A few days back a division bench of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court directed the Monitoring Committee earlier constituted by government to quickly evolve result-oriented permanent mechanism for conservation of Dal Lake and other water bodies in Kashmir. So, Dal has once again assumed a priority significance for the government.
To deliberate upon the most complex issue of Dal, let me borrow some lines from Haseeb Drabu's article 'Reviving Dal Lake: A Corporate Approach' published in this newspaper in June 2011. 'Dal is not just a water body. It is a socio-ecological structure built on the relationships between the water body and the human population. The dwellers, especially the houseboat owners or the vegetable growers are as intrinsic part of the structure as the water itself… The Dal lake is what it is because of the life on the lake.'
Environmental hazards marring the natural beauty of Kashmir have always remained a concern. High on the agenda is to bail Dal, long back been declared an endangered water body, out of the pollution. Today, we are told by the environmentalists that this 150-year-old tradition is facing threat of extinction.
Notably, in March 2009, J&K High Court while taking serious note of the state government's failure to stop deterioration of water bodies took over the custody of four lakes, including Dal Lake. Later, the court, in order to combat pollution in the Dal Lake, asked houseboat owners to suspend their operations until they make some alternate arrangement to their waste disposal. Following the court order, the government had asked houseboat owners to install sewage treatment units on their houseboats within 90 days – or face closure. The High Court had even issued directions to shift houseboats in Dal lake from Boulevard to Doldum area of Nishat in outskirts of Srinagar.
At the moment, the thunderclouds are hovering over the houseboats. The blame is on the primary stakeholders – houseboat owners – who have never taken care of the Lake, which nourished them. They threatened its existence by polluting it, as they never cared about the waste management. So, it's their own future which is at stake.
It's worrisome that the life span of houseboats too has drastically gone down. In fresh waters, its life span is about 60 years. But in the current polluted water body, the life span, as the experts have put it, is hardly 40 years. Most of the 1,200 houseboats floating on the waters of Dal and Nigeen Lakes have completed their shelf life and technically could be put out of action
So, under the circumstances, the focus should be to protect the existing houseboats. The death of the houseboats would have a devastating effect on our tourism industry. The houseboats are the heart of this industry. If they stop operations, the tourist trade will die its own death.
Plans should be devised to allow entry of tourists in to the Dal Lake in an organized manner and their stay in houseboats should be brought under time limit. Exploring new tourist destinations in the State, particularly the Valley is ok, but there is also need to put a coordinated effort to preserve heritage sites and promote them as tourist destinations. We have a huge potential to promote heritage tourism. An amalgamation of Buddhist monasteries and paintings of Ladakh, palaces and temples of Jammu, mountains and Sufi shrines of Kashmir, with each one having a distinct architecture, the state is rich and varies in this respect.
Ironically, nothing much has happened on this front, as preservation of this heritage is at stake. Why not to exploit the state's rich cultural heritage along with modern allurements in the shape of shopping, food courts, multiplexes and music festivals at such places? This will take some pressure off from the Dal Lake, as tourist would get engaged in exploring these destinations.
Above all the life on the Lake should be protected, conservation will follow automatically. Here all the stakeholders collectively need to shoulder the responsibility.
(The views are of the author & not the institution he works for)