“Hardly anything left for reclamation”: Filmmaker on environment degradation in Kashmir

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In his growing years in the Adipora village, in north Kashmir’s Sopore, Jalaludin Baba watched the Wular lake, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Asia, drastically shrink over the years. The stagnation of the lake prompted Mr. Baba to dedicate himself to become an advocate for nature.

Forty-eight-year-old Mr. Baba started making films in 2000, beginning with making documentary films on the major water bodies of Kashmir–including Wular Lake, Dal Lake, and Manasbal Lake. 

After winning accolades across the globe for his independent film, Saving the Saviour, Mr. Baba’s film was selected to be telecast on the world’s premier television network, the National Geographic Channel on World Cleanup Day–this year, focusing on the scourge of plastic waste–on 19 September 2020.

Here are the edited excerpts of Mr. Baba’s conversation with The Kashmir Walla.

What prompted the idea behind your first film “Hum aur Hamare Jheel” (Us and our lakes)?

Jalal Ud Din Baba: The resolve to plunge into green filmmaking was to flinch a discourse on colossal environmental degradation we are faced with, converting ecological activism into green filmmaking.

Anything and everyone is dependent on water, it is the most precious and definitive sought commodity on earth but at the same time most vulnerable, brazenly wasted and unscrupulously used commodity under the sun.

I instinctively felt that I owe a lot to mother nature and to my nation and thus started with the most powerful medium of storytelling–that’s filming nature and its bounties, which in turn became a lifelong passion and profession.

Do you think the environment has been a priority for Kashmir?

Kashmir’s priorities, as the conflict raged on, official priorities molded into a full blown counter insurgency, politicking, administrative neglect and nepotism, corruption and wanton loot of resources started creeping in, ecological urgencies took the backseat, Infact lawlessness gave way to grabbing and encroaching upon water bodies and forests, Wular lake took the biggest hit, as the renegades (the pro-government Ikhwan) started grabbing the large swaths of lake lands, grasslands, islands, wetlands, embankments, willow plantations, in its peripheries across its width and breadth from 1992 unto 1999. 

In Sonawari, Hajin, Bandipora, Sopore, and Zaingeer areas, grabbing Wular lands became a mass booty and plunder. Tens of thousands of hectares of land was clutched and distributed among its cadre. Departments in charge of Kashmir ecology, forests, grasslands, revenues, pollution control board, social forestry, mining and geology, everything came to standstill, lost there relevance and identities, so the protection and conservation majors felt to dead end, timber smuggling, wild resources became the biggest causality and took the irreversible brunt. 

The scenario we are in now is very grim because we are losing our green bastions at a rapid pace as our shrinking lakes, rivers, and melting glaciers will have a huge impact on our farming sector in times to come. So the duty to reclaim and preserve our natural bodies falls on general masses, civil society in general, NGOs in particular. Although as a union territory, the central government has a huge responsibility on its shoulders to [similarly rollout] a mega plan like the Ganges restoration plan with requisite financial and geopolitical aspects, to reclaim and restore this great lake [Wular] back to its glory.

What has been the role of successive governments?

Wular Lake is a world heritage wetland site under the Ramsar Convention charter of UNESCO. It is an intergovernmental treaty, which provides the framework for international cooperation for the conservation of wetland habitats, conservation thus becomes obligatory to the Government of India at the center and state levels but Wular has been neglected by the governments at all levels. 

Some cosmetic steps have been started from last year or two but that’s not the solution. Dredging and beautification of embankments cannot be termed as a viable solution; treatments of solid waste, sewage waste, chemical contaminations, and encroachments have to be dealt with. 

What has been the most shocking discovery about the environment?

Shooting in Wular, I could see how it is turning into a pool of dirt.

How people throw animal carcasses into its waters, how large chunks of land has been made into private plantations, how the headcount of millions of migratory birds is dwindled into few thousands, how the runoff chemical poisons from apple and rice fields is finishing the lake’s life, how the green fields and grasslands have been seized and put into rice cultivation

It is said that in the coming times “wars will be fought over on water”. To my mind, it’s already begun. Water dispute as the tool of bargain and war chip, has already started, for instance, between neighboring countries India, Pakistan and China even irony, between two provinces of the same country, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Haryana, Delhi and Haryana. 

One should amply understand how perilous the issue of water is going to become in times to come, so proper conservation is the only solution.

Is there enough awareness about the environment in Kashmir?

Awareness about the environment across Kashmir is discreet. Otherwise we wouldn’t have lost our pristine lakes in the capital city Srinagar in the first place. The alarming rate with which our water bodies are turning sewage dumping sites, sheer gutter of dirt and trash, there is hardly anything left for reclamation.

Even the nuclear flashpoint Kashmir conflict resolution may wait years and decades but preserving our environmental marvels is the only answer with us to rejuvenate and progress forwards. Natural calamities like 2014 Kashmir deluge could have amended our ways of shameful existence but seems that tragedy too lost its perplexity and fear. We haven’t learnt our lesson but nature is mysterious and you never know when it’s going to show its wrath and fury, God forbid we may have to face more colossal losses than what we faced in the 2014 floods, if we don’t change ourselves towards our water bodies and forests. The sooner we do, the better and prudent.

The interview originally appeared in our 12-18 October 2020 print edition.

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