(AP) — Within the icy waters of Kashmir's boulder-strewn streams, a thriving trout population feeds a promising fish industry and lures anglers to the foot of the Himalayas.
But not for long, warn experts, who say plans for boulder crushing and gravel extraction along Kashmir's rivers could pollute the valley's waters and drive away the fish.
The trout are a key ingredient in India-controlled Kashmir's campaign to bring back tourists to the lush, mountainous region — a place replete with idyllic vistas and flower-filled meadows — despite a 22-year battle for independence that has seen 68,000 people killed.
The violence has subsided in recent years and resistance today is mostly expressed through street protests, but the trout industry is still not out of danger: Fisheries Department officials say they were quietly ordered to set aside nearly five decades of laws that forbade mining and rock-crushing along riverbanks, laws intended to protect the fishing industry.
Defying its own rules, the department recently cleared the way for two companies to set up boulder-crushing units near the Arin and Lidder rivers. The Geology and Mining Department will allow 36 streams to be mined for gravel and stones to be used for building materials.
Fisheries officials, who spoke on condition their names not be used because of the controversy, said they had been pressed to approve those permits by higher government officials.
They declined to say why they'd faced pressure, but the region has seen a surge in construction since violence began tapering off in 2007, leaving companies increasingly anxious for supplies.
The latest plans, though, could be catastrophic for Kashmir's trout. Scientists say the noise, dredging and dust will disturb the fish and clog the waterways, depleting them of protein-rich foods. Dust would also coat the nearby Kolahoi Glacier, the region's biggest, accelerating its melting and threatening long-term water supplies.
The streams are the main water sources for most of Kashmir's 12 million people.
The decision to allow riverside stone crushers appears geared toward saving transportation costs for crushing companies. The two companies involved did not return calls for comment, and the government refused to discuss the policy change.
"This is like killing the goose that laid golden eggs," said Shakeel Romshoo, head of the geology department at the University of Kashmir. "This is a serious threat, not only to the fish, but also to our environment and tourism."
The case sets up a conflict between development and sustainability playing out across India, as officials struggle to balance anti-poverty efforts with environmental protection.
The strain is felt strongly in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan but claimed in its entirety by both. Armed conflict over the decades has stymied growth and kept the India-controlled region reliant on New Delhi for funds. While India's growth rate has charged ahead near 9 percent, Kashmir's remains stagnant.
The local government wants to develop trout fishing and farming to boost employment and tourism.
Trout — both rainbow and the more aggressive brown species — have flourished in Kashmir's oxygen-rich waters since 1900, when India was still a British colony and the first Scottish trout eggs were sent to Kashmir's maharaja.
In the 1980s, Kashmir's government began trout farming in manmade ponds fed by glacial runoff. The conditions proved perfect for the sensitive species, which need cold, clean waters and a diet of aquatic insects, small fish and crustaceans.
With subsidies for fish farmers, at least 120 private trout ponds have been built. The government also plans a fish hatchery project, said Fisheries Department Director P. Angchuk.
Meanwhile, tourism officials are touting the trout alongside Kashmir's skiing, trekking and golfing.
During the 1980s, Kashmir reeled in thousands of Westerners keen to cast rods into the fast-flowing serpentine Himalayan streams.
The sport suffered in the 1990s, as insurgent violence shook the region. Indian army soldiers were also accused of widespread poaching, often using crude methods like grenades, electric shocks and poison.
Sport fishing has recovered as the violence waned, and more than 4,000 permits were issued in the last three years.
But fish farming still has a way to go. At least half the government's annual 195-ton haul is released back into the wild, with the rest sold locally for about one-fourth of Western prices. Export potential is hindered by a lack of direct international flights and no infrastructure for preparing fish for market.
With the right policies and investment, the sector could be extremely valuable, said Shakeel Qalandar, former head of the Federation Chamber of Industries Kashmir, bringing in many millions of dollars a year.
The project to allow riverside stone crushing, on the other hand, "will permanently destroy the natural habitat of the trout and has serious environmental implications. But we have been helpless," Fisheries Department head Angchuk told the Indian Express newspaper. He refused later to elaborate, but did not refute the reported comments.
"The government is acting so strangely," said fish farmer Ghulam Hassan, who switched last year from catching carp to building a trout pond. "First it spends huge money to promote fish culture, and then allows measures which are going to destroy the fish."