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

Ashraf wonders if it is the same Srinagar which was once called the Venice of the East by the European travellers

(Mr. Mohammad Ashraf, 66, was born and raised in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. High School and the S.P College before joining the Regional Engineering College at Naseem Bagh in Civil Engineering. However, he changed his career to adventure sports like mountaineering and skiing, completing his training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling and Gulmarg. He also completed a diploma in French language from the Alliance Française in New Delhi. He joined the J&K Tourism Department in 1973, rose to become its Director-General in 1996, and retired in 2003 after 30 years of service. He has been associated with the Adventure Sports at the national level and was recently re-elected as the Vice-President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, the apex body of adventure sports in India, for two years. To commend his efforts in introducing rescue measures in Kashmir Mountains, he was awarded “Merite-Alpin” by Swiss in a special function in Les Diablerets in 1993. He continues to be a member of the Governing Council of IMF and is also the President of Jammu & Kashmir Mountaineering & Hiking Club.)

Welcome to the ‘Dirty’ City!

Other day I was amused at the Airport by a hoarding of the Tourism Department. It is located on a very commanding position and depicts a Kashmiri selling flowers in a shikara. The mournful expression on the face of the shikarawala truly depicts the sad state of the city. The hording welcomes tourists to the hospitality of Kashmir, which unfortunately has been questionable in the recent past. However, the fault does not lie with the Tourism Department. They are making tremendous efforts to attract visitors to Kashmir from all over the world in spite of numerous obstacles including adverse foreign travel advisories. Their untiring efforts get totally negated by the actions of all other departments connected with the upkeep of the city. Recently some international TV channels were showing the garbage dumps in the world famous City of the Sun. It is not a proud moment for a Kashmiri when his capital city, probably one of the oldest in the world is rated as the 4th dirtiest city in India. The rating is not by an NGO but by the Central Department of Urban Development.

To know the difference between the Srinagar of yester years and now, it would be interesting to quote some extracts from some old travelogues of Europeans. Recently while surfing the net, I stumbled on two old travelogues about Kashmir. One is the “A lonely summer in Kashmir” by Margaret Cotter Morison written in 1904 and the other is “Kashmir, the land of streams and solitude” by H R Pirie written in 1909. Margaret, while describing Srinagar writes, “Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir and the only big town in the country, is a place full of life and picturesqueness, which captivates the visitor by its novelty and perpetually amuses him by the many quaint similarities to places seen before. With the polo-ground, tennis-courts, and smartly dressed ladies, one might think oneself in an ordinary Indian station; at the Residency garden-parties, where croquet is played on the softest of lawns, and strawberries and cream dispensed under cool spreading trees, any one would think himself at a country house in England; on the river above the town, where house-boats are crowded close together for over a mile, the sight recalls Henley a few days before the regatta; a row down the town where houses and temples line the banks, where gracefully carved wooden balconies overhang the water, where men and women loiter chattering on the steps, and half the population lives in boats, brings back faint memories of Venice. But a visit to the Dal Lake, with its willow-lined water canals and unique floating gardens, or a stiff climb up the hill, called the Takht-i-Suleiman, to obtain a panoramic view of the city, so green in spring-time, with grass growing thickly on all the roofs; and lastly, the perpetual swarm of merchants round one’s boat thrusting themselves and their goods in at the window repeating their never ceasing cry of :”Only see, lady, only see ; don’t buy, Mem-sahib ” these are suggestive of Srinagar, and only Srinagar, for their like is seen in no other part of the earth”.

Pirie narrating her journey on Jhelum River writes, “There are other roads in Kashmir; roads like colonnades between serried ranks of poplar trees, the tall, slim, silvery pillars of the beautiful populus alba, or the sombre stateliness of the dark poplars of Lombardy; roads bordered by willows, or leading through marshy meadow, or carpeted with snowy petals from the blossoming branches of apple and pear and cherry trees, which make fragrant archways overhead; many and lovely are the roads of the Valley ; but the road par excellence of Kashmir is the River, the Veth as the Kashmiris call it, which is an abbreviation of Vitasta, its Sanskrit name, the fabulous Hydaspes of the classic historians. Up and down the wide and placid river go the flat-bottomed, slow-moving boats of the country—the wide grain-barges, the doongas with their roofs and sides of matting, the deep-laden market boats, and the little fishing-boats so often drawn up near the bank with a wide net outspread, its wet meshes glittering in the sunshine like a dragon-fly’s wing. It is with a dream-like feeling one goes up the wide, calm river; following its thousand windings, one passes in and out of all varieties of climate, sunshine and shadow chasing each other through the day. It is a sunny, brilliant morning; the light breeze made by the motion of the boat sets the delicate iris petals fluttering, and the water ripples gaily against the prow; while before one’s eyes a magnificent and ever-changing panorama unfolds itself, dominated by a splendid succession of lofty snow-peaks, the serene and silent guardians of this enchanted land. Later we pass out of the sunlight, and the prevailing tints of the afternoon are violet and indigo under the heavy clouds which hang over the Valley”.

The descriptions of Srinagar and the journey on the River seem out of this world. Where have these gone? Destroyed by the greed of the people and the apathy of the rulers! What does Srinagar of today look like? Mounds of stinking garbage strewn in every nook and corner. Dug up roads, overflowing drains, coverless manholes, and swarms of wild and vicious dogs prowling everywhere! The famous Veth is like a sewer taking in sewerage from all the towns and villages on its banks. The view from the world renowned boulevard is more disheartening. One gets the stink of a dying water body. It is more so in hot weather. Lake is in its last throes of death. So far no one has been able to restore or even arrest its further deterioration. The reasons for these disasters are many. The first is the edifice of corruption on which the state runs. The departments concerned with the maintenance of the character of the city and keeping it clean are doing just the opposite. There is absolutely no accountability. There is a free for all atmosphere prevalent everywhere. One department is paving the roads and the other one is digging these up! There is no co-ordination. The only thing that makes things move is underhand money. Municipal Corporation, Urban Development Department, Public Health Engineering, Power Department, and so on ensure the upkeep of the VVIP and VIP areas. All civic facilities are to be provided here on top priority. Rest does not matter. Delhi too cannot escape the blame. They may have rated Srinagar as the 4th dirtiest city but they have not analyzed or detailed the causes for such a calamity. They have been pumping hundreds of crores into various projects and departments but have they ever bothered to take to task the people for misappropriation of these funds or held them responsible for the mess? They overlook all these things in ‘National Interest’. The most that has been done is to express displeasure at the slow pace of implementation of various projects. It was rather the highest court which pointed out that the State Government cannot get away from its primary responsibility by claiming uncertain situation of conflict. There does not appear an easy way out of this mess. The way things are going ahead we may soon reach the first position in the list of the dirtiest cities. Instead of a welcome sign, we should put the Latin saying supposed to be at the entrance of hell which says, “All ye who enter here abandon all hope!”