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Chestnuts disappearing from Wullar

Pollution and unabated exploitation of water chestnuts in Wullar lake is threatening the very existence of the crop in Kashmir’s Wullar Lake. Haroon Mirani reports.

Srinagar, Sep 25, 2011:

Water Chestnut
Dwindling fortunes: A Kashmiri woman displays a bowl of water chestnuts
Wullar Lake, known as the largest fresh water lake in South Asia is also the biggest producer of water chestnuts in the Himalayan state. Every year the lake would yield upto 5000 of water chestnuts that find its takers all across India.

With almost no competition from any other state, the water chestnut used to be a prized crop with bright potential. New research highlighting its medical benefits has created a surge in its demand, but even before reaping its benefits the industry seems to die out.

Forty thousand people living on the fringes of Wullar Lake, who earn their livelihood by gathering and selling water chestnuts are complaining of declining crop and declining income.

Abdul Gaffar 62, one of the thousands of such gatherers feels this is the end. "Never in my life have I seen such a situation, water chestnuts are disappearing at a breakneck speed," said Gaffar, who has been into this work for the more than 40 years.

Gaffar's statement find echoes in the entire community at Banyari, a major abode of these gatherers.

The water chestnut collection is a painstaking job often involving the entire family. Usually the male and sometimes female members of the family pack their belongings in a boat and go to Wullar Lake for the four bitter months of winter from November to early March.

“There are two seasons for Chestnut collection one is in summer and another in winter,” said Gaffar. “The winter is brutal, but the best crop comes from this season only.”

Gaffar says earlier they used to happily endure the pain as the returns were good.

“But now the crop is dwindling and so are our profits which is forcing us to look somewhere else for work,” said Gaffar.

Another gatherer Ghulam Rasool, who has been in this job for the last 30 years says that the times have changed.

“Earlier we used to gather water chestnuts that was enough to feed our families for the entire year, but now this trade cannot sustain us for more than two months,” said Rasool.

According to Trapa historians, at the end of the 19th century, the English authorities in Kashmir leased out lakes for water chestnut cultivation, the fruit of which sufficed to feed some tens of thousands of people for several months.

The chestnut known as Gaer in Kashmiri and Singhada in rest of India is green when fresh and has a nutty aftertaste. It is also used to make parathas, puris, rotis or halwa. In Kashmir it is mostly eaten like nuts, dry or roasted.

According to Walter Lawrence (1895), when the main crop of the valley was destroyed due to floods in 1893, the flour of Singara (Water Chestnut) saved people from starvation.

The fruit also has number of medicinal and cosmetic uses.

Like other water chestnut gatherers Rasool lists a number of factors responsible for its decline. But for him the over exploitation is the main culprit, which, he alleges, is aided by corrupt officials.

“Earlier what used to happen was that we would get one month license for extracting Water Chestnuts from Wullar lake, but there was a mandatory five day break after every 15 days,” said Rasool. “Further the water chestnut gathering was limited for just one month in a season.”

Rasool said that this allowed the crop to regenerate.

“During those 15 days we used to gather so much of crop as it was everywhere,” said Rasool.

There also used to be a limit on number of licenses to be issued.

But now times have changed and Wullar according to water chestnut gatherers has become free for all.

The downfall started in 1990 as the insurgency raged in Kashmir and entire administration broke down.

“Nobody bothered to implement the policies and as of now, with the diminished accountability, the situation is worse,” said Rasool.

Nowadays officials of Mahalsingaar, the designated department for Water Chestnuts in Wullar Lake, are talking Wullar for a death ride.

“They are issuing twenty times more licenses than what is the original quota. All this is done illegally on fake papers, as they are the issuers and they are the inspectors,” said Rasool. “The five day break every 15 days has been eliminated and now people are allowed to gather water chestnuts for a stretch of upto four months.”

This is proving to be disastrous for the spiky but gentle crop of water chestnuts.

“The crop is not getting a breathing space to re grow and rejuvenate. It is being gathered to death,” said Rasool. “The officials don’t care as long as they get their commission every week.”

According to locals, during the visits of Tehsildar to the area, the lower rank officials collect the trusted 50 or so original licenses holders and present them before him.

“The make up the situation as entirely normal and thus they manage to hide the fake licensee holders, whose numbers can go as high as 2000,” said Rasool.

Dirty Job

Water chestnut is sweet and aromatic. The nut is found under the leaves and drops off when it is ripe and is scooped out with the help of a net.

On an average four men are onboard a boat and they collect around 300 kgs of chestnuts. The crop later collected is dried, sorted and kernel is taken out.

“Earlier the kernel was taken out manually which involved lot of painful labour, but now machines are used,” says Dar.

Water Chestnut
Thorny Job: Collecting water chestnuts in Wullar
The overall work of collecting water chestnuts and processing them is considered to be a dirty one.

“There is lot of dirt involved and our hands, face and entire body gets blackened,” says Mehrajudin Dar another chestnut farmer of Banyaari Sharki. The thorns of these chestnuts too inflict cuts and bruises on their bodies.

According to villagers more than 100 persons have died while collecting water chestnuts.

“We live or die, nobody cares. Life has to move on without difference as we have no choice” says Jana, an elderly woman.

She recalled that couple of years ago a pregnant woman died when she fell off the boat and her body was traced many months after.

Rising Pollution

Another crucial factor that has accentuated the decline of water chestnuts is the rising pollution level in Wullar lake. The fresh sweet water lake is steadily turning into a cesspool as the untreated sewerage, pesticides, fertilizers and even garbage steadily flows into it.

“Earlier the water quality was excellent and crop was also flawless,” said Ghulam Mohammed Kawa 65 a chestnut gatherer, while talking to media.

“But now both the quality and quantity of crop are declining as water turns murky.”

Thousands of people like Dar are affected with this trend and they fail to generate required income to sustain their families.

“On some locations on northern and southern shores, the crop has almost vanished,” said Rasool. “The elimination process is steadily increasing as pollution keeps on mounting.”

“Whereever sewerage is entering the lake, you will see no chestnut and only excessive weed growth,” Kawa says. “We are also noticing the plants are dying due to unknown diseases.”

The locals are aghast at the government policies towards the lake. “Atleast three municipalities in the townships of Sumbal, Bandipora and Hajin are dumping their waste directly into the Wular,” the locals said. Dozens of trucks can be seen fetching the garbage from populated areas and dumping it into the lake on daily basis.

The appeal and meetings with government officials, according to locals has failed to yield any result.

Kashmir horticulture sector has been booming during the last few years, which also necessitated use of thousands of tones of pesticides and other chemicals. "As the majority of these apple orchards are near to Wullar lake, so ultimately these chemicals leech into its waters," says Dr G N Ahanger, proprietor of Agro Food Processing Emporium (AFPE), Kashmir's largest company dealing with Water Chestnuts.

Ahanger, a food technologist, said that these chemicals have started spelling doom for water chestnuts, which generally grow in clean waters.

"On one hand government goes head over heals to promote one sector and on the other hand another sector is sacrificed to make way for it."

Ahanger estimated that there has been forty percent decrease in the production of water chestnuts in the Wullar and it is set to further reduce in the next few years.

Unique flora

According to R. W. Pemberton of Invasive Plant Research Laboratory, U.S. the water chestnuts in Kashmir, with its unique characteristics are important for scientific investigations.

“The large population of these chestnuts are isolated from the rest of temperate Asia by the Himalayan Mountains. There is a diverse fauna of these chestnuts in the warmer areas of India and some of these species might be adapted to the colder climate of Kashmir, makes an exciting field of study,” writes Pemberton in his scientific paper.

Ahanger said that the quality of Kashmiri water chestnut used to be much better than the water chestnuts found elsewhere.

At its best the kernel of the water chestnut contains a large amount of protein (up to 20%), starch (52%), tannins (9.4%), fat (up to 1%), sugar (3%), minerals, etc.

The water chestnut is nutritious and a good source of potassium and vitamin B and also contains antioxidants.

Health conscious people use water chestnuts as nutritious snacks. It is also a good source of calcium, iron, potassium and zinc. One cup of water chestnuts gives as much as 135 calories.

Milk suppliers often use its powder in milk to make it creamier.

The chestnut flour is particularly sought after by Hindus for whom this flour is best alternative to grain-items, which are prohibited during fasting days of Navratras. During fasting, Hindus are not allowed to break their fast with anything that contains cereals, lentils and ordinary salt.

With new uses and discoveries coming about the water chestnuts, the fruit is gaining entry into new markets.

AFPE is the worst hit due to the pollution in Wullar waters that have affected Water Chestnuts too.

"Last time when we got the samples tested, it showed botulism in the water chestnuts making them unsafe for human consumption," said Ahanger. "The tests were positive at other locations too."

With AFPE unable to remove the botulism from water chestnuts, the company had to completely shut down its water chestnut unit. "Now we don't deal with this trade and it has become dangerous for human consumption," said Ahanger. "We have to face FPO, and the infected water chestnuts can lead us into trouble."

With this also died, the company's dream of manufacturing of Kashmir's first diabetic biscuit made entirely of water chestnut floor. The biscuit was touted as an ideal faood for diabetic patients with huge market potential. AFPE had invested heavily in developing this biscuit and it was all set to produce the same from its unit at Lassipora Industrial estate.

"There was a tie up with a major Jaipur based company, but everything is finished now," said Ahanger.

“With no sugar and energy the water chestnut is the best food for diabetic patients who have fill their belly without taking any sugar and we had created this biscuit in accordance with that principle,” says Ahanger

The biscuit developed in collaboration with Central Drug Research Institute Lucknow and Central Food Technological Research Institute Mysore was about to hit the markets when the pollution sabotaged the project.

"We shelved the project and there seems to be no hope of its revival in the near future," said Ahanger.

This is the first of a three part series of features published under Centre of Science and Environment’s Media fellowships on Water Bodies in India.

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