The City is an Island

This is a hastened up post for I didn’t know what else to do.
The city tonight lies in shambles. It’s as if we hadn’t enough to cry for in the past years. Throughout the past night and much of the day we could only read about other people being caught up by the flood. An uncle was weeping on the phone. His house was flooded completely and like so many others he had moved to the attic, still in fear that the water would rise further. And no one would come for rescue.
At first, we could call each other and know their status. But then the phones stopped working. The networks died. And now we don’t know about each other at all. We are all locked up. The worst part is that family members so many miles away, in foreign countries, cannot know anything about their people back home. Kids away for their parents, worried for them – that sort of crises. The social media of Kashmir was one long SOS call.  
Whole day we heard the story grow in snippets – as the flood took over the city in parts. Like an invading army, entering from all sides. Rajbagh was the first to go. Jawaharnagar followed. Gogji bagh, Abi Guzar, Goni Khan, HS High all gone in a blink. And now Srinagar lies in a maze of submerged bridges among roads lost to the Jehlum. Small islands of housing clusters remain. People have climbed to the roof tops. The Dal Lake was the last to fall, but fell it did. I am sorry to say that.
And dear Lord, now this night is upon is. Its all dark and scary. And people are terrified. God, please stay this night with them. They need You especially tonight. Like every other night.
The helplessness coming from all the news from Kashmir is tangible. But we have braved the curfews and crack downs – when there was nothing to do except watch the sun rise and set. Empty days full of hours upon hours of uncertainty. There was no way to earn bread either. But we sallied forth. With some faith in God, of course. But this time it is a bit different. That was anger, this is desperation.
There is a slight glimmer of hope. Rescue teams are still working to get stranded people out. But the water is rising and falling in patterns hard to understand. Every now and then there is breach in the embankments and another neighbourhood is flooded.


This seems to be rather long night to pass. 

No Ordinary Sunsets

There is something called Beautification. Beautify (verb, transitive) means to make beautiful or add beauty to. We know Kashmir is beautiful, but in safer hands (like those of our government’s) we can clearly add beauty to it. In other words beautify it. We also know, generally from travel advisers and tourism brochures, that Srinagar is the beautiful capital of beautiful Kashmir. But then, in able hands and abler minds, we can add to its beauty. Yes, beautify it too.

On 9 October, Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir called for beautification of Dal Lake. This is another beautification, not the first time called for. After the “beautification” of Jehlum which was called for a few years ago, our administration is a on a beauty adding mission. Dal comes in second. The tourist brochures already show (as they have been showing for the past few decades) a woman in a pheran wearing a heavy head gear who is rowing a shikara full of flowers in the Dal Lake. No, that is not the Commissioner’s idea of beauty. That is just a subplot in a long story –  in the story the woman is supposed to be demented and is searching for Anoushka Shankar so that she could join her side dancers. 

The Dal Lake is a fascinating body of water. In the evening when the sun dips behind its vast expanse the sky flares up in a brilliant display of colours, the type Messrs Kashmir Beautification & Co. could not have managed to provide. Its the play of clouds, the sun and the open skies. Below them, the Dal lake reflects the hues – a deep orange and blue – like a giant mirror. No sunset here is ever ordinary.

Once upon a time, the Dal Lake was much larger than it is today. But now, no one remembers the day when the Dal got spoiled. It has shrunk to less than half the size of what it was a few centuries ago, and in the past twenty years the rate of shrinking has increased. The Dal is shaped somewhat like a kidney (somewhat, not completely) and half of the kidney has severe calcification. But, you won’t see that on the Boulevard side. That is for tourist brochures. On any given day there descends an army of photographers armed with DSLRs, ‘point and shoot’ and even mobile phones busily clicking the Dal away. It’s not a generally known fact, but the famous “boy with the faraway look in his eyes” pose was invented to be used exclusively on the Dal shores. 

The call for beautification has so far resulted in two extremely beautiful sewage plants around the Dal. Don’t get me wrong. Sewage treatment plants are the need of the hour. The filth going into the lake needs to be treated to make it less toxic. The “less toxic” sewage is then pumped into the lake and it mingles with the “more toxic” sewage coming in from the houseboats. Together, they stay in the Dal feeding its algae, and floating gardens and the famous lily pads.

This Dal of ours was simply too beautiful for its own good. Tourists wanted to see it. They often inquire from locals if the lake is “open” at all times. This was the opportunity the newly grown crop of hoteliers were waiting for. They descended like a pack a wolves, looking for rooms wherever they can to accommodate just one more ‘tourist’ coming in from neighboring India who would take immense pride in buying the romance of the Dal. The neophytes were not even looking at the long haul. Back in 2005 when the seemingly sudden desire to see Kashmir arose in Indians and in one eventful summer there appeared hordes of them, they weren’t even calling themselves “hoteliers”. They made “rooms available”, generally out of charity because the “hotels” were overflowing. And now, almost seven years later they do not bother themselves with nomenclature. They find people, who usually arrive in fake Volvos and mini-travelers, tired and dusty, dragging their suitcases with one hand and balancing a kid or sweater on the other. It doesnt take a very keen expert to realize the mushrooming hotels around the Dal. Such are the colours of  “normalcy” in Kashmir and the ‘tourists’ it brings along with it. The Dal Lake crossed itself and waited patiently for a safe death. Perhaps the lake hadn’t wished to die in this way, but you can’t negotiate with the hangman.
Some people believe that it is the areas around the Dal that actually pollute the lake, and not so much the dwellers in the Dal. It’s slightly ludicrous to talk of people living inside a lake (who are not even mermaids), but Dal Lake actually has a sizable population of its own. Executive Director of Centre for Environment and Law, Nadeem Qadri said in a recent function that the “lake now shelters about 50 hamlets with a population of 50,000 people”. Fifty Thousand! That’s a town in itself. (By comparison, Monaco has a population of only 35,427). A friend  once narrated to me of his ride to the interior of the lake. “The lake is filled with boat-loads of garbage to support the floating gardens to grow vegetables.” (I must admit that the vegetables grown in the Dal, for all their ecological impact, are favored among the locals for their freshness). In the interior side you pass in front of houses (which are unlike houseboats) with doors that open to a small front porch. The Dal here is not blue, but a dense green hiding blackish water underneath. “An old man sits on the porch of his house with his jajeer (hookah) and smiles as you pass by. Just out of nowhere you approach the Char Chinari, and are awed by the majesty of the mountains that rise behind it”.  With fifty thousand people clamoring over the Dal, the lake has churned  a small isolated community floating on its own waters, oblivious to the surroundings.

Unfortunately, not many realize that the Dal is not a gold mine. You can’t grab a handful of this gold and cash it. With each hand-span of water lost, the Dal loses its edges forever. One could only sigh at the colossal loss and tragedy that Dal Lake is. A lake right in the center of the city is a rare occurrence. But Kashmir is an exception to so many rules, that rules have begun to look like exceptions. Dal falls in line.

 At this moment the government decides  to beautify the Dal. The words used are decidedly misleading. What the administration can do is make an earnest, last ditch effort to save something that defines the city’s tourism heritage. It can’t beautify the Dal anymore than Nature has already done. What the government can only hope is to clean it, which will restore the Dal. The lake. It’s survival. Bring it back on the track where the imminent threats are warded off. So to say, take the sting off the ‘developments’ going around it. Beautification is a long distance away. That would be when standing on its bank, one could smell the fragrance of flowers growing far away in the Dal. When the famed “Dal ki hawa” (Wind of the Dal) does not  carry obnoxious odours of weeds and sewage treatments plants. When empty cans and bottles are not found floating on the Dal like unwelcome visitors. When there are bridges which do not contribute to its eutrophication. Beautifying would be giving the Dal something which it didn’t have. Painting  a clean house is “beautification”, but cleaning the house is a necessity – even if it doesn’t diminish its ugliness.

There needs to be a line between “beautification” and “restoration”. Till then the LWDA may, as one of its signposts round the Dal reads, “have a think” over it!.


The Way it Shouldn’t be Done

Since its Ramazan and we are expected to remain peaceful and quiet, I will not say much and let these pictures speak for themselves. This is in Dalgate. And that is the new bridge over the Dal Lake. The bridge is still under construction, and the Dal below it under destruction. So we will have to wait till both are completed.

Scientists call it eutrophication. Its a fancy word for vanishing lakes, and eroding heritages. It encompasses years of callousness, and lack of attention. Corruption and illiteracy. But literally it only means increase in weeds/algae due to increase of nitrates and phosphates (increased nutrients).

The gate in the Lake was supposed to check the flow of water, as it connected to the city’s inner water ways. But now the gate has effectively divided the Dal into two parts. The touristy and the non-touristy. the touristy Dal is the larger part where the water is visible in front of the long row of houseboats. Behind them, of course, there is no water. Its all green, algaed and eutrophied. Petrified, if you may. The touristy Dal also has the floating gardens, and the Char Chinari. And the Nehru Park, with its increasing periphery.

The non-touristy Dal has been left to die with the city plan under which more bridges are supposed to come up. The one in the pictures above is being extended, and there is another one coming up near the Moulana Azad Bridge. The non-touristy Dal also has  houseboats, many of them dilapidated and non-posh kinds. It serves as a dumping ground for local waste, a public urinal and worse.

The Dal is ticking away. And we are waiting.

Tragic, even without mentioning it

I have tried and wanted to stay apolitical on this blog. I never wanted to comment on politics or politicians, and still don’t want to. But this was just too current to let go through. I finally found out what Farooq Abdullah has said about opening liquor shops in the valley. At last. I feel like I have been living under a rock, for not reading it earlier.

The Times of India article which carried this news item is this.

Lets read:

Steps like reopening of cinemas and liquor sale would boost the tourism industry in the state, he said.
So many people have already berated him on comparing tourism and tipsy-ism.  Only today Greater Kashmir carried this  post. So one cannot really add anything new to this.

The minister for new and renewable energy was addressing a function to celebrate the birth anniversary of his father and National Conference founder Shiekh Mohammad Abdullah here. 

How on earth could he have reached from Sheikh Abdullah to making such statement is beyond me, but we all know Dr. Abdullah’s speech making faculty. If anyone could reach from making a tribute to a dead dad to opening cinemas, Dr. Abdullah can.

“The cinemas are not here, where will the tourists go at night. Do you want them to stay inside the room?” Abdullah said. 

Dal Lake at night (C) 

This is of particular interest. Actually no tourist stays inside at night. I know this for a fact, because I have been nearly over-run by a tourist bus at night. Anyways, a cursory look at the Boulevard at night will tell you what the tourist do at that time. But VIPs wouldn’t know, its just too crowded for their convenience. And yes, a look at the Dal Lake in the morning will also tell you. It’s all there, then.

Boulevard on a Wintry night (c) Ironically, there is a bar right next to the point where this picture was taken.

The Union minister asked the media to tone down its reportage of protests as it had a “negative impact” on the tourism industry. 

So much for banning private news channels in the Valley. So much for censorship on the media.

Where to channelise the growing rush of tourists.
Liquor bars, eh? 

Ah! There it is. An objection to almost every line. I wonder who edited the article. Kashmir has its own brand of tourism. No tourist website ever rued the lack of cinemas and bars in Kashmir, however they do list in the shrines and highlight the places of religious interest. I wonder if any tourist ever thought of Kashmir as a place of pubs and bars. As a little Himalayan Bangkok, or Las Vegas.  Kashmir is not Las Vegas. It never was. And hopefully should never be.
The Minister of New and Renewable Energy would have made a highly impressive speech by talking of green energy sources for Kashmir and development of ecotourism.
Or even stressing (re-stressing, saying just for the sake of it, and not attracting a fatwa) 
street-cleanliness. Srinagar is one of the dirtiest cities. Compared with Indian cities, it ranks 4th. Or even talk of protecting Dal and Anchar lakes. Once these are gone, cinemas and alcohol will not attract tourists.
Srinagar with all its historical glory dying a slow death really doesn’t need alcohol as a means to salvage its dying pride. It could have saved the minister a lot of mud-splashing if it were not mentioned. Alcohol consumption is already rising in the valley, which is tragic, even without Dr. Farooq’s mentioning it.
If attracting tourists be the sole purpose and industry in Kashmir, it would be beneficial and more Kashmir-wise appropriate if an effort is made to preserve the culture and the language, the heritage, the old indigenous architecture, the lakes and forests. Things which make Kashmir what it is. Not alcohol, not bars, not the Kishenganga Dam project

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