“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

A Kashmiri architect/planner based in the USA, offers his perspective on infrastructure development plans for Srinagar as proposed by the Government, and requests readers to provide inputs to the funding agency and the project organization

Defacing the City

Rafique A. Khan

Construction of the overhead bridge on the Srinagar Airport Road, at its intersection with the Srinagar Byepass road, is a familiar commuting heart ache and an ugly site to behold. The “flyover”, a crossing over the airport road, is only a few thousand feet in length; However, its construction took almost ten years. Now the Kashmir Government’s Economic Reconstruction Agency (ERA) is proposing to construct another “flyover” on the airport road. This time it is to be within the existing road way.

This proposed flyover will be an elevated structure about two and half kilometers in length, starting from Jahangir Chowk all the way to Rambagh. The Rambagh Bridge is to be also made into a double decker bridge. As proposed, the flyover project will be an ugly intrusion in the area. It does not fit with the heritage design character of Srinagar city; nor is it appropriate given that Srinagar is an earthquake prone area. Moreover, the project will severely damage business activity on the street during and after construction of the flyover. And the worst part is that flyover will not improve the existing horrible traffic conditions. This project is part of a gigantic $400,000,000 boondoggle being bank rolled by the Asia Development Bank.

The stated objectives of the project, namely, decongestion of traffic on the road; improved long term traffic management in Srinagar; reducing the number of vehicles passing through the area etc., are laudable. But you do not need the brain power of a rocket scientist to figure out that the project is a boondoggle. To get an idea of what this flyover will look like imagine the existing flyovers at Jahangir Chowk and Byepass Road like structure, in the middle of the airport road, all the way from Jahangir Chowk to Rambagh. As per the Environmental Impact Assessment report for the project, prepared by the ERAgency of the J&K Government, the proposed project will be built in three years and it will have no significant adverse impacts on the environment.

The report is posted on the Asia Development Bank (Site: www.ADB.org).  Sorry, but this conclusion is wrong.

It is obvious that the traffic congestion on the airport road is unacceptable. It is also important that smooth traffic flow is essential to the economic well being of Srinagar. But as proposed the project will not solve the traffic congestion problem, except for the few “lal-baati” cars who will use the upper level of the flyover. But please consider what will happen at the existing street level. Can you imagine the night mare of traffic gridlock and economic devastation to the existing shops along both sides of the street during the construction period of this monstrous structure? And just think of the conditions at the street level after the construction is done.

Imagine the shops, overshadowed by the elevated structure. Imagine the lives of all the poor people who live and work on the floors above the shops. The traffic will be whizzing by their windows less than 20 feet away. Think of all the vibrations, the dust and the noise on the surrounding communities. The ERAgency report states “immediate positive impact on the area by significantly reducing the number of vehicles passing through the area by approximately 58% . . .” (Exective summary).

I do not get this calculation: The flyover will add four lanes of traffic on top of the existing street, how will that “reduce the number of vehicles passing through the area.” A study of the project report makes it obvious that as proposed the flyover will cause severe negative environmental affects that are not being mitigated. And yet, the ERA report concludes that, “As per Indian laws, the proposed subproject does not require an environmental clearance.” (Exective summary).

And here is the irony, the stated objective of the flyover project: to relieve traffic congestion along the Airport route in Srinagar, could be possible by alternatives that will be cheaper to build, can be completed in a shorter time and will have a positive affects the environment and economy of Srinagar.
But who cares? 

Requests to reevaluate the proposed project, with written recommendations for alternatives, have been given to Kashmir Government authorities a number of times. These requests were done over a period of three years, and even included a petition with 150-signatures addressed to the Chief Minister of Kashmir. Six letters, several phone calls and one petition got zero response. The Asia Development Bank did acknowledge receiving the requests and appropriately responded that the project was a Kashmir government undertaking. The ADB also asked the Kashmir government to respond. That too has been ignored.

So what is the problem. Why won’t the flyover project fly?

Here is the problem: The existing Airport Road from Jahangir Chowk to Rambagh Bridge has three lanes of traffic in each direction. Encroachments and ineffective street geometrics have reduced the street to two moving lanes in each direction. But the real problem is that at the Rambagh Bridge six lanes of traffic (Hyderpora, Rawalpora and Sanatnager) meet. In a similar manner at Jahangir Chowk, multiple traffic lanes merge into two lanes of the Airport Road. For solving traffic related problems, you need to divert the traffic away from the area. Besides, in traffic engineering parleys improving the traffic flow at the intersections is necessary, first and foremost.

The proposed flyover project will do none of that. As stated earlier the proposed project will

(a) At best improve traffic movement for a limited number of vehicles for a limited portion of the traffic corridor.

(b) The pylons and elevated structure will, by restricting access and natural light result in permanent damage to the economic viability of the existing businesses along the Airport Road, from Hazuri Bagh to Rambagh Bridge.

(c) The increased noise, vibrations and air pollution, will cause environmental degradation of Srinager in particular the Hazuribagh, Magarmal, Rambagh and Natipora communities.

(d) The flyover structure as proposed is out of scale and character with the existing building pattern and landscape of the area. The project as proposed will have a four lane elevated road less than 20 feet from the windows of an estimated 1,000 habitable units in the Silk Factory Bazaar area; thus effecting the privacy of the property.

(e) The flyover will increase congestion in Natipora and beyond.

(f) Given the complex nature of the project the completion time may will be in decades. The traffic congestion in the area during the construction period will be most severe.

Well that is all well said and done. Traffic is a big problem, what is the alternative to solve the present traffic problem?

Fair question: The answer is to divert the traffic by building a new road away from and parallel to the Jahangir Chowk Rambagh road. A new bridge parallel to the existing Rambagh bridge on the flood channel opposite the old Reshim Khanna can be a mid-point for a new road joining the Batmaloo area with the airport area. It could be a new alignment along the old Reshim Khanan property, as a combination of new and widened streets built parallel to the airport road. The new street would add “traffic carrying capacity”, divert the traffic and thus reduce the traffic volume on the existing airport road also; unlike the proposed flyover that adds traffic volume and does nothing for improving the intersections.

An alternative in the lines of above was in fact proposed by the Kashmir Public Works Department back in 2008 in a report titled: Project Report for Widening /Upgradation of Road from Batmaloo Bridge to Barzalla Bridge . The proposed PWD project’s estimated cost was considerably less and could have been completed in a much shorter time than the ERA Flyover. The PWD proposed new road was along the Doodganaga Channel from Rambagh to Batmaloo. The Doodganga Channel has since had encroachment. Removing some of the encroachments will be challenging. However, with modifications, the PWD proposal or others like it can be effective alternatives. These alternatives can open up new areas for development, help conserve and improve traffic movement in the Silk Factory Corridor (the corridor has historic structures and mature landscaping). In addition it will cause minimal disruption to the business and traffic flow during and after the roadway construction period.

Srinagar is a designated UNESCO Heritage City. In a book published by UNESCO Professor Randolph Langenbach Srinagar’s unique historic character is characterized as a “cultural landscape.’” Srinager is a city made up of series of islands, once known as the Venice of the East. Long ago River Jehlum served as the main transport corridor for the city with its joining canals for secondary transport around the islands of the city. The existing roads in Srinagar, for the most part are of “medieval” era. Srinagar city population was 4.57 lakhs in 1971, and is estimated to have a population of 23.50 lakhs by 2121. Widening old roads, building bye pass and flyovers are no solution to Srinagar’s traffic congestion. The traffic movement needs to be addressed to accommodate the growth that is projected. In short, Srinagar City needs a plan for new street (and transport) system to accommodate the projected growth. New roads that meet the demand of increased fast moving traffic and at the same time help conserve existing areas. This new road building must be part of a Kashmir Valley wide regional land use and infrastructure development plan that addresses transportation needs, including segregation of fast and slow moving traffic and balanced development of various traffic modes, including river transport.

As noted above all this has been communicated to the Kashmir Government. But as also noted the official arrogance and ignorance of the government is mind boggling. Forget studying alternatives and comprehensive planning, the 400,000,000 million ERAgency project is done on the fly. The project is not part of the City’s Master Plan; it is not even supported by a credible traffic study.

And here is an interesting side bar. As part of the relocation plan, the project builds two new shopping areas. Both are proposed at the two most congested intersections: Jahangir Chowk and Rambagh Bridge. Thus adding to the congestion problem. And the published report says that the flyover will “reduce “ traffic.

Bottom line: The JCRB Flyover project as proposed does not serve public good. The flyover will create permanent damage to the physical and economic environment of Srinagar.

My appeal: Please do not sit on the side lines and watch Srinagar getting destroyed. The Economic Reconstruction Agency seems to be on an auto pilot to destroy the heritage and economy of Srinagar. This proposed flyover boondoggle will not solve but will worsen the existing traffic congestion and destroy the urban design character of Srinagar. It is recognized that there is traffic congestion along the Srinagar Airport route. And that smooth traffic flow is essential to the economic well being of the city. As noted, there are a number of alternatives that will be better effective, will cost less and take less time to build.

Demand that the Flyover project be reevaluated.

Express your concerns to Asia Development Bank (www.adp.org), and the J&K Government (plan-jk@nic.in).

(Greater Kashmir)