Adventure and Religious Tourism Hurting Kashmir’s Environment

Experts also say that the armed conflict that prevailed in the region for almost 3 decades also contributed to the increased deforestation.

Amarnath Yatra
Pilgrims leave for the annual Amarnath Yatra, on Sunday. (ANI Photo)

As the Amarnath Yatra draws closer to its end this year, littered garbage can be seen all across the trekking route. Earlier, the route itself started from the Chandanwari base camp and would go through the glacier where annually stairs would be created on snow mounds. But now the glacier has completely disappeared. At least for a kilometer or two, that earlier used to be blanketed by the snow, rocky terrain is all that can be seen.

Increased anthropogenic activities in the ecologically sensitive zones of Kashmir valley are hurting the flora and fauna here. Due to increased adventure and religious tourism in the unvisited zones of the valley, the resources which form the survival of many rural people and wild animals have been marred.

Mohammad Sultan Bhat who headed the Geography Department at the University of Kashmir writes in his thesis – sustainability of tourism in Kashmir – that the “seasonal character of tourism and the concentration of tourism activities at a small number of locations, in the absence of tourism policy, have triggered serious environmental and ecological concerns”.

But Yatra isn’t the only thing hurting Kashmir’s ecology. Off-roading groups that have been conducting odysseys all along the green pastures of the valley have penetrated deep jungles of the valley in their SUVs unchecked. “This leaves the trail they travel grassless and there is damage to the trees as well. Loud exhausts often panic the wild animals which are otherwise used to the silent ambiance of the forests,” says Tanveer Ahmed who works at a camping facility in the Gurez forest block which is seeing an increasing rush of tourists unlike earlier.

Gurez is a forest block in North Kashmir that is surrounded by Pakistan almost on three sides. Similarly, with guns falling silent, another forest block bordering the Machil area of the Kupwara district is also seeing a huge tourist influx.

“There is hardly any administrative intervention when it comes to the destruction caused by these incoming tourists. The small rivulets that would go along jungle areas would be water sources for bears and other wild animals. The unchecked camping in these areas has led to these streams getting polluted. The bears now come to the main river in the town to drink water,” another local Nazir Ahmed from the Tulail forest block in North Kashmir adds.

While nothing much is being done about the pollution that comes up in these forest blocks and other trekking routes, the government in 2009 had said that it would be creating biowaste treatment plants alongside the Amarnath route.

However, officials from the Amarnath shrine board said on the condition of anonymity that there is no hard and fast ban executed by the government on the use of non-biodegradable waste even near the cave site.

They also say that despite having arranged toilet facilities for pilgrims, there are instances where open defecation has been witnessed in the Pahalgam and Baltal area, even in the close vicinity of the Lidder river which serves as drinking water for a large part of South Kashmir.

While there have been repeated advisories to the pilgrims to avoid polluting the Lidder, no concrete action seems to have been taken. The river gets highly polluted during the course of this Yatra.

“The government has been very careful to avoid the melting of the lingam in the cave side but no concrete action was taken even to assess the damage that yatra causes to the glaciers surrounding the shrine,” a local porter Rafiq said.

Rafiq who has been associated with the trade for over a decade says that in 2009, the government choose a different helipad away from the cave site. This was done because pressure waves created by taking off and landing near the cave would increase the melting rate of the lingam.

However, no bar has been put on tens of Langars operating across the route which has multiple glaciers at the top. Similar inaction has been witnessed in the Sonmarg mountain belt area which also has one of the largest open meadows in the valley.

According to the government’s infrastructural master plan for the area, 60 hectares of land were designated to be built up for accommodation facilities for tourists by 2025. However, research conducted by Kashmir University’s Center for Development has said that it was in the year 2015 itself that 96 per cent of the designated area was already built up and most of it was not for accommodation purposes.

According to reports, in 2018, at least 5.6 tons of solid waste was generated every single day in the Sonamarg area for which there was no treatment plant. More so with the Thajvas glacier in its vicinity, experts are also saying that the rush of tourist vehicles may also enhance the rate of melting of the nearby glacier.

Experts are also saying that the armed conflict that prevailed in the region for almost 3 decades also contributed to the increased deforestation. As the forest guards would hesitate to go to the deeper pockets of the forests, the timber smugglers would unfearingly carry the felling. According to a Mongabay report, in the years of insurgency especially between 1990 to 2010, half a million trees were cut down by smugglers in Budgam district alone.

More so on account of the development, the government has sanctioned almost 727 hectares of land which were forests, and can now be used for non-forest purposes. The government has also reportedly identified over 15,000 acres of land out of the total 203,000 acres of state land in Kashmir which will be used for industrial development.

In the Jammu region, 47,000 acres of land have been identified for a similar purpose. However, most of the land identified in Kashmir reportedly are ecologically sensitive patches and includes forests and land by the rivers.

Experts, as well as those locals living in close vicinity of these forests, invoke the old wisdom emphasizing people preserve the environment. Local skit artists from Central Kashmir who perform in the streets in what is known as “band paether” are also annually conducting a skit in local areas called a “Shikargah Paether”. Through these skits as well, they ask people to preserve nature.

From schools to offices, the government is also reiterating the calls to preserve the environment. They are also doing this by invoking the teachings of Kashmiri Sufi Saint Sheikh Noor Ud Din Noorani who had said, An Posh Teli Yeli Wan Poshi (Food will last if forests will last).