As migratory birds return to Hokersar, a conservation clash emerges. The discrepancies between official claims and on-ground reality expose the challenges faced by this once-thriving wetland.
As the winter descends upon the Kashmir Valley, the annual migration of migratory birds to the Hokersar wetland heralds the season’s arrival,” observed Ifshan Dewan, the Wildlife Warden overseeing the region. Among them, Mallard, Gadwalls, and Geese flock here from far-flung places like Siberia and Northern Europe, turning the wetland into a haven for bird lovers and conservationists.
While Dewan celebrates the expected arrival and the department’s measures to sustain these avian visitors, a different narrative emerges from the locals. Mohammad Hayat from Zainakote asserts, “The department’s assurances of bird influx clash with on-ground issues.” Ahmad highlights the failure to reclaim encroached land and unsatisfactory work on the flood channel, contradicting the department’s claims of comprehensive wetland management. Moreover, locals contest the department’s depiction of a sophisticated trash guard, alleging it to be basic and ineffective.
An official working at the Hokersar Ramsar site wishing to remain anonymous, stated concerns about the continuous use of excavators and dumpers, which are deterring migratory birds. This has led to the shrinking of the area available for these birds. Additionally, the official claimed that, for the sake of a vote bank, some politicians post 2019 allowed encroachments on the wetland. Reviewing the official records reveals that the wetland’s vast area has gradually diminished over the years.
Speaking about the department’s comprehensive approach towards wetland management, Dewan said that the department has implemented an Integrated Management Action Plan not only for Hokersar wetland but for the entirety of Kashmir’s wetlands.
“Specifically focusing on Hokersar, our collaborative efforts with the mechanical department of Baramulla District have resulted in significant measures. Peripheral channels have been dredged, a master pool has been created and approximately 36 hectares of surrounding land have been successfully reclaimed, bolstering the wetland’s preservation”, she informed.
Additionally, to effectively regulate water levels, the installation of gates by the Irrigation and Flood Control Department (I&FC), scheduled to become operational soon, will assist in maintaining an optimal water level. To prevent garbage from entering the wetland and to trap silt from the peripheries, I&FC has constructed a segmentation tank that facilitates the settlement of incoming water, she added.
“Our efforts are dedicated to upholding Hokersar’s status as a Ramsar site in line with the Ramsar convention and guidelines. The wetland remains in a healthy state, and our ongoing initiatives aim to ensure its continued preservation and ecological balance,” she said.
In light of the discrepancies between the wildlife department’s assertions and the factual situation, it’s evident that the installed gates, along with pending bank elevation and incomplete desilting of the flood channel, present a starkly different scenario.
According to the report, the region witnessed a reduction in wetland area from 1, 64,230 hectares in 2006-07 to 1, 64,110 hectares in 2017-18, resulting in a loss of 120 hectares over a decade.
“The wildlife department’s claims about the gates and a segregation tank contradict reality. While the gates are installed, pending bank elevation and incomplete desilting of the flood channel tell a different story,” says Mohammad Hayat of Zainakote adding “The so-called segregation tank appears to be nothing more than a basic trash barrier, far from the sophistication the department boasted about.”
Hayat further claims that any rise in water levels could lead to complete submergence of the surrounding areas. While acknowledging the importance of the flood gates he said “Our demand primarily revolves around the necessity for thorough desilting measures and raising the banks of the flood channel. These steps are crucial to prevent potential inundation and safeguard our locality effectively.”
Even though Hokersar holds the prestigious status of a Ramsar site, acknowledged internationally for its significance under the Ramsar Convention, there remains a stark absence of substantive efforts or tangible measures aimed at restoring and preserving this invaluable wetland.
A recent investigation conducted by the University of Kashmir’s Department of Earth Sciences (KU) has uncovered a sobering reality concerning the state of Hokersar. The study’s findings depict a distressing narrative involving “societal greed and government apathy,” significantly impacting the wetland’s condition.
According to study, a troubling trend has been revealed in Hokersar’s expanse, indicating a reduction from 18.13 square kilometers in 1969 to a mere 13.42 square kilometers. Additionally, its once vast open water area has markedly decreased from 210 hectares in 1969 to a meager 45 hectares. These findings underscore the substantial decline witnessed in this critical ecosystem over time.
The significance of Hokersar cannot be overstated. This wetland holds immense ecological and aesthetic value, serving as a vital habitat for millions of migratory birds that seek refuge here during the winter months.
Over the past decade, the wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir have experienced a concerning reduction, shrinking by a substantial 120 hectares.
A recent report released by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation has unveiled alarming data concerning the state of wetlands in Jammu and Kashmir. According to the report, the region witnessed a reduction in wetland area from 1,64,230 hectares in 2006-07 to 1,64,110 hectares in 2017-18, resulting in a loss of 120 hectares over a decade.
“Specifically focusing on Hokersar, our collaborative efforts with the mechanical department of Baramulla District have resulted in significant measures. Peripheral channels have been dredged, a master pool has been created and approximately 36 hectares of surrounding land have been successfully reclaimed, bolstering the wetland’s preservation”
This significant reduction in wetland coverage indicates a concerning trend, highlighting the urgent need for conservation efforts and strategies to protect these vital ecosystems. Over the mentioned period, the overall count of wetlands also decreased marginally from 404 to 403, underscoring the impact of diminishing wetland areas in the region.
Emphasizing the profound role of Hokersar Wetland, describing it as more than a mere bird habitat, Qurrat ul Ain a local resident said that Hokersar Wetland isn’t just a habitat for birds; it’s the soul of our community. “I’ve seen generations grow up marveling at the sight of these migratory birds. It’s not just about ecology; it’s about our identity, our culture. Losing it would be losing a part of ourselves.” She said.
This reduction in wetland coverage has raised concerns among local residents, who assert that the valley’s wetlands are gradually falling prey to encroachments.
Locals in the Hokersar area highlighted the ongoing encroachment on the wetlands, affecting migratory bird arrival. “The Hokersar wetland has faced continuous land encroachment for decades, silently impacting the arrival of migratory birds,” locals said while expressing frustration over the administration’s inaction.
While expressing dissatisfaction with the wildlife department’s eviction drive, Ghulam Ahmad of Zainakote village contested the efficacy of the auction-based desilting at the Hokersar wetland. He stated, “Despite officials’ claims, only a few kanals of land have been desilted, with a significant portion of the area left untouched.” Furthermore, he says the continuous machine noise throughout the day and night is not just a concern but actively deterring the migratory birds from visiting the area.
“The auction-based desilting process appears to have devolved into a profitable venture for contractors, devoid of any structured plan or guidelines,” remarked Ghulam Ahmad. “This shift raises doubts about the genuine commitment to preserving the integrity and functionality of the wetland, casting a shadow on the actual conservation efforts,” he added.
Concerns arise about the auction-based desilting process, which seems to have transformed into a lucrative affair for contractors without a proper plan or guidelines. These claims cast shadows on the actual efforts to preserve the wetland’s integrity and functionality.
The discrepancy between the official narrative and the residents’ perspective sheds light on the complex challenges faced by the Hokersar wetland,” Ghulam Ahmad concluded, emphasizing the need for transparent and effective conservation strategies to protect these crucial ecosystems.