Introduction to Blog

I launched the website and the Blog after having spoken to government officials, political analysts and security experts specializing in South Asian affairs from three continents. The feedback was uniformly consistent. The bottom line is that when Kashmiris are suffering and the world has its own set of priorities, we need to find ways to help each other. We must be realistic, go beyond polemics and demagoguery, and propose innovative ideas that will bring peace, justice and prosperity in all of Jammu and Kashmir.

The author had two reasons to create this blog. First, it was to address the question that was being asked repeatedly, especially, by journalists and other observers in the U.S., U.K., and Canada, inquiring whether the Kashmiri society was concerned about social, cultural and environmental challenges in the valley given that only political upheaval and violence were reported or highlighted by media.

Second, the author has covered the entire spectrum of societal issues and challenges facing Kashmiri people over an 8-year period with the exception of politics given that politics gets all the exposure at the expense of REAL CHALLENGES that will likely result in irreversible degradation in the quality of life and the standard of living for future generations of Kashmiris to come.

The author stopped adding additional material to the Blog once it was felt that most, if not all, concerns, challenges and issues facing the Kashmiri society are cataloged in the Blog. There are over 1900 entries in the Blog and most commentaries include short biographical sketches of authors to bring readers close to the essence of Kashmir. Unfortunately, the 8-year assessment also indicates that neither Kashmiri civil society, nor intellectuals or political leadership have any inclination or enthusiasm in pursuing issues that do not coincide with their vested political agendas. What it means for the future of Kashmiri children and their children is unfathomable. But the evidence is all laid out.

This Blog is a reality check on Kashmir. It is a historical record of how Kashmir lost its way.

Vijay Sazawal, Ph.D.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Filthy City, Filthy Mafia

Dirt apart, Srinagar also battles a marauding land mafia

O Srinagar


Last month one of my friends teaching in a US university asked for the photographs of Srinagar city for an academic exercise. However, what he saw stunned him into disbelief. An aerial snap of the heaving swathes of the monstrous residential colonies around a squeezed Dal lake shattered his gossamer image of a city, which has historically been a locus of the western romantic dreams. This is what he had to say: “I had thought central Srinagar would be verdant and green, with lots of parks and open space”. I went back to these words after Srinagar was declared fourth dirtiest city of India. The words seemed to foreshadow this dubious distinction.

However, he had noticed a facet of the place which is little acknowledged locally. That Srinagar is not about filth and dirt alone but also about a steamrolling juggernaut of unplanned construction choking the last breath out of the city. To save some grace I later sent him specific shots of the Mughal gardens and some cleaner expanse of the Dal untrammeled by the gathering cesspool of the colonies after residential colonies, almost all of them unregulated and in case of a large number of houses un-permitted by the Srinagar Municipality Corporation. Their owners pay municipal officials small amounts to get on with the construction unhindered. So, what you have is a forbidding mass of cement and bricks taking shape in all its ugliness across large swathes of the orchards, green highlands, paddies, swamps, streams, canals, sars and of course even on Dal.

What is even more disturbing is the singular lack of aesthetics in the construction. These colonies are guided by the sick commercial pursuits of the rapacious land mafia. To get a proof, one need not go farther than the wide marshy stretch of the land between Bemina and Batmaloo where one can witness a chaotic spectacle of the work in progress on hundreds of residential houses. Big imposing bungalows with all the architectural detail reeking of wealth, ostentatious medium sized structures and the petty, obnoxious dwellings are coming up side by side in full anarchic glory.

This brutalization of our landscape is outside the realm of the concerns that otherwise outrage us on a day to day basis. This too in a city which is thrown off track every now and then “by a nut crack or a mosquito wing”. Nobody will raise a squeak if Chinars are felled to pave way for the construction. Nobody will speak a word if a bridge or road is built by filling up a part of the lake, like in Dal Gate where the requirement of a parallel road has been met by further obscuring an already shrunk expanse of the water. This brings to mind once again the road over fabled Mar canal which deprived Srinagar of this breathtaking natural asset which had inspired western poets like Thomas Moore. Of course, nobody will protest if Dal is swallowed up by its greedy dwellers with every passing day. Not even the so called environmental NGOs which in Kashmir come a dime a dozen.

The vested interest has seeped so deep into the public aspects of our life – led of course by the politics – that there is little genuine concern for the monumental problems at hand. What we have in the form of the public action is a theatrical agitation of the issues, an operatic performance, more geared towards responding to a certain sentimental state among people than towards fulfillment of an end. This is why our regulatory agencies often do more damage than preserve our natural assets.

Dal suffers from the connivance of LAWDA in its encroachment, Dal Gate has the government itself bearing down on its watery expanse and the SMC has left the field open to the land mafia, a whole food chain of the builders, property dealers and foot soldiers who pounce on any free space and soon turn it into a concrete jungle. This real estate edifice is sustained by the administrative and political corruption, bureaucrats, small employees and the political leaders, one among them a well known separatist politician. In fact, real estate has become the only predominant business of the Valley which seems to overshadow everything else. And it is out to turn Srinagar into a monster city, choke every open space with concrete, every hill, every orchard - famous Badamvaer in downtown is not an old example - leaving the city gasping for breath.

What is exceptionally disturbing about this growth is that more than ninety percent of this construction is unregulated and ungoverned by the building rules. In this murky scenario, SMC is only part of the problem. For its denial of the building permission is no bar on the construction. Left to their own devices, people could have been trusted to conduct themselves with some sense of additional responsibility towards the environment. In Srinagar’s case, the regulator has scored a dubious double whammy: it has not only contributed to the mess but also prevented the germination of some environmental consciousness. And to top it all, at whose door do we lay the blame for the tag of city being judged as one of the dirtiest in India.

Does SMC really do justice to its sanitation work? Where do we go from here? The head-spinning pace of the construction in the city has left the regulation far behind. This means we are fast losing this once fabled city of orchards, an inspiration for the travelers - emperors, poets, Sufis etc for centuries. And this all happens under the nose of the J&K government and which following in the steps of its predecessors makes do with an operatic show of concern rather than actually get down and dirty to make some redeeming difference. No doubt, there have been some really wonderful rescue efforts over the past several years like the restoration of Jhelum Bund, a large portion of the Jhelum embankment has been remade into a chinar tree-shaded riverside park. There have been other changes, too. A portion of Eidgah, the Valley’s largest prayer ground, close to Martyr’s Graveyard, has also been turned into a park, as has the old almond garden on the banks of Dal Lake. Similarly, Ghulam Nabi Azad, also built a tulip garden in the foothills of the Zabarwan hills during his three-year term as chief minister.

But this is nothing when compared with the all-encompassing construction activity that city has been through over the past two decades. While what has been lost to land mafia is not restorable for eternity, there is a need to rethink the development of Srinagar. And this rethinking should not only be about reclaiming Srinagar as a physical space but also regenerating it as a cultural and social place. What the marauding land mafia has done is deprive the city of its character, spirit, its celebrated poetic deportment and over and above it all, an idea: the idea of Srinagar

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