A multi-dimensional group of experts from the Bangalore-based biodiversity and environment think tank, ATREE (Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment), embarked on a wide-ranging study to save Srinagar’s Dal Lake. The ATREE team of experts includes a water quality scientist, a hydrologist, a sociologist, an institutional management and governance expert and an ecologist. The study, backed by the United Nations Development Programme, will close next month, and will be a one-of-its-kind, comprehensive enquiry into the challenges faced by Kashmir’s crown jewel.
The famed Dal Lake is Srinagar’s most important landmark and figures right on the top of every tourist’s Kashmir itinerary. Lined by beautiful gardens dating back to the Mughal era, the lake covers an area of about 24 sq km. More than 50,000 shikara (wooden boat) dwellers live in its vicinity and 1,200 stationary boats float on its waters. Over the years, the lake has come under increasing threat because of population explosion, encroachment and pollution, leading to the ATREE study being commissioned by the UNDP on the Jammu and Kashmir government’s request.
The Dal Lake’s problems are numerous. Its area is shrinking because of development activity. Those living around it have been reclaiming land for cultivation. Sewage facilities have not been provided to either the locals living around the lake or the houseboats catering to tourists.
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The ATREE study, which started early this year, is a rapid scoping analysis, an intense study accomplished in a short period, describes Ganesan Balachander, ATREE’s director and the head of its Dal Lake study team. Looking at what has been already done, the team hopes to plug the gaps in knowledge and recommend further steps, Balachander said.
There has been no dearth of probes on the Dal Lake. Interventions date back to the 1970s, when the chief minister of the time, Farooq Abdullah, set up an initiative to look into its development. In 1990, a New Zealand firm was hired to study the lake and in 2000, the Indian Institute of Technology at Roorkee undertook yet another in-depth analysis of the lake’s problems. “The problems of the lake are well known and many PhDs have been earned by studying it,” said Irfan Yasin, the vice chairman of the J&K government’s lakes and waterways development authority who oversaw the lake’s development until his retirement a few weeks ago.
However, its breadth and multi-disciplinary approach to problem-solving set apart the Bangalore-based ATREE’s investigation. The think tank has put together a composite team to address a problematic issue from a variety of angles in natural sciences, social sciences, economic policy and technology.
Manzoor Shah, a botanist from the University of Kashmir who specialises in aquatic ecology, says that the solutions from past studies have been engineering-based rather than ecological. The studies have been fragmented and there has been no coordination between the study experts, agencies managing the lake and people living around the lake. “Despite many interventions and huge spending, there has been little change,” said Shah, who is coordinating the UNDP study team’s efforts on the ground.
The Dal Lake holds profound meaning for the people of Kashmir, says ATREE’s Siddharth Krishnan, a sociologist on the team. “I’m looking at the lake people’s aspirations, the future they envisage for it and the future they see for themselves around the lake,” he said. Another ATREE team member is studying the efficiency of the five sewage treatment plants situated around it. Balachander himself is looking at the governance issues.
ATREE, which specialises in biodiversity and conservation research is funded by the likes of Wipro, Tata, the Ford Foundation, the World Bank, Infosys co-founder S.D. Shibulal and another co-founder Nandan Nilekani’s spouse, Rohini Nilekani. Its influential work has been instrumental in getting southern India’s Western Ghats recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site, blockading mining in the Kudremukh forests and granting community forest rights to the tribal people of BR Hills near Mysore.
ATREE’s report on the Dal Lake, to be submitted in June to the J&K government, will be written in the context of what is feasible, giving it a greater likelihood of being sustained. “It is a practical, pragmatic approach,” says Shah of Kashmir University. For instance, it will suggest an institutional mechanism where locals will be fully involved in reviving the lake — such as training local lake managers and dealing sensitively with those living around the lake. The report will cover the duration, techniques and costing of the revival project, including awareness building, involving local citizen groups and providing alternate livelihoods.
A holistic approach that also involves local residents could be the way forward in dealing with India’s myriad ecological challenges. Balachander says ATREE’s integrated approach has a good chance of succeeding — provided political will and funding come together, of course. If the Dal Lake revival study’s suggestions are successfully implemented, then a similar management regime can be built around wetlands, water bodies and rivers around the country, from the Ganga in the north to the lakes of Bangalore.