An ecofriendly Kashmir

Measuring and protecting the extent, potential and capacity of ecological resources in Kashmir is perhaps the single most important priority that government resources on either side of the line of divide should be devoted to.

Using academia and media to inform and engage the public in this essential socio-economic exercise should be a permanent edifying feature of governance. After all, every country or region has it’s significance; ours is directly related to it’s ecology.

As this issue directly concerns those who live within this mass habitat, it is their responsibility to protect what nature has abundantly endowed them with. Indeed, it is perhaps the fulcrum on which the differing religions and ethnicities in the erstwhile State can develop a unanimous galvanising agenda. Those who consider themselves Muslims will be aware of the enormous trust that Allah has placed on them on account of the pristine air and water in their midst. The pollution, recession and contamination that transpires from irresponsible human behaviour affects all living organisms that reside in that environment. One of course needs motivation and rationale beyond the obvious to avert what amounts to neglect of that trust, hence the invocation of religion. Those who enjoy nature’s bounties have a responsibility in proportion to their consumption. Hence, Muslims being a majority in the State share a higher burden of that collective responsibility.

Within the territory of Pakistani-administered Kashmir are two distinct ecological regions, sub-tropical in the south and temperate Himalayan in the north. With it’s population considered to be almost 100% Muslim, it is abundantly clear that they’ve fallen well short of their ecological responsibilities and it could be argued that they’ve in turn brought their religion into disrepute. Though definitive, objective research on our ecological losses since 1947 is still due, varying figures suggest that as much as 40% of our forest cover has been lost. Though some of us reminisce while others berate about the Dogra era, one cannot fail to acknowledge the stern laws related to cutting of trees  implemented pre 1947. Undoubtedly, the unprecedented rise in population, urban space, nature of the economy and retail food outlets provide challenges hitherto un-encountered. Nevertheless, progress and development in the region has been characterised by exigency and whittling away of the very precious resources that give this region meaning and value.      

The following is a vision statement from the AJK government’s forestry department, "Scientific management of forestry resource on sustainable basis, ensuring environmental amelioration, checking sediment inflow into water bodies to increase useful life of irrigation infrastructure, to conserve hydro power potential and biodiversity leading to poverty alleviation." Noble as most vision statements are, application on the ground leaves much to be desired. The amount of staff and resources required to fulfill that aim have simply not transpired. The forestry department has an office in each tehsil and judging from the one in which this writer resides, there are barely three people to attend to the protection of it’s forest resources. In just this past week, more than a dozen forest fires have been witnessed that most of the public considers to be a regular and deliberate summer affair every year.

Upon visiting what was left of a particular forest, one counted 53 charred trunk remains of pine trees that had hitherto embellished the environment for decades within the space of two kanals (1,012 metres squared). What is akin to a scorched earth policy, left nothing of the nature that must have sumptuously thrived on it. A few days ago, in the midst of campaigning for what maybe his fourth consecutive assembly election victory as an MLA for the constituency of this writer, Raja Naseer Ahmed Khan appeared oblivious to the raging forest fire barely a kilometre away from where he stood. He was distinctly more concerned with reminding those present as to the benefits of voting for him. Never had he spoken publicly about mass deforestation in his constituency, the scene in his midst could do nothing to prompt him either. A phone call to alert the local forest official mustered a blase response, "We know, we know!"

The fact that deforestation has been rampant is admitted to by the AJK government. Hence, the imposition of an eight-year ban on what they describe as "commercial logging of green trees for commercial purposes". That ban was supposedly effective from 2001 and they cited a variety of un-named reasons as to why it occurred. Deforestation continued unabated in the ensuing period and at least two reasons appear prominent: the first relates to the public’s genuine desire for cost-efficient fuel. Many cannot afford gas for cooking or heating (in the winter). An 11 kg gas cylinder costs about 1,400 PK rupees and they feel inclined to resort to buying or venturing out themselves for wood from the forest. The second allegedly relates to a large embedded wood mafia network throughout the State that either transports logs of wood through the Jhelum, Neelam and Poonch rivers or unabashedly transports them on trucks, some within the State and most out of the State into Pakistan from where wood derivatives are further exported, supposedly mainly to the Middle East. According to a substantial amount of public opinion, it is done with State connivance.

Apart from deforestation, one could devote some attention to another ecological dilemma, namely wildlife and fisheries. Again, the AJK government sets out a noble vision unparelleled in application. It even talks of eco-tourism promotion and promotion of public private partnerships. What rampant deforestation has done for wildlife, improper urban planning has meted out to the conservation of fisheries. Sewerage, refuse and waste is directly dumped into the three main rivers of Pakistani-administered Kashmir. The vast bulk of efforts to protect wildlife and fisheries has been done with foreign-aid. Local government efforts have been to throttle civil society initiatives rather than evolve private-public partnerships. Even existing sewerage pipes date back to the needs of the 1960’s, upgradation efforts have been thwarted so as not to upset the intended destination of public funds.   

Like all other matters related to good governance and public affairs, Muslims have struggled to adapt to the changing needs of human existence. Many still concentrate more on commenting on other’s personal religious beliefs, the manner in which they perform or don’t peform their rituals and create fissures in society that ultimately divide and dis-orientate society away from matters of common interest. What should apply to everybody is left at the mercy of the powere-that-be (assuming public matters are solely their responsibility and thus the public should just put up with whatever they receive) and attention is divided to other matters of a personal nature. This produces a societal narrative that is lamentable by default, forever in search of a miracle – a ruler with a magic wand, engrossed with poetry, pre-destined to failure on account of it’s personal religious obligations and thus ill-equipped to concentrate on matters as existential as ecology.

The other day, whilst witnessing a ferocious forest fire late in the evening perilously close to the residence of this writer, a sudden downpour of rain put a halt to looming immediate danger. For how much longer can we tolerate the destructive capabilities of human kind?

Author is a writer, broadcaster and activist working for civil society development in Pakistani administered Kashmir and can be mailed at sahaafi@gmail.com.