Situated along the International Border in R S Pura sector of this district, the Gharana wetland, known as bird-watchers' paradise, is facing existential threat from rampant encroachment, silting and official apathy.

"This wetland was notified as a protected site in 1981 and an area of 200 acres was reserved for this wetland. However, 35 years have passed but still there is no demarcation of the land for the wetland by the revenue department," Lalit Kumar, wildlife warden of Jammu, told PTI.

He said the wildlife protection department was in possession of only five acres of marshy land in the wetland while the rest was being occupied by villagers. "Our department is in control of only five acres of marshy land, in which these migratory birds come and the rest of the land is with the local villagers who use it for farming purpose," Kumar said.

The state's wildlife protection department officials admitted the wetland was dying a slow death, but they say there was still hope for its revival and the residents needed to be made aware of benefits of the winged visitors who throng this place every winter to escape harsh weather of Siberia.

However, the villagers, who started to cultivate their land only after India and Pakistan agreed to a ceasefire on the international border in 2003, say the birds damage their crops as they accuse the successive state governments of failing to rehabilitate them.

"Prior to 2003, we were unable to cultivate our land due to continuous firing on the border but now every year these birds destroy our crop, they eat not just seeds but also saplings," Manoj Kumar, a local farmer, said.

He said every winter small farmers like him suffer huge damage to their crops. "If the government is serious about doing something, it must first do something to rehabilitate the farmers by providing them with some alternative source of livelihood," the farmer said. The villagers say that if the government was serious for preservation of the wetland then it should help develop infrastructure in the area to attract more tourists.

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