchu Chandhara wetlands, NGT issued several orders and Chief Secretary also appeared personally before the tribunal last year in November but again Govt has failed to fulfil its promise of clearing the illegal encroachments and ensuring scientific waste management under SMB Gramin around Hokersar or other wetlands.
Illegal Pump stations
The Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change notified the Wetland (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2017 to prohibit a range of activities in wetlands. The rules prohibit activities like conversion of wetland for non-wetland uses including encroachment of any kind, setting up and expansion of industries, waste dumping and discharge of untreated wastes and effluents from industries, cities, towns, villages and other human settlements.
In spite of such a huge penalty on erring government officers, the construction work on illegal water pumping stations near banks of Doodh Ganga in Chanapora, Barzulla, Bulbul Bagh is going on with full pace and not a single sewerage treatment plant has been constructed on Doodh Ganga.
All this is being done openly in Kashmir and the government is collaborating in these illegal acts. The J&K State Wetlands Authority, which was constituted in November 2020 is headed by the Chief Secretary with 17 other members (all government officials). This authority seems utterly unaware of what is happening to our wetlands, especially the Hokersar?
The money spent on construction of a Degree College near Soibugh could have been utilised for conservation and protection of Hokersar. This would have not only generated jobs for the locals but can boost tourism in the area. The newly created Degree Colleges across J&K have more staff members than students. Setting up more and more such colleges is a futile exercise and wastage of taxpayers money. Instead the Govt must start technical and job oriented courses in these colleges. This year on world wetlands day (Feb 2nd) Divisional Commissioner Kashmir Pandurang K Pole, visited the Hokersar wetland and spoke a lot about protection of Hokersar, but when it comes to implementing the NGTs orders on waste management under SBM Gramin around Hokersar, stopping illegal constructions or illegal earth filling in violation of Wetland Rules 2017, he also seems to be helpless. The State Wetlands Authority (SWA) headed by Chief Secretary needs to intervene and an urgent meeting be called on conservation and protection of Hokersar wetland.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman
J&K RTI Movement
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.