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

An objective report in the Kashmir Observer unfolds an inconvenient truth

Srinagar In Decay

The trouble with traveling the sanitized route from Gupkar Road to the secretariat via the Boulevard every day is that one begins to harbour notions about the rest of the city being built on the same grand scale. This comfortable, scenic journey blinds our rulers to the harsher civic realties of Srinagar, lulling them into a cozy frame of mind where everything is supposed to be ship-shape and Bristol fashion. And if you happen to be among the lucky few residing in the green zone girdling Cheshma Shahi – as many of our top bureaucrats are – nothing could be more heavenly than the state’s summer capital.

An illuminating exercise, on the other hand, would be to take a detour up the handy Shankaracharya hillock and look down across the expanse of the city stretching from the now-squalid shores of the Dal Lake. The trip is particularly recommended in winter when trees have shed their foliage, laying the city bare in its stark ugliness. The view is quiet disconcerting, to say the least, as it encompasses the grotesque results of six decades of civic development.

It is a wonder that no leader of the ruling class has ever been struck by the progressive decay gripping Srinagar for decades in the total absence of an overall blueprint and vision of how the city should develop and spread. There appears to be no code governing new construction in the already congested parts of the city – which is most of it – and unmindful residents merrily build whatever they want wherever they want regardless of its impact on the look of the city. The plethora of government departments, including the top heavy Srinagar Municipal Corporation, plays no role whatsoever in defining a philosophy of development, and guiding people in adhering to it.

In the absence of a central authority that would have defined the form and content of construction in the city, and enforced the code, Srinagar has turned into an architectural nightmare, with neither rhyme nor reason in the monstrosities that go for its buildings. Even the rare tracts that began as planned projects have gone down the decrepit lane as even the purely residential areas have turned into a commercial mess.

Successive governments in the state have totally relinquished control over the use of land for construction, resulting in the mushrooming of unplanned colonies that at best resemble squalid slums with no planned layout, narrow, winding alleyways for roads, and residential buildings that have been put up without any architectural merit. This systematic defacing of the city landscape has taken place when every building in the municipal limits requires a permission, an exercise now exclusively serving as a money-minting machine for the officials concerned.

For the years the city municipality has functioned as a corporation with a full complement of expensively elected and maintained corporators, it has not made a single mention of the awry growth of Srinagar, but only served to multiply its ills by a blind adherence to past practices, mostly harmful. It has not even made a pretense at arresting the growth of ugliness in city architecture by putting its droves of engineers to some constructive use. All it has done is to move from crisis to crisis, failing even in the basic task of disposing off garbage.

For a city that boasts of being the capital of the paradise on earth, Srinagar has turned into a veritable hell, a sprawling hovel that tourists from any part of the world would only want to enter to see a living, breathing disaster. Let us, for the moment, keep aside the horrors of the interior city and the squalor of the new residential colonies, but concentrate on the showpiece that Residency Road was meant to be. That should be sufficient to indicate the scale of the vandalism that had been wrought on the city everywhere.

Despotic, autocratic rulers appear to have a far more enlightened idea of how a city centre should look like, and in laying out the Residency Road, with its –till then – broad avenues and parks, had created an idiom for the so called democratic governments to follow. But within a span of a few years, the deliberately low-rise buildings lining the mall have been crowded out by multi-storied monstrosities crammed against each other, robbing the once scenic area of its aura of space, serenity and openness. If planners give such a misshapen interpretation of development and progress, there is no hope whatsoever for Srinagar to recover from the decades of abuse.

Amidst the Srinagar Municipal Corporation’s utterly dismal showing on the garbage disposal front come reports of yet another triumph in dereliction of duty – legally designated residential enclaves are to be declared commercial areas in abject capitulation before galloping violations of the famed Srinagar Master Plan.

The distinction between purely residential and commercial areas had already become blurred due to unregulated sprouting of business outlets in zones meant exclusively for habitation. The unchecked shopping complex syndrome which has been allowed to straddle the city indiscriminately has turned Srinagar into a vast market place with no demarcation of business and private zones. Markets are taking over even the few enclaves specifically planned as exclusive residential zones. And the commercialization of other residential areas, which do not enjoy the luxury of being designated as such, has overturned the very basic character of the once quiet and peaceful localities.

Every city worth the name has maintained clearly demarcated business districts to spare residential areas the unwelcome intrusion of commercial activity. Even in the case of New Delhi, that appeared to have lost the battle with indiscriminate commercialization, a turnaround has been witnessed with the government putting its foot down and upholding the sanctity of residential areas by a series of strict measures. Centralized and localized shopping malls, closing down of commercial spaces in residential areas and other such steps have restored a semblance of sanity to Delhi.

But how do the bright sparks of Srinagar respond to the city’s crisis? By simply caving in to the fait accompli. Sparing themselves the headache of thinking out a Srinagar-specific way out, our illustrious rulers take the shortcut of a legal artifice: let us solve the problem by one stroke of the pen and declare the mongrelized residential areas as commercial zones.

The turmoil of the past years is often cited as the reason for the many ills plaguing government functioning, but no attempt is made to explain the booming commercial sector which has put such tremendous pressure on civic infrastructure. Taking a differential element for analysis, the case of Lal Chowk could prove particularly illuminating. This commercial hub of the city had begun showing unmistakable signs of saturation over two decades ago. But civic and government agencies have responded by choosing not to act. The message from Lal Chowk was clear – the demand for commercial space was growing at an incredible pace, and what was happening in the heart of the city would definitely be replicated in other parts of Srinagar. One of the several possible ways to address the need would have been to plan a satellite commercial district, even a series of them, that could absorb the overflow from Lal Chowk and other major markets of the city. The top-heavy and ugly construction in the city’s markets and the resulting intractable congestion, not to speak of traffic flow disasters, could have been avoided by the admittedly cost-intensive, but in the long run, cheaper, alternative of developing segregated, exclusively commercial zones. The daily needs of residential areas can always be met by planned and centralized shopping arcades or malls that would leave the peace of these zones largely undisturbed.

True, city planning cannot be carried out in isolated segments, but has to be a holistic exercise including social, economic and other factors. But that is precisely what the bloated officialdom of the state is being paid for. But, instead of applying its mind to the pressing issues, the ruling class and its complicit bureaucracy is content with merely going through the motions of administration.

Kashmir has had a singular set of rulers whose frequent jaunts outside and abroad have left them totally untouched and innocent of any desire to learn or be influenced by successful civic models elsewhere. Not a single ruler has ever voiced even the feeble wish of developing Srinagar on sane, practical and environmentally-sound lines. While the city is literally gasping for survival, all it gets as treatment is inaction on the bureaucratic front in the face of runaway commercialization and civic failure, and grandiose schemes on the rulers’ front like golf courses and tulip gardens -a classic case of asking a bread-starved people to eat cake.