‘Involve locals in Wular Conservation projects to create employment opportunities’

According to estimates from the government, approximately thirty settlements around Wular Lake depend either directly or indirectly on the lake’s bounty.
Wular lake in north Kashmir's Bandipora district.
Wular lake in north Kashmir's Bandipora district.Mubashir Khan for Greater Kashmir

Bandipora: The second-largest freshwater lake in Asia, located in north Kashmir’s Bandipora, is being restored to its former grandeur thanks to the Wular Conservation and Management Authority, but villagers who live nearby are feeling left out since they aren’t participating in the projects seeking to preserve it.

Ishfaq Ahmad, a young graduate from Lankreshipora village, which is located on the banks of the Wular Lake said: “I am among the only three graduates in our village, and we have been ignored from any of the conservation efforts the government is doing inside the Wular Lake.”

The majority of the residents are fishermen who support themselves by harvesting fish and water chestnuts from the lake.

Ishfaq bemoans the fact that multi-billion dollar efforts to maintain the lake did the community no favour because no local labour or technicians were being used.

According to estimates from the government, approximately thirty settlements around Wular Lake depend either directly or indirectly on the lake’s bounty.

“The authorities have so far utilised over Rs 300 crore to restore the lake, but our community youth, be it educated or uneducated, aren’t involved. If the authorities would have been humble enough to involve us too in these efforts, it sure have helped in creating employment opportunities, but the presence of only outsiders is demotivating,” he said. “This is our lake, our livelihood. The way we could dedicate ourselves wholeheartedly to help restore its pristine glory, I think no one else could only think is, we lake opportunities.”

Even though the restored areas in the lake have brought rare migratory birds some fishermen claim that the dredging has plundered its produce. “The chestnuts have taken a hit, and fish are also not available in abundance. It has severely affected our livelihood as many patches that once had chestnuts were uprooted. Moreover, the paddy fields around Banyari village have also turned useless due to the dumping of debris from the dredging process,” said Muhammad Altaf Dar from nearby Saderkoot Payeen village.

One more elderly villager seconded Ishfaq, saying, “The conservation projects have been of no advantage to us, our plea to authorities is to take us along in forthcoming projects to have some economic leverage as we are an underprivileged community.”

The WUCMA, which came into existence in 2012, made a big leap in 2022 when it dredged 4.35 sq km of 27 sq km of critically silted Lake area under the Wular action plan to increase its water-holding capacity.

The development came after Reach Dredging Limited received a project worth Rs 200 crore in 2020. The work commenced on May 7 of that year. The company is a branch of Rashmi Group, a dredging and maritime solutions company with headquarters in Kolkata.

Before this, 130 sq km of the actual lake area was also demarcated and geotagged as per the authorities. In addition to this, out of the 20 sq km of forest area inside Wular Lake, which mostly has a willow population, the authorities have been able to clear 8 sq km in a phased manner by felling the willows.

To boost ecotourism, the authorities are constructing a 2.5-kilometre Wular Walkway around the restored area beside Wular Lake viewpoints and bird towers.

Project coordinator, Wular Conservation Authority, Mudasir Mahmood said they have initiated several measures to promote ecotourism which would help in generating employment opportunities for locals.

He said their efforts were helping attract tourist footfall and that other efforts from the conservation authority included the construction of the Wular Walkway, work on which is ongoing, and the construction of watch towers for bird lovers. Besides this, the authority was considering facelifting the lakefront to accommodate resting places for tourists, parks, and food stalls.

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