Choked by brick kilns, cluster of Budgam villages hit by worst pollution
SRINAGAR: Rubeena Jan, 28, pulled a portion of her headgear while walking back home to cover her baby boy as she saw a huge cloud of dust emanating from a stone crusher near Samerbugh village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district.
Jan, a resident of Shalina village, had gone to GB Pant Children’s hospital in Srinagar to treat her son Amir for breathing difficulties. She said that doctors advised her to keep Amir away from dust and smoke lest he becomes a victim of asthma or other diseases. “But that is impossible because our area has highest concentration of construction plants releasing huge quantities of toxic gases and dust every day,” Jan said.
Pollution’s effect in this corner of Budgam can be seen in an entire stretch of five kilometers that includes Shalina, Samerbug, Rakh Shalina, Taengun, Golpora and New Colony-Samerbug quarters.
A small but densely populated village, Samerbugh is located less than two kms from the Srinagar-Baramulla bypass. The area is dotted with dozens of hot-mix plants, stone-crushers and brick kilns. Residential colonies are separated from manufacturing units by a dilapidated narrow road. The leaves of all trees here are covered in a thick layer of dust.
Mohammad Yasin Malla, an auto-rickshaw driver told Kashmir Reader that the residential colonies came up over the last 10 years. The apartments, according to Malla, belong to the erstwhile boatman community, which was asked in 1989, to forsake their trade on the water bodies in order to preserve them. “The state government rehabilitated nearly 400 families here,” Malla said, “despite the fact that the area is not suitable for living purposes. This was under the centrally sponsored Indira Aawas Yoajna scheme, some 13 years ago.”
Malla said half of the boatmen population has vacated the government-made houses in the last three years. The owners of the abandoned buildings either live in rented accommodations or at their relatives’ places in different parts of Srinagar. “The bad odour and the dust have made our lives a living hell. I too would have left the place, but my income is not enough to sustain us. I don’t want to be a burden on someone else either,” Malla said.
Malla said that if the dust and asphalt fumes were not enough to kill them slowly, the hot-mix plant workers leave no stone unturned to worsen matters. “They burn countless empty macadam drums on the road that blocks visibility in our entire colony,” he said adding, “During the burning of canisters, it’s like an eclipse. The people’s faces are smeared black.”
The locals have formed a committee to fight for their basic rights. The committee consists of local activists, clerics, doctors and residents of all six villages.
Ghulam Hassan Sheikh, a committee member, says the representatives have been knocking at the doors of various government offices including that of the residence of local legislator to curb the pollution menace. “No one bothers to pay attention to our woes. The plants continue functioning and the public health rapidly deteriorates,”he said.
Sheikh, a native of Shalina, said the villages once used to be known for their vegetable farming. He maintains that the beginning of the end of the “green belt” started when he was a teen. “I remember my childhood days when the entire area was green. The then-fertile land produced vegetables, rice and wheat, supplied to entire Kashmir,” he said. “Then a few locals established brick kilns here, which gave the residents employment. People here were poor, so they took it as an opportunity to improve their financial condition.”
The other reason Sheikh believes the six villages became a construction hub is that the village elders did not oppose the kilns and other construction plants, for they were not sufficiently educated to understand the plants’ long term effects.
Local doctors said most of the locals complain of health problems like troubled breathing, headache, nausea and burning of the eyes, nose and throat. “Many people in the area suffer from diseases like cancer and kidney failure,” a doctor said. “The asphalt fumes induce genetic changes that give rise to diseases like cancer,” he said adding, “Various people have developed cancer, and some even have suffered kidney failure.”
The committee members alleged that the state Pollution Control Board (PCB) is not serious about the issues of rising pollution despite visual evidences given to them. Committee member Barkat Hussain Bhat said, “When we visited the PCD, we showed them photos and video evidences, but they did not take any action against the plants that have been violating the pollution norms set by the Board itself,” he said.
“The air quality in this region is the worst in the whole of Kashmir. Once an individual crosses 60 years here, he does not survive,” Bhat added.
The Pollution Control Board (PCB), however, has installed an air monitoring lab in the area, but the PCD refused to share the readings. Sameer Bhati, PCB member Secretary, said that all the area’s macadam plants and stone crushers were unregulated while the brick kilns had been regulated under the Jammu and Kashmir Brick Kilns Regulation Act, 2010. He said that the macadam plant owners used to get permission from various departments. “With the passing of SRO-302 of the Industries and Commerce department in July 2017, all previously unregulated hot-mix plants and stone crushers will come under regulation. Under SRO 302, the hot-mix plant and stone crusher owners would have to get NOCs from various departments like the Geology and Mining department for the procurement of raw material and the Industries and Commerce department for the registration of their units.”
He added that the department would form a special task force to monitor the situation in the area. “The regulation is a long-term process and it will take time, but for the short term, we will form a task force that will enforce the use of pollution control devices such as water sprinklers at all plants.”