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Rediff.com  » News » Kashmir problem: It's the environment, stupid!

Kashmir problem: It's the environment, stupid!

November 17, 2018 09:32 IST

If the air pollution is not brought under control tourism to Kashmir will be affected, warns Colonel Anil A Athale (retd), who has been visiting the valley for 50 years..

IMAGE: A boatman rows through the polluted part of Srinagar's Dal lake. Photograph: Fayaz Kabli/Reuters

Bill Clinton, a brilliant campaigner, used a similar phrase as the title of this column effectively to defeat incumbent president George H W Bush in the 1992 presidential election in the United States.

The real and long term issue before the Kashmir valley is neither azaadi nor merger with Pakistan, but the threat from environmental degradation.

I have been visiting Kashmir since 1968. The one thing that would strike a visitor was how blue the sky was.

Alas, the sky over Srinagar and most of the valley today looks as grey and murky as any other city in the plains of India.

Kashmir is paying the price of 'development' that has seen the number of vehicles rising several fold in the last few years.

On one hand it is a sign of growing prosperity, yet, on the other hand, it is making Srinagar and rest of the valley's air polluted with CO2 and other harmful gases.

Some years ago I had an occasion to visit Kashmir during winter. While the valley looked beautiful, with white snow-draped trees and houses, the two sides of the highway were lined with black soot.

 

The issue of pollution is not just about beauty, but has a major impact on the horticulture in the Kashmir valley. Pomphur, near Srinagar, is the only place in India that grows saffron. The valley also grows apples, cherries and pears. Walnuts and almonds are two other products that keep the valley's economy alive despite the loss of tourism. All these crops are in danger if the air pollution continues unabated.

The saffron crop, as valuable as gold, is also very fragile. It will be a great economic loss to farmers if the production of saffron gets affected by pollution.

The vehicular traffic in the valley is far greater than its economic activities due to the large deployment of armed forces. The supply of these troops needs thousands of vehicle loads of goods every year.

In the last few years the Manali-Rohtang pass to Leh and Ladakh has opened, but is still a difficult road for round the year movement. The maintenance of the army in Ladakh is also one via the Kashmir valley, Zozilla, Kargil route.

If the air pollution is not brought under control, tourism to Kashmir will be affected. Who would want to go to the mountains to breathe polluted air?

The people of Kashmir are often heard saying that they want Kashmir to become the Switzerland of Asia. As a visitor to that country and Kashmir, I can say without hesitation that Kashmir is far more beautiful than Switzerland. The Alps are puny in comparison with the mighty Himalayas.

But one must admire the zeal with which the Swiss protect their environment. There are strict curbs on vehicles and use of large scale public transport based on electricity.

Luckily, the answer to this question is readily available in the shape of the valley railway that was inaugurated 10 years ago.

Incidentally, I had lobbied for an independent valley railway as far back as 1997 with the then governor the late General K V Krishna Rao. The argument was that while the link with the rest of the country may take time, the valley railway was easily do-able.

One is glad that today a rail link exists between Banihal, south of the valley, and Baramulla. Currently the railway tract is grossly underutilised, with only a few passenger trains running during the day.

A railway official told me that the railways spends Rs 16 lakhs (Rs 1.6 million) per day while the income is only Rs 6 lakhs (Rs 600,000) from passenger traffic. Of course, the passenger fare is a flat Rs 20 and heavily subsidised.

The railways have a big yard at both ends and movement of bulk goods or trucks on flat cars (that are easy to maintain and cheap) in a roll-on, roll-off mode can begin within a few months. The expenditure on minor infrastructure like ramps etc will not be more than a few lakh rupees.

This use of a rail line for freight movement as well as roll-on, roll-off of vehicles can save thousands of vehicle kilometres for the armed forces. This will also greatly reduce the number of trucks plying in the valley. This can have a direct impact on the air pollution levels in Kashmir.

Four years ago, Kashmir faced a great flood. Many attribute this unforeseen event to the wider climate change. It must be accepted that local factors like air pollution must have also played a part in this catastrophe.

It is in the interest of Kashmiris to wake up and halt pollution before it is too late.

The Kashmir valley is mostly flat country and ideal for cycling. Worldwide there is a movement towards using this form of mobility. Unfortunately, in my entire travel through the valley, I did not see a single bicycle.

If there is one issue the youth of Kashmir ought to take up it is this rather than stone pelting in frustration.

While on the subject of air pollution, I am tempted to offer another of my pet ideas. Delhi as usual has begun its pollution season. It is known that spraying water from great heights helps bring down dust and pollutants.

Delhi has one of the busiest airport with thousands of flights taking off every day. Will it not be possible to ask every flight to carry an extra 100 litres of water and release it over Delhi while taking off or hovering over the skies?

I do not know the technicalities of the aircraft system, but one has heard that aircraft do dump the 'unmentionables' from high up in the air. If true, then it should be possible to dump 100 litres of water per flight.

With an extra 100,000 litres of water in the air, maybe it will help Delhi. Is Mr Kejriwal listening?

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) -- a military historian specialising in counter-insurgency -- is a long-time Kashmir watcher. He is the author of Let the Jhelum Smile Again.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)