Construction, horticulture eat into Kashmir fields

Updated: Apr 14, 2012, 16:52 PM IST

Athar Parvaiz/ OneWorld South Asia

The north Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir in India has witnessed massive construction growth over recent years. Its largest city, Srinagar, now home to 1.4 million people, has expanded substantially, making land management a complex phenomenon.

The construction boom is not only feeding on forest and environmental wealth, but is also consuming thousands of hectares of agricultural land. Agricultural land is also getting converted into horticultural land as farmers seek to earn more revenue against horticultural products. Shifting to horticulture has also to do with lack of proper irrigation facilities for the water-intensive agricultural crops like paddy.

Scientists in Kashmir are worried at the rapid conversion of paddy lands for horticultural use and the mushrooming of commercial establishments and residential colonies in the areas which were once flourishing farming lands.

According to official figures, 80 per cent of Kashmir’s seven million people are directly or indirectly engaged in agriculture and allied sectors. Much of Kashmir’s total area of 2.4 million hectares is mountainous or forested.

Official statistics indicate that 151,352 hectares of land that used to be under cultivation in the state, a few decades ago, has now shrunk to 46,943 hectares. Experts trace this disturbing trend to unplanned growth and the lack of regulation measures.

“The concept of horizontal expansion, prevalent in Kashmir for decades, is proving quite disastrous, since, unlike vertical expansion, it consumes additional space and construction material including timber,” said Nissar Ahmad, forest conservator for central Kashmir.

Dangerous Trend

Botanists and agricultural experts view it with even more concern. "This is a dangerous trend," warns Zaffar Ahmad Reshi, a professor in Kashmir University’s Botany department. "The government in Kashmir has no land-use policy and has failed to provide proper irrigation facilities to the farmers."

Reshi stresses that the lack of an irrigation network for farming is the main reason why farmers are getting fed up with the farming profession.

According to the Kashmir government’s Economic Survey report for 2010-11, only 41 percent of agricultural land is covered by irrigation facilities with the rest dependent on rain.

Reshi observes that Kashmir cannot afford to lose all its agricultural land to horticulture and residential or commercial areas. "Rice is the staple food of Kashmiris and it is a primary commodity here. We are already importing more than 50 per cent of our rice," he said.

Rahim Sheikh, a farmer in Baramullah district, has a similar perception, though from a personal point of view. "For generations our family never bought rice in the market. We grow what we need and more in our rice fields. We can’t think of any other way," he said.

Adapting to climate change

Some farmers choose to be adventurous and explore the new opportunities. Such farmers feel that sticking only to the water-intensive crops like paddy in times of water-scarcity might prove non-beneficial and they readily switch over to cash crops like apple, almond and walnuts.

"The trend could be a consequence of climate change as farmers find it increasingly difficult to irrigate their rice fields," says Shafiq Ahmad Wani, director of research at Kashmir’s Agriculture University.

"In the Brang area of south Kashmir, we have observed an almost total conversion from agriculture to horticulture with farmers attributing it to lack of irrigation facilities and the absence of a marketing system."

According to Akhtar Hussain Malik, a botanist at Kashmir University, the drop in rice and maize cultivation has resulted in a lack of fodder for cattle. "Our animals are already suffering from insufficient fodder with the degradation and shrinking of pastures in Kashmir."

Farooq Ahmad Lone, director at Kashmir’s agriculture department says the state government has plans to providing bore wells to farmers whose lands are dependent on rains.

"We suffered a 25 per cent loss in maize production this year. We intend to mitigate these losses by providing bore well facilities to farmers in the hilly areas," Lone said.

Reducing rainfall

According to the study, ‘Recent Trends in Meteorological Parameters over Jammu & Kashmir (1976 to 2007)’, by A. K. Jaswal and G. S. Prakasa Rao of the Indian Meteorological Department, temperatures are increasing over this state - often likened to Switzerland for its alpine charms and snow-capped mountains.

The study showed an annual increase in the maximum temperature in the Kashmir region from 0.04 to 0.05 degrees Celsius over the period and a corresponding rise in the minimum temperature in the Jammu region from 0.03 to 0.08 degrees C per year.

"Annual rainfall and rainy days are decreasing in both the regions of the state except at Jammu where rainfall trend is significantly increasing (12.05 mm per year)," says the study.

(The views expressed in the article are of the writer.)