An imminent environmental disaster is in the making in famous ski-resort of Gulmarg where the Indian Air Force is planning to set-up a radar system in the protected wildlife sanctuary area, apart from constructing a helipad in the forest area, on around 14 hectare land.
Documents accessed by Greater Kashmir reveal that the radar named 'air defence sensor and weaponry' is proposed for construction in the protected area of Gulmarg wildlife sanctuary and for this, at least 1.18 hectare land is proposed to be notified from the protected area network and 12.35 hectare from the territorial forest division (Jhelum Valley division), of Baramulla district in northern Kashmir.
Estimated at Rs 300 crore, the 'mountain radar project' is part of the 'national defencemodernisation' plan aimed to 'enhance air defence capability in the mountainous terrain of northern and eastern part of the country.'
"The project is required for better radar visibility inside Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Pakistan. There is no service available in the region to track the aerial activity in the PaK region which has been a threat to various military and militancy activities during peace and war. Aerial activities in the area are a cause of concern," reads a communication by the IAF to the state government. "The proposed deployment of server and weaponry is vital to providing such capability. After the installation of the system, activities inside the Pakistan territory would be monitored and shall provide an edge in detecting aerial or incursion attempts across the line of control. This will also increase the defence capability of the entire Kashmir region."
An official said that the proposal first came up for discussion during the third meeting of the state board for wildlife (SBW) in September 2013. The meeting had recommended environment impact assessment (EIA) of the project. After a couple of years, the issue was again taken up during the 4th meeting of the SBW, chaired by then chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, on 21 November 2016.
"The EIA was done which suggested that the project will not lead to any tangible adverse environmental impact on ecology of the area. It was again discussed in the meeting of SBW on 22 November 2016 where it was decided that the chief minister and forest minister will visit the site along with experts to take final call on the issue," read the minutes of the meeting.
However, a source said that the then chief minister and forest minister did not visit the spot and as a result the proposal is pending for the past two years.
"The wildlife protection department J&K has communicated to the administrative (forest department) vide communication dated 29 June 2018 that the matter may be taken up with the competent authority for taking necessary further action as the matter being urgent and sensitive in nature. The action, as per the decision, is awaited," reads the action taken report (ATR) on the decision of the 4th SBW meeting.
Officials who spoke to Greater Kashmir on the condition of anonymity said that three sites have been analysed to assess suitability for deployment of the new generation mountain radar. These include Mount Apharwat, Raj Rifles and Botapathri.
"In the project, radar will be set-up along the helipad construction on mount Apharwath and the administration camp will be constructed at Botpathri. No tree felling is involved at Mount Apharwath. The site for the radar at Mount Apharwath has been selected for strategic reasons. Other sites at Samhot and Uri have been rejected. The EIA lists no major impacts on account of air pollution, water pollution, noise pollution and impact on biological environment. However, during the construction phase, air quality and noise level are likely to be affected for which mitigation measures have been prescribed," states an official report assessed by Greater Kashmir.
It states that the wildlife warden (north) alongwith regional wildlife warden Kashmir inspected the area on 14th May 2016 and it was felt that 2.40 hectare of compartment number 37/G could be taken out from the project as the agency can control and monitor the station from Botapathri which is closer to the radar station. The project is accordingly recommended for 1.18 hectare area for induction of radar at mount Apharwath to be placed before the State Board for Wildlife," it adds.
The area is home to the endangered musk deer, brown bear, snow leopard besides hundreds of plant species and avifauna.
"These fragile ecosystems, if disturbed, take hundreds of years to recover and the disasters such as flashfloods, water shortage and climate change are some of the serious impacts of disturbing these ecosystems," environmentalists said.
They said that the project, if implemented, can be an "environmental disaster" for Gulmarg.
"The project will have huge ecological and socio-economic impacts for the region. First, it will destroy the pristine natural environment of Apharwatmountain, which harbours a rich biodiversity, including the recently-designated Critically Endangered Species. The area which is proposed to be de-notified and handed over to the defence ministry for construction of helipad is one of the prime tourist destinations of Kashmir," said an environmentalist, who wished not to be named.
Subalpine and alpine ecosystems in Gulmarg are among the most important ecosystems of Jammu and Kashmir, dominated by alpine meadows, rocks and glaciers, high-altitude lakes and the sub-alpine scrub.
"These ecosystems are critical for water recharge, keeping intact the glaciers and are rich in biodiversity especially the rare medicinal plants, the unique mountain fauna such as snow leopards, brown bears, musk deer, markhor, snow cock, snow finches, warblers, eagles, vultures and the pheasants," the environmentalist said.
"Upper regions of Gulmarg, including the Gulmarg wildlife sanctuary and Apharwatmountain, are an example of such ecosystems. It is one of the important watersheds for north Kashmir and any disturbance can have disastrous impacts. It is also one of the world famous tourist destinations and thus needs to be protected at all costs," they said.
Experts noted that there is no mention of the agency which has carried out the EIA of the proposed project.
"It is astonishing to see that the so-called EIA has suggested that the project will not lead to any tangible adverse environmental impact on ecology of the area," they said.
"The proposed project will be in the jurisdiction of protected area wherein ecology of meadows will be impacted severely. Meadows are treasure-houses of our highly-valuable medicinal herbs and abode of our wildlife. It will have long-term ecological and socio-economic impacts not only in the project site but ripple effects in the low-altitude areas as well. It speaks volumes about the ignorance of the proponent agency that if there is no felling of trees that means there is no impact."
Despite repeated attempts, chief wildlife warden Ravi Kesar did not respond to repeated calls from this newspaper, about his version on the issue. However an officer of the department said the matter will come up for discussion soon.
"The standing committee of the SWB will meet soon and discuss all aspects of the project and make recommendations to national board for wildlife. The standing committee of the national board will critically analyse EIA of the project and forward its recommendations to Central Empowered Committee which is the final deciding authority," he added.