Decades ago, Riyaz Ahmed, a former fisherman from south Kashmir, would venture out to Panzath, a picturesque tourism village in Kulgam district, to earn his livelihood. Every morning he would set off on his fishing expedition and reel in an impressive catch of 20-25 kg of fish in a single day. However, the once-thriving fishing community in Panzath has suffered a severe blow from illegal encroachments and the deteriorating conditions of the spring itself.
Panzath, which derives its name from the Kashmiri words paanch, meaning five, and hath, meaning hundred, was originally said to be home to over 500 small and major springs. The exact number of springs and rivulets in the area today remains unknown. Nevertheless, Panzath boasts some of the purest springs in Kashmir that are renowned for their cleanliness and beauty.
The historical significance of Panzath dates back centuries. Kalhana’s Rajatarangini, a 12th-century chronicle of the reigns of Kashmiri monarchs, mentions the Panzath Nag celebration, a tradition that has survived for 900 years. This unique custom involves the community coming together to clean the water bodies, expressing their deep reverence for nature.
Ahmed, now a shopkeeper, laments the lack of understanding of the plight of the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the Panzath Spring. While the media often highlights the annual fishing festival in Panzath, little attention is paid to the struggles faced by the fishermen due to encroachments and diminishing fish populations.
He implored the government to intervene and safeguard the spring from further degradation, emphasising the significant impact its decline would have on the agricultural industry.
Aquatic life under duress
A recent government report revealed that Jammu and Kashmir lost some 300 acres of wetlands between 2006 and 2018. The encroachments and pollution in Panzath Nag have particularly devastated the fish species, with sewage waste flowing into the spring from various sources. The pollution crisis has also damaged the village’s tourism potential, depriving the locals of employment opportunities. Umaiser Gull, a journalist and local resident, said the Fisheries Department must intervene to revive trout fish production and provide an alternative source of livelihood for the fishermen.
Despite being blessed with abundant resources, Panzath has been neglected by government departments, including those looking after irrigation and fisheries. The village serves as a crucial water source for multiple departments, but they have not addressed the pressing issues faced by the community. Local residents also said that the tourism department officials have not done enough to promote Panzath, despite its proximity to the main town of Qazigund and being a designated tourist village.
Efforts to develop Panzath as a tourist destination gained momentum when Khalid Jehangir, Deputy Commissioner of Anantnag, visited the village. He assured the residents that Panzath Spring would be developed as a tourist destination, including the establishment of trout fish farms to provide employment opportunities for the unemployed youth.
Mohammad Rashid-ud-din Kundangar, former Director and Research of Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA), said that such efforts must extend to all water bodies in the area, and stressed the need to prioritise the restoration of springs and other water bodies.
Going beyond tourism
The spring serves as a vital water source for irrigation and drinking purposes in over 50 agricultural villages. The agricultural industry sustains rural communities, making the preservation of Panzath Spring imperative for their livelihoods. Failure to address the pollution and encroachments will have dire consequences for irrigation and access to clean drinking water.
The spring is also responsible for eight water supply schemes, that together provide a staggering 6,440 million liters a day. Last year alone, the aquatic body produced fish worth Rs.18.50 lakh.
Official regulations restrict fishing activities to a specific region during the festival, leaving the rest of the year devoid of fishing opportunities.
Furthermore, the late summer months witness a decline in water levels, leading to the proliferation of aquatic weeds and algal blooms. Nevertheless, the collective efforts of the community in fishing and weeding help restore the spring each year.
While some officials argue that periodic de-weeding of the area suffices, others emphasise the need to discourage encroachments along the spring banks. The disagreement reveals the complexity of the situation, but it underscores the urgency of addressing the overarching issues faced by Panzath.
There is consensus that only through comprehensive efforts and the collaboration of various stakeholders can Panzath reclaim its status as a thriving ecosystem and a symbol of reverence for nature.
Irshad Hussain is a journalist based in Jammu and Kashmir.