BUDGAM: The greed of man knows no bounds but is there a limit to the degradation that the environment can take? Despite a law in place prohibiting the excavation of soil from Kashmir’s life-nurturing karewa land, the extraction of karewa soil in Budgam is rampant with law-enforcing officials expressing helplessness to stop it.
The Land Revenue Act’s Section 133-A forbids excavation of soil from karewas, which are plateau-like terraces present above the Jhelum plains and its tributaries. They are called Wudr in the local language. These are the areas that grow the most almonds, saffron and apricot in Kashmir valley. Over the years, sadly, these lands have been robbed of the vital soil deposits they have.
Local sources said that the illegal extraction of soil from karewas in Budgam has been going on in the name of filling the landfill site at Achan Eidgah, and at Rakhi Arth, where a residential colony is being built by the government.
Achan Eidgah is the lone landfill site in Kashmir managed by Srinagar Municipal Corporation while Rakhi Arth is the site of a 350-hectare housing colony for settling people living in and around the Dal Lake. The Rakhi Arth site has itself come up on a wetland. It has been filled with earth up to almost 3 meters using soil excavated from these kerawas.
A decade has passed since these wetlands began to be filled, but the extraction of soil has not come to an end.
Residents of Ustad Colony, Bazaar Mohalla, Chane, Razwan and many other areas in Budgam have been complaining for years that hundreds of tippers do rounds during night hours to carry the extracted soil to different areas of the valley.
“The noisy, fast-moving tippers disturb us and have snatched away our sleep. Patients who have been advised rest have been left helpless on God’s mercy,” residents of these areas said.
“Vested interests using political and bureaucratic influence have even made a makeshift road to places from where they vandalise the karewas,” an official, wishing anonymity, told Kashmir Reader.
The government gives special permission to contractors to excavate and carry soil, which is used as filling and as soil cover at the dumping site at Achan and Rakhi Arth. However, there is rampant misuse of these permissions. Photocopies of the permissions are pasted on the front of trucks that carry the soil. Policemen are bribed at nakas (check posts) and the government ban on soil extraction is limited to paper.
“Hundreds of soil-loaded tippers extract the soil from Wudr during late hours and the district administration seems to be in deep slumber,” said Shabir Ali, a resident of the area.
Mushtaq Ahmad, an environment student from Budgam, said that the authorities, especially the district administration, are not able to do anything against the “organised mafia” that has even ruined saffron cultivation in Budgam to a great extent.
Mushtaq said there were beautiful hillocks on the outskirts of Budgam, Chadoora and Beerwah. The same were razed to ground by construction companies after years of constant excavation of soil.
These karewas were famous for almond orchards and saffron fields, for decades the main source of income in several villages like Kaisermulla, Sarai Khampora, Kuzweira, Kultreh and a number of others. Due to the depletion of soil, almond and saffron cultivation has dwindled in dozens of villages.
District Mineral Officer Budgam, Faisal Masood, openly expressed helplessness in this regard.
“Taking undue advantage of the odd hours, some vested interests are vandalising the biodiversity of Budgam district,” Masood said, adding that reports suggest that JCBs and bulldozers are being used by an organised land mafia in several areas of Budgam.
“We have challaned the tipper drivers and seized tippers many times. We even stopped this process for a few months. But the paucity of staff has time and again rendered us helpless,” Masood said.
He said that to keep watch on the entire district, there were only about ten people in the department. “We don’t usually allow them to extract the soil from these areas, but when it is work of an “emergency nature” we are bound to allow them to extract soil from karewas but for a fixed period of time,” Masood said.
When asked what he meant by work of “emergency nature”, Masood said, “When higher officials approve the requisition of soil, we have to allow them. We are not above law.”
“Under these tough circumstances, I will say that there should be a joint effort by Revenue officials, police, and other administrators to curb this mafia. Otherwise it won’t end,” Masood added.
He cited an instance of how the illegal business goes on. “Once, our department stopped tippers carrying extracted boulders on Chadoora road. As soon as they stopped, a tipper unloaded the boulders on the middle of the road and managed to escape. I called police to register an FIR, but till date no FIR has been registered by the police,” Masood said.
“Despite the joint effort by mineral department and district administration to curb this ecological vandalism, nothing has improved on ground because of the intervention of higher ups and other vested interests.” Masood added.