Why Kashmir’s activists are turning to the National Green Tribunal to save its forests and wetlands

Why Kashmir’s activists are turning to the National Green Tribunal to save its forests and wetlands.

From sharply reprimanding the government to fining construction companies, the green court has backed conservation efforts in the Union territory.

For some time now, Rasikh Rasool Bhat has been watching the activity around the river near his home in North Kashmir’s Handwara area with alarm.

In November last year, Bhat saw unchecked and illegal riverbed mining with excavators at different spots of the Bakiaker-Zachaldara stream. The minerals extracted were being used for the construction of a road to the Bangus valley, a popular tourist site.

As he dug deeper, he realised that worse was happening. More than 25,000 trees in the Rajwar forest area had been uprooted to build the road in 2021 and 2022. All of this work, Bhat alleged, was being carried out without any environmental clearance.

In both these cases of alleged violations, Bhat said, the Union territory administration had chosen to look the other way despite complaints.

“From knocking on the door of the Jammu and Kashmir government’s grievance cell to filing Right to Information applications, I did everything,” Bhat said. A dormant member of the National Conference, Bhat even wrote to the police.

“When nobody listened to me, I thought it’s better to approach the top environment court.”

On February 6 this year, he filed an application with the National Green Tribunal, alleging that “big mountains have been blasted and more than 14 hectares of forest land used to construct the road.”

On February 21, the principal bench of the tribunal observed that Bhat’s application “raises substantial issue(sic) relating to compliance of environmental norms” and sent notices to the relevant government departments. The matter has been listed for next hearing on April 25

Bhat’s application is the second complaint the tribunal has admitted in the first two months of this year. In the same period, it has also taken suo moto cognizance of water pollution in three cases involving damage to wetlands and pollution of water bodies on the basis of media reports.

Most recently, on March 15, the National Green Tribunal fined two private contractors Rs 16 lakh for violating environmental clearance rules while mining in Budgam’s Doodhganga stream.

For citizens like Bhat concerned about the environment in Jammu and Kashmir, the National Green Tribunal has become a court of last resort

Since 2021, the National Green Tribunal has come down heavily on the Jammu and Kashmir government for its recurring failures – from failing to stop illegal riverbed mining to dumping of solid municipal waste in water bodies. It has also fined construction companies and pinned responsibility on senior bureaucrats of the administration.

“The NGT's interventions have been meaningful because it directly addresses and seeks accountability from top-most officials like the chief secretary,” said Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, one of Kashmir’s foremost activists and campaigners on environmental issues.

Protecting the wetlands

In March 2019, Raja Muzaffar Bhat drew the NGT’s attention to the dumping of waste into Wular Lake in Bandipora, Asia’s second largest freshwater lake, and the encroachment of the Hokersar and Kreentchoo wetlands by farmers and local residents.

Both Hokersar and Wular are Ramsar sites – wetlands of international importance.

Every year, Hokersar hosts lakhs of migratory birds from as far as Europe, Central Asia and Siberia. The Wular is key to Kashmir’s river ecology. The Valley’s lifeline, Jhelum, drains into the lake and travels to Pakistan via Baramulla district, saving Kashmir from devastating floods.

Large parts of the wetlands had been turned into paddy fields and its water bodies choked by weeds, solid waste and other flora.

As the proceedings in the matter continued, the green court widened the scope of the application and brought all eight major wetlands in Kashmir under its ambit.

The principal bench of the tribunal chaired by Justice Adarsh Kumar Goel in July, 2021 said it was not satisfied with the Jammu and Kashmir government’s response on steps it had taken to protect the wetlands. It directed the authorities to come up with “an action plan in respect of each wetland” within one month.

The Jammu and Kashmir government complied. The department of wildlife protection came up with a five-year-long plan for the conservation of wetlands with a budget of Rs 46.70 crore.

The tribunal also made sure officials were identified to oversee the plan. In its final hearing in the matter in November, 2021, the green court took note of the assurance given by the Union territory administration that “the execution of action plans will be overseen on a regular basis” by the forest and environment secretary and the chief secretary of the Union territory.

Last month, authorities said they have been able to retrieve around 4,000 kanals of land from encroachment in Hokersar wetland.

“Had it not been for the NGT, the authorities would not have shown the will to save our wetlands,” said Muzaffar Bhat.

Construction firms in the dock

Before contacting the National Green Tribunal in November 2021, social activist Joginder Bhandari from Jammu’s Kishtwar district had written multiple times to the Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control Committee, complaining about construction firms dumping muck into the Arzi Nallah near the Pakal Dul Hydroelectric Project. “But they didn’t take any action,” recalled Bhandari.

To his surprise, Bhandari said, the NGT showed great proactiveness in the matter.

Within a span of three hearings spread over four months, the tribunal slapped a penalty of Rs 1 crore each on construction firms AFCONS Infrastructure Limited and L&T Limited. This fine, the green court said, had to be deposited with the Jammu and Kashmir Pollution Control authorities within a span of two months.

The mining challenge

Following the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood in August, 2019, the Union territory’s minor mineral blocks were put up for auction.

Given their better financial capacity and lockdown in Kashmir, most of these mining blocks went to firms and individuals from outside the Union territory. Till 2019, non-local players could not take part in the auctions.

Since 2019, widespread violations of environmental norms during mining have been reported across the union territory.

Last year, a Scroll investigation had found illegal riverbed mining by unlicensed contractors and violations of environmental guidelines by licensed players across Kashmir. Such violations, experts and locals said, not only posed a threat to the region’s fragile ecology but also livelihoods.

The government’s own figures on illegal mineral mining are striking. For example, in 2021-’22, the authorities in Jammu and Kashmir seized more than 7,000 vehicles for their involvement in illegal extraction and transporting of riverbed minerals. In addition to that, the penalties imposed by the government on illegal miners in the same year amounted to more than Rs 14 crore.

Amidst these violations, activist Muzaffar Bhat approached the National Green Tribunal in September 2021, alarmed at what was happening to Doodh Ganga, a tributary of river Jhelum, and the Mamath Kull stream in Budgam district.

He alleged that authorities and the public were dumping large quantities of pesticides from apple orchards, untreated sewage and municipal solid waste into these water bodies. Neither the Srinagar Municipal Corporation nor other authorities had thought it fit to construct a sewage treatment plant around the rivers.

After seeking multiple reports from the authorities in the petition, the court in October 2022, observed “serious lapses on the part of the administration in waste management and in failing to control illegal mining.”

The tribunal also slapped a penalty of Rs 35 crore on the government, out of which Rs 32 crore was for discharge of untreated sewage in the water bodies and Rs 3 crores for failure to process solid waste.

In a scathing indictment of the government, the court said, “We are really dissatisfied with the manner in which J&K Government has proceeded in this matter. Despite repeated opportunities granted, in the last almost more than two years, substantive progress has not been shown in the matter.”

In its order on May 30, 2023, the NGT said: “It is not in dispute that both the rivers are still polluted and no effective steps have been taken either for mitigating or removing the pollution or for preventing the illegal mining in the river bed and flood plain zones of the said rivers.”

According to Bhat, the petitioner, the Rs 35 crore penalty is just a temporary solution to the degradation of the two water bodies. During the hearings, the Union territory administration proposed setting up permanent sewage treatment plants at the cost of Rs 149 crore to end the problem. Bhat hopes that the tribunal will compel the government to walk the talk.

The big picture

According to environmental activists, the increasing intervention of the National Green Tribunal in Jammu and Kashmir underlines the indifference of authorities towards environmental issues in the Union territory.

“Authorities and environmental bodies are a failure here,” explained Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an avid environmental activist. “In order to establish the rule of law, we have to approach courts. If there’s a government department for conserving and preventing environmental violations, why does it take the court for them to act?”

During a hearing in Bhat’s Doodh Ganga petition in March, 2022, the National Green Tribunal had said as much. “Once…serious violations have been found by the State authorities, failure to take stringent action shows apathy to the obligation of the state under the Constitution.