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A heaven on earth? Not so much

With the tourists frightened away by Kashmir's separatist struggle, the famous Dal Lake is slowly succumbing to pollution.

In June, Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh committed another $225 million — $60 million of which the central government has already rubber stamped — to build sewage treatment plants, purchase de-weeding machines and resettle nearly 10,000 families who live on the lake's network of islands. But Kashmir has been throwing money at the problem for years, and resettling the families who live in the lake would be tantamount to destroying it.

A two-hour shikhara ride along the shore and through the winding canals reveals that while claims of the lake's great beauty are somewhat exaggerated — it is by no means a crystal clear, glacial teardrop like Lake Tahoe — it boasts a unique and vibrant culture.

The enormity of the task at hand is also clear. Everywhere, clawing weeds choke the passages, and the water is covered with tiny specks of green algae, massing like something out of B-grade science fiction. The reason the plant life is so prolific — excessive fertilizer in the water — is evident, too.

From secluded pipes that are easy to spot from inside the lake, the coffee brown sewage of the city of Srinagar glugs untreated into the water. Though some years ago 6,000 families deemed to be “encroachers” without legitimate claim to houses in the lake were pushed out, the cleanup effort now appears to be limited to half-a-dozen dredging and weeding platforms — which patrol the waters, belching smoke, when the whim strikes their operators.

According to locals, it's a haphazard, rearguard action with little hope of success. The 6,000 displaced families have been replaced by some 20,000. The city's much discussed sewage system shows no signs of building itself. And even the dubiously expensive deweeding machines, parked in convenient proximity to shore while I was in town, seem to remain idle most of the day.

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