Kashmir Anti-Encroachment Drive Ignores Government Intrusions

by GoNews Desk 9 months ago Views 2752

Kashmir Anti-Encroachment Drive Ignores Government
By - Athar Parvaiz/

(The authorities target encroachments on the Jhelum’s floodplains ignoring its own buildings or permits to mine the riverbed)

Muzaffar Ahangar, of Kursu in Srinagar, is one of many to receive a notice from Kashmir’s Irrigation and Flood Control (IFC) department. “Since your illegal structure figures in the list of encroachers on left side of River Jhelum [it] is to be removed. As such you are once again directed to remove your illegal structure within 5 days yourself, failing which your illegal structure would be dismantled and removed at your risk and cost.”

The department has compiled a list of over 1,000 people who – according to the IFC department – have built illegal residential and commercial structures on the banks of the Jhelum in Srinagar district. Department officials said that the total number of encroachers is over 2,500 in Srinagar and the process of compiling the list is still underway. They also said that there are just a few hundred encroachers in other districts – Baramullah, Bandipora, Pulwama and Anantnag.

Ahangar’s structure has not been dismantled, although it has been over a week since the notice was issued. The people who received notices have been given a chance to prove their case legally, and they may prevail. Some have managed to “legalise” their construction by receiving documents such as “No Objection Certificates” from the IFC department itself.

This points to a central contradiction of the anti-encroachment drive: the government is responsible for many encroachments itself. Dozens of structures and institutional facilities – which include garbage dumping sites, public health institutes, panchayat (local government) buildings and schools – have been built by the government on or near the banks of the Jhelum and its tributaries from south to north Kashmir. For example, solid waste dumping sites in Baramullah, Kupwara, Kulgam and many other towns are on the banks of the Jhelum or its tributaries.

Saleem Beg, the regional head of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in Jammu and Kashmir, said that Srinagar’s Master Plan acknowledges many parts of the city as highly vulnerable to natural disasters, “yet, contradictorily, gives proposals like shifting the Civil Secretariat to Railway Station Nowgam which, as per the plan, is a highly flood-prone area and a designated flood absorption basin.”

In recent years, the government has created institutional infrastructure in the flood plains of Bemina in Srinagar, which include a branch of the SKIMS (Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences) hospital, maternity hospital, Srinagar Development Authority and a number of other government offices and government housing colonies.

Another issue which has made Srinagar vulnerable to frequent flooding has been the policy of successive governments to focus primarily on this city for creating institutional facilities like hospitals and main government offices. “The government’s urbanisation policy is such that Srinagar city bears the brunt of all the population. With the main government offices as well as health and education institutions located in Srinagar, people prefer to live in Srinagar only,” said Mohammad Sultan Bhat of Kashmir University’s Geography department. “This is why land became scarcer in Srinagar and creation of infrastructure was even allowed in floodplains.”

Referring to the removal of encroachments, Saleem Beg of INTACH said that there are issues which need to be dealt with far more urgently than the encroachments. “Let me put it this way: if we have 10 challenges while dealing with floods, encroachments is the 10th challenge. There are nine others which need to be prioritised before removing encroachments. Dealing with water budgeting is of primary importance. For that, catchment treatment is the key.”

Beg said the problem of flooding does not start with Kashmir valley’s main river (Jhelum), but with the catchments which supply water to the river. “So, the problem of flooding has to be dealt with in the catchments of the main river. Fortunately, we have 17 catchments which feed River Jhelum. If we are able to retain and delay the flow of water from there by treating the catchments, the problem of flooding will be solved to a larger extent. But the problems in the catchments are not being considered.” Every time the problem of floods is discussed, engineers are told to focus on the Jhelum. “What will the poor fellows do in Jhelum when the problem lies somewhere else?”

Following the devastating floods in Kashmir in 2014, the government had managed to remove over 300,000 trees and 700 structures from encroached areas of the Jhelum in a demolition drive. But environmentalists say the government needs to deal with all the problems facing Kashmir’s rivers, including its own problematic policies.

“It is good if encroachments are being removed from River Jhelum’s banks, but the government should look into all the aspects which determine the overall health of the river,” said Raja Muzaffar, an RTI (right to information) and environmental activist. “Let me quote the example of proposed massive mining in River Jhelum and the streams which flow into it. Many experts have cautioned that it is extremely dangerous. But the process for this is still on under official supervision. It shows the non-seriousness towards environmental issues.”

Experts Warn  

Experts have warned that any mining (in the Jhelum and its tributaries) has to be done in a way that it does not cause problems in flood management or functionality of water bodies. An engineer of the IFC department, who requested anonymity because he is not authorised to speak to media, said that intensive mining in the Jhelum and its tributaries will increase the possibility of floods manifold. “Earlier, we used to face the flood situation if it rained incessantly for two days or more; now a few hours will be enough in the future to cause floods.” The 2014 floods had cost hundreds of lives and led to losses in millions of dollars in Kashmir, and downstream in Pakistan. Almost every year the administration in Kashmir spends time, energy and resources to deal with floods and people panic whenever rivers start swelling up.

“We know we will be blamed when the floods strike, but the fact is we are not at fault. Our department is under tremendous pressure from the authorities who ask us not to raise any queries during the process of clearance of mining projects,” the engineer from IFC said.

The controversial auctioning of mining rights in riverbeds and streambeds of Jammu and Kashmir, creating land banks for industries or easing rules for security forces to construct in strategic zones have all evoked criticism.

Saqib Qadri, convener of Srinagar-based Peoples’ Environmental Council (PEC), said, “The environmental challenges need to be looked into holistically.” Any conservation work or flood management, he said, will not work unless effective measures are taken to deal with all the issues.

“As regards the mining of minerals, it should be strictly done as per the guidance of environmental laws. Any activity in our region, which is ecologically very sensitive, has to be environmentally sustainable,” Qadri said.

These issues continue to be ignored. On August 18 this year, the Jammu & Kashmir government issued a notification authorising panchayats (locally elected village governments) to carry out mining operations in up to one hectare area of riverbeds across Jammu & Kashmir.

“The government may allow the department of Geology and Mining to apply and secure clearance like mining plans, environmental clearance and consent to operate from the competent authorities on behalf of the Panchayats to be transferred to them later on,” reads a part of the notification, adding this process will be applicable until September 30, 2021. Meanwhile, the process for issuing environmental clearances to the successful bidders for hundreds of mining blocks in Jammu and Kashmir, including River Jhelum, is going on. “It is most likely that majority of them will get clearances given the pressure from higher-ups,” said an official.

Citing “acute and unprecedented shortage of key material for development works and challenging COVID-19 pandemic”, the Jammu and Kashmir government on July 30, 2020 issued an order for “fast-tracking of environmental clearance process” for riverbed mining operations across Jammu and Kashmir.

Hundreds of mineral blocks in the Jhelum and its tributaries (which include sand, boulders and gravel) have been auctioned for five years to contractors and companies by Jammu & Kashmir’s Geology and Mining department. This year, applications for the auctioning process were invited online from outside Jammu & Kashmir following New Delhi’s decision of scrapping the semi-autonomous status of the region on August 5, 2019, which had earlier restricted these rights to local residents. This year, most of the mineral blocks auctioned have been bought by companies based outside Jammu & Kashmir.

Jammu & Kashmir Environmental Appraisal Committee (JKEAC), an officially recognised body, had advised the government during a meeting in December last year that no mining should be allowed in Jhelum and other rivers until there is a basin-wise scientific mining plan. “It should not be done in a hotchpotch manner,” the committee had advised.

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