Every year in the second week of May, men, women and children from half a dozen villages in Kulgam district of south Kashmir descend into the water spring in Panzath village (Qazigund tehsil) as part of a spring cleaning exercise. They remove weeds and silt from the Panzath Nag spring, restoring its natural capacity for the rest of the year.
The two-day event, popularly known as the fish festival, coincides with Rohan Posh when locals remember the departed souls and distribute sweet loaves.
So instead of depending on the government to help clean and maintain the spring, the villagers clean it themselves to ensure adequate water supply throughout the year.
Thanks to the legacy and the sagacity shown by the residents, the water bodies in Panzath, around 100 km south of Srinagar, are still pristine.
This is in sharp contrast to the world-famous Dal Lake in Srinagar, which might look breathtaking but in its depths, it hides a gloomy picture - foul smell, human waste, sewage and garbage.
According to a 2017 study by the Dredging Corporation of India, the Dal Lake has shrunk from its original area of 22 square km to about 10 square km. Its gushing waters have turned poisonous and full of weeds.
However, the residents of Panzath have conserved their water resources judiciously. “We have been doing this spring cleaning for ages. It finds a mention in Rajatarangini,” says Shabir Ahmad Shah, (45), a local of Panzath.
Panzath derives its name from the Kashmiri word Paanch, which means five and Hath, which means hundred. The village was once home to around 500 small and big springs, and the name got modified to Panzath over the years.
Today, there is no official count on the number of springs and rivulets in Panzath but it is definitely home to some of the cleanest ones in Kashmir.
The cleaning festival
The water from Panzath is used for drinking and irrigation in several nearby villages. The water flows from the large lake through natural channels into a network of smaller canals and streams that feed the fields.
Men and women, young and old, from Panzath and adjoining villages of Wanpora, Shampora, Levdoora, and Shankarpora throng the lake located on a small hillock in Panzath.
“This exercise not only helps to de-silt the large spring but helps clear the small springs too so that water keeps flowing. If we don’t do this, the small springs will also get blocked. It keeps the land moist throughout the year as the groundwater gets recharged through water streams,” says Mohd Maqbool, a local from adjoining Wanpora village.
Shabir Ahmad Deva, a teacher and a resident of Panzath, says the purpose is to clean these springs, remove silt and dredge them up so that sufficient water is fed to the fields.
“This festival is just days ahead of the paddy plantation season,” he says.
Another local, Ghulam Mohammad says the event took on the hue of a festival as several villages were connected to it and motivated each other.
“Our ancestors would have been cleaning and dredging these water bodies to irrigate their land and prepare it for paddy plantation. This collective effort of the whole village might have turned into a festival,” he says.
According to Mohammad, they are carrying forward the legacy of their elders.
Though the waters in the lake are not too deep, measuring about three to four feet, the heavy algal bloom and the dense weeds make cleaning a laborious task for the villagers who work from dawn to dusk to de-weed and dredge up the silt deposits from the bottom of the spring.
Carrying bags, and wicker baskets, they also catch fishes which thrive in the clean waters.
Those cleaning the spring don’t use fishing nets for their catch. Instead, they wade through the water and filter it through the wicker baskets to get fish, mostly trout, which is in abundance in the area.
“The aim of the festival is not to catch fish but to clean the water bodies. If we stop the practice, water flow to lower channels will be blocked. Then the water bodies will face the same fate as in other areas,” adds Maqbool, who participated in the cleaning festival.
Saving the springs
Shugufta Akhtar, Sarpanch of Panzath, says they have proposed a few projects like building concrete walls around the spring to protect it from encroachment.
“A concrete wall has already been built on one side to stop soil erosion. The first half of the spring has been taken over by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHE). They have constructed a small dam-like structure from which drinking water is supplied through pipelines to nearby villages,” she says.
Akhtar has raised the matter with the district administration to construct a few canals to stop water seepage and ensure that water reaches the fields for irrigation.
Following the Panzath Way
Meanwhile, in Srinagar, an NGO has taken up a similar effort to clean lakes in the city.
Nigeen Lake Conservation Organisation (NLCO), led by businessman Manzoor Ahmad Wangnoo, is working towards the restoration of lakes in the city.
Appalled at the sad state of water bodies in Srinagar, Wagnoo in February last year started a drive to clean up the Khushalsar Lake.
Khushalsar, which once stretched from Zoonimar up to the historic Aali Masjid, has now significantly reduced. It has been encroached upon with illegal constructions and landfilling.
It is connected to another smaller lake, known as Gilsar, via a narrow strait. The Gilsar Lake is in turn connected to the famous Nigeen Lake through a stream called Nallah Amir Khan.
So all these small and large lakes in Srinagar are interconnected and the deterioration of one could be a threat to all the water bodies.
Wangnoo met with the Kashmir divisional commissioner last year in February with his proposal seeking support to clean the water bodies.
A year later, the lake is back to its pristine glory. The locals are all praise for the private-public partnership that led to the restoration of Khushalsar.
The administration is now joined by local volunteers who have taken up the task of de-weeding and de-silting other water bodies like Gilsar in Srinagar.
(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)