Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Election on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Srinagar: Sitting near a shop in the interiors of Dal Lake, 65-year-old Abdul Rehman is old enough to remember a time when the lake's water was clean enough to drink. Today, he gazes sadly at the highly degraded state of its water. "Even after filtering multiple times, this water will not be fit to drink," he said.
Rehman now makes it a point to ask every tourist in a shikara who glides by his shop to not throw waste overboard. "This city's tourism economy is heavily dependent on the lake," he added. "But we keep blaming each other without doing anything to preserve it."
Over the years, both state and Central government leaders have made umpteen promises and allocated hundreds of crores to clean up the Dal Lake. National Conference president Farooq Abdullah currently represents Srinagar in Parliament. The National Conference held the constituency the most number of years, but the Peoples Democratic Party claims it did nothing to stop the lake's degradation.
"It was during the term of the Mehbooba Mufti-led government that the Centre sanctioned further funds to preserve the Dal Lake, but due to the fall of our government, we could not continue the work," said Rafi Ahmad Mir, chief spokesperson for the Peoples Democratic Party.
While National Conference general secretary Ali Mohammad Sagar, who has represented Srinagar's Khanyar constituency several times in the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly, claimed the exact opposite, he admitted that despite the various cleanup efforts initiated by his party when it was in power, there have been very little changes on the ground.
"We need to rehabilitate people from there (near the Dal Lake), but the government also has to provide them sources of livelihood. We need to set up new sewage treatment plants, as well," he added.
In a nutshell, these are the main problems that successive governments have tried and failed to address. Take one shikara ride on the lake and there will be no denying the extent of its degradation.
In 2016, research by Dr Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, head of the Earth Sciences Department at University of Kashmir, found that 32 percent of the Dal Lake faced severe degradation, 48 percent medium degradation and 20 percent of the lake's water was relatively clean. Various studies have pointed out that the lake faces multiple pressures from unplanned urbanisation, high population growth and nutrient load due to intensive agriculture that act as fertilisers for weed to grow in abundance.
Livelihoods go down the sewage
Experts say one of the main reasons for the deterioration of the lake's condition is the dumping of huge amounts of untreated waste.
"At least 44.2 million litres of sewage goes into the Dal Lake every day," said Tariq Ahmad Patloo, a houseboat owner. "Around 5 million litres of waste is generated from the inhabitants of the lake, while only 0.8 percent sewage is generated from houseboats. Why are only we (houseboat owners) blamed for the deterioration?"
According to a report by the Jammu and Kashmir State Pollution Control Board, Srinagar generates 201 million litres of sewage daily but has the capacity to treat only 53.8 million litres. "Disposal of untreated sewage into the Dal Lake and Jhelum river is one of the main reasons for the degradation of the quality of the water," the report explained.
The government has also failed to upgrade the technology of the three Sewage Treatment Plants (STP) around the lake, as recommended by scientists from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and promised by the government in 2014.
"We use old technology at STPs, which do not treat the sewage properly," admitted an official of the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority.
Over 50,000 people live on the Dal Lake, including houseboat owners, vegetable growers, and fisherfolk. Tourism, agriculture, and fishing form the backbone of the economy on the lake, and these are the activities that are facing the heat.
People like Bashir Ahmad, a 45-year-old who lives on the lake and grows vegetables all year around, said the government cleans a portion of Dal Lake around the Shar-e-Kashmir International Conference Centre (SKICC), where national and international conferences are held.
"Prime Minister Narendra Modi was shown only the small, clean portion of the lake when he visited. De-weeding around the SKICC is done manually and using machines, but the interior of the lake is turning into a swamp," he said.
Nashir Geelani, a Srinagar resident, explained the impact the lake's deteriorating condition has on the state's economy. "The production of fish and vegetables has decreased, affecting the livelihood of many people," he said. "Now, even tourists don't stay for more than a day on the lake due to the increasing pollution. Even the growth of lotus stem (called nadru in Kashmiri), used in the local cuisine, and fish has been adversely affected."
Bashir Ahmad Dar, a 55-year-old fisherman, catches 1 kilogram of fish daily these days. "During summers, I catch around 3 kilograms. Fifteen years ago, I would catch around 10 kilograms of fish every day. We hardly find fish in the lake anymore," he rued.
Dar's two sons do casual labour and masonry work. "Why would they take up this profession when it has no benefit? My wife sells fish in Ganderbal, which is exported out of Kashmir," he said.
Rehabilitation gone wrong
The government has rehabilitated some fishermen to Srinagar's Habak area, but Dar said they want to return and live on or around the lake.
"We were rehabilitated 10 years ago on the promise of being provided all facilities. But there are no facilities, and our colony is always waterlogged," he explained.
In 2007, the Jammu and Kashmir government began a Rs 416-crore project to depopulate the lake and rehabilitate these families at a site called Rakh-I-Arth Bemina on the outskirts of Srinagar. It was meant to be developed with infrastructure like housing, roads, water supply, electricity, drainage, sewerage and other community facilities for the displaced. The project was supposed to be completed in three years, but even till 2018, authorities managed to allot only 2,600 of the proposed 10,500 plots. These exclude the fisherfolk families that were rehabilitated to Habak. Most of them are now involved in casual labour or drive taxis, while some sold the land they were given and went back to live around the lake to continue doing what they did before.
Most people visiting Rakh-I-Arth say the government failed to provide them even with basic facilities. "There is no drainage system and sanitation facilities are poor. Who would like to live here?" asked Shabir Ahmad, a Dal Lake dweller who shifted to Rakh-I-Arth.
He said his cousins had refused to relocate from the lake and are among the hundreds of manual labourers the state has hired to clean the Dal. "At least those who live on the Dal Lake have employment opportunities. There is tourism, and they can earn their livelihood from it," he added.
Over the past 16 years, numerous high-sounding lake-cleaning and preservation projects were launched, and over Rs 800 crore were spent on these but with no visible signs of effective implementation on the ground.
For instance, a National Lake Conservation Programme was launched in 2005 at a cost of Rs 298.76 crore. The Prime Minister’s Reconstruction Programme' was launched in 2010 to acquire land and structures on the Dal and Nigeen lakes for Rs 356 crore.
Environmentalist Dr Abdul Majeed Kak said, "The money released would have filled up the springs of the lake. But on the ground, even the de-weeding was not being done scientifically."
However, Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir Baseer Ahmad Khan said the government was making all efforts to preserve the Dal Lake. "People from there are being rehabilitated, and the cleaning process has been expedited," he said. "There will be a visible change in the coming months. The high court is also monitoring the work."
But his assurance is of little comfort to people like Biba, who sells fish at Srinagar's Lal Chowk and remembers a time when she and her fisherman husband would catch and sell fish worth Rs 1,200 every day. "I now sell 2 kilograms of fish and earn less than Rs 400 every day," she said.
Her husband, who used to go out every evening to catch the fish to sell the next day, has given up fishing and started his own mini bus service.
The author is a Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters