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Kashmir’s New Land Laws Could Impact Biodiversity

A saffron farmer in Kashmir poses with saffron crocus flowers. The most expensive spice in the world is derived from the sigma of the purple flower. Credit: Umer Asif/IPS

A saffron farmer in Kashmir poses with saffron crocus flowers. The most expensive spice in the world is derived from the sigma of the purple flower. Credit: Umer Asif/IPS

SRINAGAR, India , Dec 17 2020 (IPS) - Walking in the middle of fields of delicately-scented purple saffron crocus flowers, 36-year-old Mubeen Yasin, a saffron farmer from the southern region of Indian Kashmir, is not optimistic that in a few years time the scenery will remain as beautiful as it is today.

Located in the southern region of an otherwise violence-strewn Kashmir valley, the town of Pampore — which is also called Saffron Town — is famous for its saffron and remains one of the few places in the world where the saffron crocus still grows. The most expensive spice in the world is derived from the sigma of the purple flower — its bright orange-red strands. Once dried, these harvested sigma are sold as saffron strands.

In Pampore more than 19,000 families are directly dependent on this crop for their livelihoods.

However, over the last decade the area has seen an unprecedented boom of cement manufacturing plants, which are proving lethal for Kashmir’s famed saffron crop.

As these cement factories mushroom across the landscape, they have impacted the saffron harvests, according to Fayaz Ahmad Dar, a research scholar.

A few years ago Dar conducted research on the ill effects of the cement industry on Kashmir’s saffron crop.  He found that over 200 hectares of saffron fields were under severe threat from cement factories and as a result saffron production had been affected in fields located near cement plants, reducing production from the normal 3,000 grams to as low as 1,400 grams per hectare. 

“The losses were related to the amount of dust fall from the cement factories, similarly studies on impacts of cement pollution on morphology of saffron and its productivity revealed negative impacts on both parameters. Since most cement factories are located around the only area where saffron is grown on a large scale in the valley it has adversely affected the plant,” Dar said in his research.

However, Yasin, like other farmers, fears that new plans of industrialisation for the region by the Indian government will devastate saffron cultivation. 

While the government has stressed that it will not use any agricultural land for industrialisation, Yasin is not convinced saffron farmers will not be affected.

“The government is planning massive industrialisation in Kashmir. The lands, which were till now fertile, will now turn barren. The few cement factories have destroyed the saffron crop beyond imagination. Now imagine if industries in hundreds would come up here, what would be the scenario?” Yasin tells IPS.

Repeal of land laws

Kashmir was previously India’s only state with a special status and limited autonomy. And only permanent residents of this Himalayan region were eligible to sell and purchase land and property.

But after the removal of the region’s autonomy last year, this was set to change. On Oct. 27, through government order, Kashmir’s land laws were repealed and the new guidelines now allow all Indian citizens to purchase land and property in the region.

Days after the rules were amended, the government ordered the transfer of more than 3,000 acres of land to the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade in order to invite investment and generate employment in the region.

On Oct. 31, Hurriyat Conference, an amalgam of separatist outfits demanding Kashmir’s freedom from Indian rule, announced a day-long strike against the new laws. The conglomerate claimed in its official handout that the Indian government, by repealing the old laws, was planning to change the demography of the region where Muslims are more than 67 percent of the total population.

Government’s response

Kashmir’s Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha has clarified that the government wants employment generation in the region and that is the reason the old laws were repealed. He stated that no agricultural land will be acquired in the process. 

“I want to say this forcefully and with full responsibility that agricultural land has been kept reserved for farmers; no outsider will come on those lands. The industrial areas that we have defined, we want that like rest of the country, here too industries come so that Jammu & Kashmir also develops and employment is generated,” Sinha said in a statement last month.

Potential environmental impact

But environmentalists and Kashmir’s civil society groups believe the move could drastically impact the biodiversity of the region where more than 19 percent of the land is covered by thick forests and has 1,300 water bodies and an estimated 147 majestic glaciers.

Dr Arshid Jahangir, who teaches Environmental Studies in University of Kashmir, told IPS that the possible construction large scale industries and subsequent overpopulation in Kashmir would have a direct impact upon the local resources of the region and could turn an otherwise picturesque valley into a concrete jungle.

“The  number of brick kilns, cement factories, and aggregate crushing units will  increase as you need more materials for the infrastructure build. Now imagine the level of pollution in a place which from all sides is surrounded by mountains and is completely landlocked. It will be a disaster in the making,” said Jahangir.

According to Tavseef Mairaj, a Kashmiri  research  scholar from the Institute of Waste Water Management and Water Protection at Hamburg University of Technology, Germany, Kashmir’s food system and food sovereignty will be among the worst affected due to the new land laws.

“Our food system is already under stress due to land use change, water scarcity, and extreme weather events. The area of land under agriculture decreased from 56 percent to 40 percent from 1992 to 2015, with a further reduction of 17 percent from 2015 to 2019. Now with the opening of land ownership to big industry, there will be further changes in land use patterns, resulting in dependence on external supplies for our food security,” Mairaj told IPS.

He said that water resources are vital for the sustenance of the food system and rapid industrialisation will endanger these resources in more ways than one.

“The area under open water has decreased by almost 50 percent in the same time period, from 4.9 percent to 2.5 percent, which is alarming given the importance of water to our food sovereignty, which mainly depends on our rice produce.

“Kashmir is already seeing the effects of non-industrial waste on our rivers and lakes due to improper waste management infrastructure. Industrial waste in comparison will be a herculean task to manage in a place like Kashmir,” Tavseef said.

Professor Nisar Ali, a leading economist from Kashmir, told IPS that Kashmir can never be a suitable place for massive urbanisation and ruthless industrialisation. 

“I remember in 1973, then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was on a tour in Kashmir. She was accompanied by her finance minister who in one public rally announced the setting up of mega industries in Kashmir valley. Minutes later, in the same public event, he was rebuked by none other than Ms Gandhi herself who conveyed it to her minister that Kashmir’s scenic beauty and fragile ecology should never be disturbed by the setting up of massive industries.

“More than 40 years later, the situation seems entirely different. It appears that the government is no longer concerned about the environmental aspects of the decisions it is making vis-a-vis the industrialisation and  giving land to non-residents in Kashmir,” Ali said.


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