An epitome of cleanliness


Bilal Ahmad Dar grew up in the lap of nature: his home in the Laharwarpora village of North Kashmir's Bandipora was situated at a walking distance from the Wular lake. He remembers having spent countless evenings by the banks of the lake with his friends. Watching the waters of the lake would always give him pleasure and make him feel happy. That time, according to him, was the "breeding period" of his relationship with the lake.
Bilal was only nine years old when his father, a rag-picker, passed away in 2007 after a battle with cancer. His illness was detected only a few months before his death. The family spent whatever it had at its disposal - which included selling ancestral land - on his treatment, but to no avail. With no means of income to support his mother and his two sisters, circumstances forced Bilal, the eldest of the three children, to give up his studies and look for work. He was in the sixth standard then, and not finding much success with his efforts to find a job, Bilal ended up becoming a rag-picker himself.
Change of outlook: The death of his father changed his relationship with the lake. Though he does not have any documented proof, but Bilal is of the belief that the alarming level of pollution in the lake had something to do with his father's illness. "The water that we drink comes from the Wular. Every bit of food prepared in our homes has a bit of the Wular in it. How can people remain healthy if the lake is so badly polluted", asks Bilal philosophically, displaying a sense of wisdom not commonly associated with an eighteen-year-old high school dropout.
Despite having suffered the loss that he did, Bilal did not develop any negative feelings towards the lake. He, instead, started collecting waste material from the Wular lake - which once used to be among the largest fresh water lakes in Asia - to meet the expenses of his family.
Over the years, Bilal has ended up collecting around 12,000 kgs of trash from in and around the Wular lake. He says that though he started collecting trash only to make ends meet, he was sure that something good would also come out of it. Little did he realise then that his efforts would one day bear fruit and bring him fame and recognition.
Appreciating his contribution towards cleanliness, the Srinagar Municipal Corporation (SMC) appointed Bilal as its brand ambassador in July 2017. In September the same year, his efforts attracted praise from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who made a mention of what Bilal had ended up achieving in his Mann Ki Baat address to the nation on radio.
Justifying Bilal's appointment as brand ambassador, the then Commissioner of the SMC had said, "Bilal is an inspirational character for everyone. He will tell (people) the story of his life, his work in Wular and he will meet people to sensitise them about cleanliness and garbage disposal"
Significance of Wular lake: The Wular is a balloon-shaped lake situated at a distance of about 50 km from Srinagar, the summer capital of the state. It has a maximum length of 16 km and breadth of 7.6 km with an average depth of 5.8 metres.
Going by the official Survey of India figures, the open water area of the Wular lake was 91.29 sq km in 1911. This figure, however, came down to 75.23 sq km in 2007. Similarly, the wetland area surrounding the lake body and in the adjacent area was 66.45 sq km and 58.67 sq km respectively in 1911. Out of these, 54.97 sq km in and around the lake and 41 sq km in its surrounding marshes have been lost during the last 100 years.
The Wular lake holds much significance from the environmental and ecological point of view, accounting for nearly 60 percent of the total fish production of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is a source of sustenance for a huge chunk of population living on its fringes and based on its high biological, hydrological and socio-economic value, was declared as a wetland of national importance under the wetlands programme of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India in 1986.
Bilal's effort: There was a time when Bilal would earn around Rs 150-200 per day after selling the trash that he collected from the lake. On occasions he would rent a boat for the day to continue with his passion of cleaning the lake. "There were days when I would leave home at 6:30 in the morning and come back at 11:00 in the night with garbage from the remotest parts of the lake", says Bilal, adding that on many occasions, the only thing he would have during the day was just a sip of water from some clean area of the lake.
The valley of Kashmir witnessed devastating floods in the year 2014. That was a tough time for Bilal and his family. "My own house was submerged in water. We had no clue where our household items were, but I had no option other than going back to the lake. We would not have had anything to eat otherwise", recalls Bilal, adding that the family has still not been able to repair some portions of the house.
Bilal never allowed any hardships to come in the way of his commitment to the cleanliness of the lake. "Our survival is linked to this lake. As long as the lake is healthy, the people around it will be healthy", says Bilal, with a sense of understanding and maturity way beyond his age. Having been an eyewitness to the gradually deteriorating condition of the Wular, Bilal believes that the "future generations will curse us if pollution goes on at the same rate and we lose the lake".
Role model: People like Bilal can fit the shoes of a role model at any place and any level. With very little resources at his disposal, Bilal has given rise to a movement that can and should be replicated everywhere. His selfless service gives one the hope that all is not lost yet and what is lost can still be reclaimed.
The Wular may be just one lake in a remote corner of the world, but Bilal's endeavour has global reach and appeal. His efforts serve as testimony to the fact that one man's dedication to the cause of cleanliness can make a difference and inspire others to embrace and espouse the cause selflessly and wholeheartedly. On being asked if he has any message for the public, especially the youth, Bilal likes to stick to the basics. "Even a simple act like using the dustbin every time you are on the road can go a long way in keeping the environment clean, but we all have to do it in letter and spirit", he says.
*Author is Information Assistant, PIB

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