By Danish Mehraj
Pampore is also known as ‘saffron town’ since it is the only saffron-producing belt in Kashmir. This title was conferred on it some decades ago, but it seems we are about to lose that quality. Some areas in this belt are becoming a reason for the degradation in environment. Just a few kilometers away from Srinagar there is a hamlet, in this area, which is now famous in the Valley for production of tons of dust every day. There are about seven cement plants in Khrew and its adjoining areas, which include Bathen, Shar-Shali, Wuyan and Nagendar. One can, simply, call them ‘dust plants’ instead of cement ones. As a result, Khrew is grossly polluted and enveloped by gray smoke produced in these ‘dust plants’.
The town is surrounded by woods and these cement factories are situated close to the forests. You always have seen and heard of ‘green’ forests but have you ever heard of ‘gray’ forests? I have actually seen them. These forests should be included in ‘tourist spots’ of the Valley because of their grayness. Behind the forests, there is the Dachigam national park, which is also a victim of these factories. Saffron is produced in the Valley only from the Khrew to Pampore belt. Since the factories started in the area, saffron production has diminished, and in the future there may be no production at all if output continues to diminish at the current trajectory. Some saffron lands have turned into residential places because of lack of production. Recently, the government of Jammu and Kashmir started issuing warnings to stop construction on saffron lands. But, in a vicious cycle, since there is a decrease in production of saffron, people have started converting land into residential use. Other agricultural production, like wheat, rice, oil grain etc. has also been hit hard.
Undoubtedly, the economy of the town is quite good, but health issues are a big issue now. People increasingly complain of various chest ailments. No matter how much income is made from cement factories, the same income is spent on treatment of chest diseases. Doctors working at the primary health center, Khrew, report that patients from Khrew and its adjoining areas are prone to respiratory problems like asthma, COPD, cystic fibrosis etc, which are caused due to air pollution. It is difficult to cure such patients as they have to deal with the dust every day. Respiratory diseases are not only shortening our lifespan, but affecting our future generations too.
The literacy rate, before the cement factories, used to be about 84%. But the education sector is not so active in the town anymore. A recent survey claimed the literacy rate is about 30% now, but one can also say that this is due mostly to girls, while the boys, many of them minor, are engaged in the cement economy, such as even ferrying of trucks, loading and unloading cement. Adapting to the ‘cement economy’ is becoming normal, and this is, on the whole, jeopardising the education of children.
Not just the cement factories, the government is also responsible for this state of affairs as it is choosing to ignore the situation. Cement factories emit pollutants but the government is still letting them operate the plants. These factories lack pollution control devices and even as people have staged many protests, the authorities are not paying attention. These factories have also become a cause of internal tussle among villages in the area. Regular strikes against pollution hits shopkeepers even as the education sector is being hit hard. Residents have started to flee to safer and pollution-free areas. But this is not the solution; most of the families cannot afford to run away. The Pollution Control Board, committed to provide a pollution free environment to people, seems to have shut its eyes. Some residents even lodged a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the factories to try and attract the attention of authorities. But the litigation is periodically revised so as to extend the timeline on investigating the matter.
The fight against cement factories has been on for over a year now, and there is really no need to ‘find out’ whether the factories are causing pollution or not. It is clearly known to all; the issue has even reached the national level through print and electronic media. Is there still anything left to investigate? One can only say: if there is something to look into, please do so with immediate effect and find a long-lasting solution for the beleaguered residents of the area.
—The writer is a student from Khrew