COLUMN SERIES | Dal Lake Needs a Cohesive Conservation Plan

In 2011, when David Mulford, the then US ambassador to India, sent a cable to Washington, he titled it, “Kashmiri politics is as filthy as Dal Lake.” Nothing surprising, considering the humongous corruption rackets that played around the Dal Lake. Ever since then if Kashmir politics got murky, Dal Lake got murkier. Ostensibly, Dal has been discussed since the last many decades, funds allocated and claimed to have been spent, but with each decade it has got even filthier.

The primary inflow channel of the Dal is Telbal Nallah from Mansar Lake, and primary outflow channels are Dal Gate and Nallah-Maer. While Dal Gate is regulated, Nallah-Maer is choked, almost inexistent now. Chont Kol is the only outflow link of Dal with Jhelum, where Dal drains, but Chont Kol is in terrible shape too. Dal, as on date, is nothing but stagnant, stale water, gasping to breathe.

Save Dal Project was launched in 1997 by the erstwhile Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, and allocated Rs 500 crore to clean the lake. The lake wasn’t as unclean then as it is unclean now. LAWDA – Lakes and Waterways Development Authority came into existence the same year.

Ever since its inception Dal shrank the most – from 22 square kilometers to about 10 square kilometres; all in a span of last 37 years, according to a 2017 report by the Dredging Corporation of India (DCI). Once upon a time, the Dal Lake was a glorious 75 square kilometres water body. Successive Chief Ministers have expressed their concern about the Dal Lake but at the end, it has been nothing more than posturing.

Most conservation plans have focussed on cleaning the Dal of its weeds, but the problem doesn’t lie as much in Dal as it lies outside of it. Ominous 4,000 kilograms of phosphates, 31,000 kilograms of nitrates, and 80,000 tonnes of silt go into Dal every year; weeds are just a side effect. Three sewage treatment plants (STPs) are located at Laam Nishat, Hazratbal, and Habak, but failure to monitor their malfunctioning further pollutes and endangers Dal.

Nearly 7,500 people living in around 1,200 houseboats in the Dal are not as much a threat to the lake as are habitations around it. Despite riveting its ambitions, LAWDA has failed to collaborate and gather experiences from bodies like the World Wide Fund (WWF) that has years of experience in helping clean freshwater systems. There has also been no effort to gather ideas from the Lakewide Action and Management Plan that was unveiled for the Great Lakes of North America.

It has also failed to collaborate with successful projects in India such as the Kudikunta Restoration Project in Hyderabad which serves as a very good example of how a concerted effort of local communities can help revive surface water bodies. Today the ability of LAWDA is suspect and dismantling it would be a good idea. If it has not been able to deliver till now, it will not be able to deliver in the future.

Dal Lake weed, which is nothing but water hyacinth, possesses a great deal of being an industrial product; but not much has been thought in that direction by Dal savers. Protein extracted from it can be used in animal feed, and waste products left can be turned into fertilizer and biogas. Until Dal gets clean, its weed can be a business model on its own. The plant processing water hyacinth can be installed around Dal only, so as to reduce transportation cost. Once treated, biogas may be enough to feed 1,200 houseboats in the lake.

People  living within Dal have a sense of responsibility towards it. It is their abode. So all plans to conserve and save Dal must, thus, begin with active participation of these people. Any Dal dweller would welcome it. No one knows Dal as much as they know it.

Corruption in the Dal is usually encouraged by people outside of it. People inside it are simply mute spectators. In 2001 the State Vigilance Organisation (SVO) unearthed a multicrore scam in LAWDA, a few years after Rs 500 crore Save Dal Lake project was launched to restore the lake.

By May 2001, 14 officers, including two executive engineers of LAWDA, were arrested. Though most of them obtained bail, around 11 engineers were also suspended. Talk to a layman in Kashmir and he would tell you that LAWDA can be divided into two groups – one that eyes big money from the top (government funding) and another then eyes big money from the bottom (public corruption).

Discussions with several natives around the Dal revealed that people who are entrusted to check the encroachment take bribes and allow these settlements. This also points to poor supervision and monitoring. Clearly, the UT administration needs to come up with a blueprint not only in the case of Dal but also in the case of other lakes and water bodies in the entire UT. We have 1200 of them, as reported by the department of ecology, environment, and remote sensing.

There is no corner of Dal that has not been left unscathed. Unabated constructions have been going on from the Lal Bazar side. Thousands of complaints are lying unattended which have raised issues of illegal constructions and encroachments and violations into Dal waters. No one listens. No one bothers.

The solution of the Dal Lake lies in evolving a robust strategy. The government can explore:

  1. A private-public partnership where the private party can extract and sell the weed as fertilizers. Alternately a build–operate–transfer (BOT) model of participation can be developed where the private consortium can recover its costs from developing fertilizers and biofuels from the weeds. It can also recover its costs from houseboats and shikaras under government-monitored pricing.
  • Stringent rules must be implemented so that encroachers are promptly penalized. Dumping of sewage water in the Dal can also be contained by levying steep penalties. A new sewage system can be developed around Dal so that residents have an alternate option.  The 1,200 odd houseboats can be equipped with vacuum toilets so as to stop the human waste from flowing into the Dal. Alternately the government can borrow experiences from the houseboats of Amsterdam that have all been connected to a pump unit that pushes the waste to a sewerage system.
    • The rich methane content of the weed in the Dal makes it ideal for the production of biogas and biofertilisers. Commercial exploitation of the Azola weed can also help to produce massive quantities of biodiesel because of the weed’s high oil content.
    • The thousands of tonnes of silt and other material that gets added to the Dal annually can be used to create artificial wetlands around the lake. These wetlands can serve as a biofilter and help treat the nutrients coming from the upper catchment areas.

The key problem in the Dal is the way interventions have been planned in a staggered fashion, in silos. Real conservation will require the coordination of multi-departments, working as a cohesive unit. Apart from the technology used for dredging and deweeding technologies like sensor based monitoring and aerial drone surveys will provide realtime data on work progress. A centralized portal can collate these realtime data for all stakeholders, including the public.

The public of Kashmir are equal stakeholders in the transformation of the Dal. It is time we reach out to citizens and apprise them that the Dal is a component that is ingrained in the idea of Kashmir and Srinagar. Without it Srinagar would be transformed into an urban morass – lifeless and bereft of a soul.  
Dr Sanjay Parva is a Kashmir-born writer and thinker and Dr Asim Chowdhury an academic and independent researcher.