Cement dust mixed with coal smoke hovers like clouds on the streets, and accumulates on rooftops, windows and doors of houses in Khrew town of Kashmir. Apart from causing pollution and respiratory diseases, the cement factories in the area have also hit marriage prospects. Khrew is a small township in the Pampore area, also known as the saffron bowl of Kashmir.
An unexpected fallout has been the difficulty of the local populace in finding brides and grooms for their children.
The increasing levels of pollution have not only affected the health and livelihood of the locals who depend on saffron farming, agriculture and allied practices, it has taken a serious toll on the social fabric.
“People from other areas are reluctant to marry their children in our villages. They say your life is destroyed. Why would we ruin the lives of our young ones by marrying them in a town where people live under a cloud of cement dust and air pollution?” says Mohammad Ashraf, a member of the Civil Society Group of village elders who take up day-to-day issues with the administration.
According to the locals, there are a good number of girls and boys whose marriages are getting delayed.
Nuzhat Ara (name changed) is a local girl whose engagement with a boy from Srinagar didn’t last long. “The boy refused to marry me after four months of engagement. He was in Dubai. When he returned home and visited Khrew, he started complaining about the area. Finally, he broke off the engagement,” she says.
Mohammad Akbar (55), a manzimyoer or a person who connects two families in an arranged marriage, says everyone wants a good match, a well-settled individual and a good family for their children.
In the last year, out of 23 families for which Akbar tried to fix the marriages, only five were successful. “The reason is related to the surroundings and environment of this area,” he says, adding that the increased levels of air pollution have turned Khrew into a gas chamber.
A noxious mix
What the locals once thought would bring them livelihood opportunities has now become a bane for them.
From one factory in 1979, there are now six cement manufacturing units in Khrew, emitting about one lakh kg of toxic gases from their chimneys, according to a research titled ‘Air Pollution a Major Threat to the People of Khrew (J&K)’.
The research was done by students Adnan Mukhtar and Farhan Mukhtar of Electrical and Electronics Engineering Department, Amity University Uttar Pradesh, and Automobile Engineering Department, Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies Faridabad, respectively.
The study says that the six cement plants and around 800 trucks that transport raw materials produce hazardous gases in large quantities.
“The pollutants produced by the cement factories is a heterogeneous mix of various toxic gases like carbon-di-oxide, nitrogen oxides and sulphur oxides,” says the report published by ResearchGate.
The same words were echoed in the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly during the 2016-17 Budget Session. The then local legislator Mohammad Ashraf Mir claimed the life span was getting shorter for the residents of Khrew because of the pollution.
The residents are living just up to 40-50 years, Mir had informed the House.
The Campaign for Survival
The first cement plant was set up in Khrew in 1979 after locals agreed thinking it would bring livelihood opportunities for the people and end poverty which, according to the elderly locals, was much prevalent in the area.
It did provide a livelihood to the people but at the cost of the environment, soil fertility and people’s health.
Almond production has gone down and the walnut trees have stopped giving yield.
As the number of cement manufacturing units grew, so did the momentum of the anti-pollution campaign by the locals. “Instead of picking saffron, fruits and vegetables we pick up dust from shrubs and trees,” said Muntazir, an orchardist.
In Khrew and its adjacent areas, there is around 1200 unemployed youth who are graduates and postgraduates in different streams including civil and mechanical engineering. Yet, the factories don’t employ the locals.
“Around 80 percent of the workforce in these cement factories are from other areas. Our youths who are graduates and postgraduates are not absorbed by these factories,” says Omar Ahad, General Secretary of Peoples Welfare Trust Khrew.
“Most of the people work as truckers, loaders and labourers in these factories. The plants don’t provide adequate employment to the youth of the local area where they are exploiting these mineral resources,” he adds.
The Trust has made representations to almost all government offices and political leaders, but no avail.
“Recently we met Deputy Commissioner (DC) Pulwama and raised the issues of pollution and other related matters of these factories. The DC assured us that he would visit the township, but he hasn’t visited so far,” Ahad says.
According to the members of Peoples Welfare Trust Khrew, in the last year, 10 people suffered cardiac arrests which were largely unheard of in the area a few decades back.
Dr Mian Iftikhar, who runs a clinic in the township, claims that there has been a steep rise in Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Cases of respiratory and chest diseases, vomiting and heart attacks have also increased in the area.
The J&K High Court has time and again pulled up the J&K government on Public Interest Litigations (PILs) seeking to prevent environmental pollution caused by cement plants in Khrew. The court had also asked the government to cancel the registration and No Objection Certificates (NOCs) of cement plants which are violating the safety measures required for controlling air pollution.
The locals allege that the factories have increased their capacities. A 200-tonne plant has increased its capacity to 700 tonnes but the infrastructure to control or check the pollution has not been increased correspondingly.
The Student Community Khrew has recently submitted a memorandum, a copy of which is with 30 Stades, to the Jammu and Kashmir Government.
They have highlighted several issues including the land where saffron was cultivated turning barren, agricultural losses running into crores of rupees and not providing employment to locals despite promises.
Migrating to safer areas
As the situation worsened over time and no steps were taken to control the pollution, some well-off people from Khrew migrated to other cities. “Everyone is not so rich that they can afford to migrate. We want the authorities to intervene and act. We want to somehow salvage the situation,” says Mohammad Ashraf.
“We simply breathe in dust and breathe out dust,” he says.
A dense fog remains suspended in the air over Khrew, blanketing the lives of the locals under a noxious shroud.
(Sameer Showkin Lone is a development professional & a journalist. He is a former Aspirational District Fellow (Bijapur, Chhattisgarh) at the Government of India. He writes on internal security, Kashmir politics, development & governance, education and health issues)