Retrieving the Dal Lake

By K.N. Pandita

Kashmir valley’s mythological name is Satisar: sar in Sanskrit means the lake. This name originated in the Nilamata Purana and has been carried down by later historian Kalhana and others who followed him.

 For long, lakes of Kashmir have been famous world over for their clean and placid waters. These grand water bodies remained a source of great attraction to tourists, historians, archeologists and naturalists. Apart from their ecological usefulness, the lakes have also served as means of subsistence to hundreds of thousands of people. Lake commerce has its place in the economic history of Kashmir. 

They gave rise also to what may be called lake-culture that developed and shaped the life style of lake-dwelling populace over the course of time.

Baharistan-i-Shahi (see Chapter Index), a Chronicle of Medieval Kashmir tells us that in the days of Sultan Zainu’l-‘Abidin, (mid 15th century) boat builders from Karnataka came to Kashmir, taught the locals the craft of boat building and then settled down in the riverside regions of Srinagar.

During the British Indian rule, European visitors thronged the valley to enjoy its cool and salubrious climate, preferring to occupy houseboats. With that traditional donga boats gave place to House Boats on Italian pattern as residential places amidst clean and transparent water. The Dal (Mahasarit) being in close proximity of north-eastern periphery of the city of Srinagar, was most frequented and inhabited water body from early times. In due course of time people used their ingenuity to raise floating patches of land for vegetable cultivation and floriculture; in other words for commercial purposes. They seized the patches on marshy banks, desiccated them of water and when the dry lands appeared they raised residential structures on them mostly shabby and ridiculous.

With the onset of popular rule in 1947, when vote bank culture replaced established civic rules in the country and in the state, more embankment stretches of land were grabbed, more floating patches raised, and more population inhabited the localities along the bank of the lake. With civic authorities lax in their responsibility of maintaining ecology of this water body, with people cynical and selfish and devoid of taste and aesthetics, the Dal became a vast underwater dumping bed for garbage and human excreta. The waters of the Dal got heavily polluted and began to stink; water life was destroyed and the whole of the lake got covered with thick layers of unwanted weed.

Vote bank politics would not let civic rules and regulations take their normal course. Illegal encroachment continued with rapid speed and with that also the choking of the lake, which now became a health hazard. Despite repeated entreaties and warnings by the government, the illegal occupants and encroachers did not budge and continued to be unmindful of how they were brutally damaging the ecology of Kashmir.

Then government started plans for weeding out and cleaning the waters of the Dal on a massive scale. It rushed to New Delhi and enormous funds in the name of cleansing the Dal began to pour in. International funding agencies like Asian Bank and others also provided large funds for the purpose. The State government instituted Lake and Water Developing Authority (LAWDA) to manage the project. Huge funds came in year after year and after several years of aborted exercise, LAWDA ended up embroiled in corruption case against a host of embezzlers from ministers down to class IV employees.  Billions of rupees were misappropriated. The story of this general lot has been fully told by Hashim Qureshi in his recently published book Undeniable Truth in the chapter ‘Hurriyat Unity, Shrine Board and the Dal Lake.’

It is an eye opener for those who are now trumpeting the programme of allotting 17,000 plots of residential land to Dal–dwellers to vacate their present illegal occupation. Congress President will hand over possession letters to 11,000 such families, and feel happy to have walked another mile in cajoling the people in the valley not to harbour pro-Pak sentiments.

We appreciate relocation policy of the government — backed by the Central government— of illegal occupants around Dal Lake. It will restore the Dal and its environs to their pristine purity and at the same time the dislocated families will find a healthy and permanent settlement. Rehabilitation schemes are always good and welcome. But then there are several questions that need to be answered.

Relocating 17,000 families is not a small project. It means raising a good township with all infrastructures. Why has not the government taken any action under existing rules against those Dal-dwellers who committed the crime of illegally occupying the land, polluting the lake, destroying ecology and defying government warnings over several decades? Why has their crime gone unnoticed? If the land allotted to the Amarnath Shrine Board was denied owing to the apprehensions of destroying ecology, why did not the masses of people and political parties stage demonstrations all these years against polluting the Dal? To crown all this, the relocates will get sized plots of land to raise their independent houses. Who knows after that is done they again return to their original sites in Dal to reclaim their dispossessed sites and the government will again take shelter behind vote bank policy.

Furthermore, if the Union government accorded sanction to the raising of a township for 17,000 families on independent plots of land just to give them a better standard of life, what held the government back for last two decades from raising two such townships for the internally displaced people from the valley? Why has there been so much hassle in their rehabilitation? Is it not blatant discrimination? If an exclusive township for Dal dwellers has a justification, the same formula should apply in the case of internally displaced persons knowing well that they are the victims of man-made tragedy unlike the Dal dwellers who caused disaster to the entire state by their selfishness and recalcitrance.

Lastly, if the Dal dwellers are entitled to holding of plots, why should the government have resorted to constructing pigeon holes for the internally displaced persons from the valley at Jagti or Matan or elsewhere in the valley? Is it not discrimination, blatant and tyrannical? Are the IDPs a sub-human race to be meted out scurvy treatment?

It is this policy of using double standards that has created good deal of ill-will among the regional minorities in the State. Discrimination is endemic in the ruling parties in the State and the Centre closes eyes to it when it comes to think of Kashmir. The Congress President, who is going to inaugurate the handing over of plots to Dal dwellers, should make some soul searching exercise. She should make sure that secularism does not become a mask for perpetrating discriminative policies.
The End.

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