Kashmiri women turn clean-up crusaders of Wular in pursuit of better living

Bandipore (J&K), Oct 19 (IANS/ 101Reporters) As the soft sunrays spread over Wular Lake at the break of dawn, a group of women from Lankrishipora sets out on their boats for the day’s work. They have packed some food as venturing deep into the weed-carpeted waterbody will take most of their day.

Spread over 189 sq km in the northern district of Bandipore in Kashmir, the Wular is one of Asia’s largest freshwater lakes. A thin green sheet of aquatic plants slowly covers it with the onset of spring (May to October). It spreads rapidly by monsoon and continues to grow until autumn.

The women row their boats for around six km to reach the centre of the lake. Wielding long blades, they harvest chestnuts for sale and cut the stems of other plants to use as cattle fodder. They pile up the long stems and carry as much as their boats can hold.

The women ensure the work never stops for a day by doing it on rotation. If a family has three women, one will stay at home, while the rest will go on ‘duty’. They return at the end of the day with their hands smarting from chestnut thorns. “Our hands and feet tell the story of our daily struggles. This lake has given us our livelihood,” says Nayeema Begum (45) of Lankrishipora, who actively participates in cutting the weed, locally known as naar, khorr or nambal.

Arifa Akhter (32) has to leave her two children at her aunt’s house before setting off to the lake. She has been suffering from spondylitis and the strenuous work aggravates the pain. “I came here after marriage a decade ago. I am not used to this kind of work. But I see this as an important task and responsibility,” says Arifa.

Buying fodder for cattle costs Rs 8,000 to 9,000 a month. “So, we dry the surplus weed and store them for use in the winters,” says Arifa, whose husband catches fish and extracts water chestnuts to earn around Rs 7,000 a month.

Most girls accompany the women as families think they have to fend for their daily bread first rather than send children to school. “As a child, we used to play around and de-weed the lake without much thought. With time, we learnt how important the lake and our services are. We see the Wular as a saviour, and a mother who lets no one down,” says Rehti Begum (80), who still diligently does the work with the help of her grandchildren.

Quratul Ain Masoodi, a women and child rights activist, told 101Reporters that the women have been doing the work without being noticed or acknowledged. “The Wular is a massive waterbody and it has survived only because of their efforts.”

Conservation on backs of the poor

People residing in 50 villages located along the Wular’s banks are into fishing, while a few men work as construction labourers. Lankrishipora residents are mostly AAY/BPL cardholders having no agricultural lands in their possession.

The fishing community here is solely dependent on the lake. One kg of fish will fetch them Rs 350 and freshwater chestnut Rs 50 a kg, though both are seasonal. On a good day, a woman can sell five to seven kg of fish. In the winter, men collect chestnuts remaining at the bottom of the lake using specialised equipment.

However, things are not rosy for these people. Altaf Rasool of the Jammu & Kashmir Students Welfare Mission (JKSWM) points to their deteriorating life quality. “Even five years ago, the harvested chestnuts used to be of better quality and higher quantity. Human interventions around the lake have affected its production. The prices of chestnuts have fallen, but there have been no strategic interventions to help these communities market them, as in the case of apple,” Rasool says.

That there has been any ‘direct intervention’ with these communities yet is acknowledged by Wular Conservation and Management Authority (WUCMA) which was constituted in 2012 under the forest department to protect the lake from encroachments and environmental hazards. But it’s in the pipeline, says Mudasir Mehmood Malik, the WUCMA project coordinator of catchment area treatment. He tells 101Reporters that the authority has been trying to help chestnut collectors improve their market linkages to get better prices. “Lake desilting will open up more areas for harvesting chestnuts,” he adds.

Despite being buffeted by forces beyond their scope, the women here continually go above and beyond for the health of the lake. For instance, drawing inspiration from the JKSWM’s ‘Save Wular Lake’ campaign, the women have been collecting plastic waste from the lake during their day’s work. “The weed, fish and water chestnuts help us survive. If the lake is not clean, it will affect us,” says Nayeema.

The JKSWM has trained over 300 women in tailoring, embroidery and knitting and they conduct free computer literacy classes as well. However, Rasool says the government should pitch in with more robust livelihood guarantee programmes. “During the recent Wular Festival, we raised this point with the WUCMA, asking them to focus on community involvement in the restoration and conservation efforts as they are the stakeholders of the lake,” he adds.

Perilous waters ahead

Acknowledging its socio-economical, biological and hydrological values, Wular Lake was included as a Wetland of National Importance under the Wetlands Programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1986. A comprehensive multi-phase plan was prepared for the Ramsar site in 2007 following the filing of public interest litigation in the high court the previous year.

“The lake is under active ecorestoration and the process is not complete,” confirms advocate Nadeem Qadri, the Amicus Curiae appointed for the case by the Chief Justice of the High Court of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. “The government is still in the initial phases of the plan, focusing on dredging and water level managementÂ… Given its importance, the court is monitoring this restoration process in a professional and systematic manner,” he says.

Admitting that the pace has been slow, Qadri says the community and livelihood aspects such as ecotourism are part of the action plan. “The government needs to assure the communities around the lake that conservation measures will improve their income and empower them. This vision has to be conveyed strongly,” he adds.

In the absence of these conservation efforts, the communities around the lake have every reason to be worried. Majid Farooq, a scientist at the Jammu and Kashmir’s Department of Environment, says encroachments have not only diluted the flood retention capacity of the wetlands, but also pose a serious threat to life and property in the surrounding areas. “Erratic weather patterns have aggravated the crisis,” he adds. Malik, on the other hand, highlighted the need to stop solid waste disposal in the Jhelum while it passes through Srinagar. “Being a basin fed by the river, the trash is carried to the Wular,” he explains.

Dr Inayet Hassan, Professor of Fisheries, Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Science and Technology, tells 101Reporters that the quality of water in the lake has deteriorated. “Women have tried their best to keep it clean, but the increasing pollution has made it difficult for them to restore such a vast area. Hence, a regular scientific programme of preserving the lake should be implemented with women at the forefront,” he says.

“We know the lake is important not only for us but also for the entire state. It is a given that we join others in cleaning the lake,” says Shahida Begum (56), sitting on the banks and waiting for her daughters to return from the lake.

(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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