How smart would Srinagar become as a smart city? The question brooks an answer in light of the historical realities of this city.
In the mid 1960s, a Jammu and Kashmir government headed by G.M. Sadiq as the Chief Minister took an embarrassingly misconceived decision.
The serpentine canal called ‘Nallah Mar’ that went round the old Srinagar city and finally drained into the Jhelum River, was filled up. This canal had won Srinagar the enviable title of ‘Venice of Asia’.
The canal was filled and a road replaced it.
There is no defence for this environmentally disastrous and administratively unwise decision although supporters of G.M. Sadiq would say in private that the decision was taken to change the population dynamics of old city Srinagar which was dominated by the followers of the Mirwaiz family.
The canal was lost, while the followers of the Mirwaiz family flourished around the two sides of the road without moving to other parts of the city.
The filling of the canal was iadvertised as a step towards making Srinagar a modern city and the result is there for everybody to lament.
“Since the ambitious smart city mission was started in Srinagar, the roads here appear as if these have been bombed,” said a retired chief engineer.
“Roads and drains are being dug up obviously to realise the dream of a smart city. The result will have to wait to be judged in future and yet what is difficult and baffling to understand is the fact that Srinagar is the only city in the country where the road dividers are so broad that they choke the passage of the vehicular traffic.
“Why are pedestrian malls raised 3 to 4 ft from the road surface while people can hardly climb on them to avoid moving on the road?
“And what we are hearing is that to decongest the city and to decrease its pollution by fuel emission, cycles would be the only mode of transport in the smart city interiors.
“That is a great decision, but our past experiences have been bitter,” the retired engineer added.
The cynicism of the common man and the experts in Srinagar towards modernisation of the city is based in their past experiences.
One senior minister in a previous government boasted of preserving the heritage of the city by building a stone arch at the place where the famous Kashmiri-Iranian poet, Ghani Kashmiri was born.
The minister had inaugurated a stone arch named after the famous poet.
The arch was built by destroying the remnants of the small cottage in which the poet had lived during his lifetime. This finally amounted to building a stone arch by demolition the last remnants of a local heritage site.
Roads cannot be decongested by increasing the breadth of the dividers and raising pedestrian malls to heights unclimbable for the pedestrians.
“Two main roads in uptown Srinagar, the fashionable Residency Road and the Maulana Azad Road have a drainage system that has remained choked since years because the water drained into these roads does not find a final drainage outlet,” said Hafeezullah, 74, who works in one of the carpet shops on the Bund
“The result is that a 10 minute rain causes water logging of these main arteries of the city. The first thing that an arriving tourist witnesses is the Tourist Reception Centre (TRC). Not only the entire compound of the TRC, but the road outside the tourist centre also gets flooded with a moderate rainfall.
“The refuse from hotels etc is gathered at a dumping point located on one side outside the J&K Bank building on the Residency Road.
“In summer, the area smells. Ironically, in the good old days, this very area would smell of exotic perfumes used by the tourists who thronged the handicraft shops on the Bund and beyond,” he added.
Meanwhile, a local ecologist who has published pioneering work on the limnology of the Dal Lake, said: “The first thing towards making Srinagar a really smart city is to help increase the lungs of the city by cleaning the Dal Lake.
“This cannot be done without re-locating hundreds of people who live inside the Lake. From its original area of 25 sq.km, the Lake has shrunken down to 8 sq.km.
“How can a city become smart unless it has healthy lungs to breathe? This problem cannot be addressed simply by using deweeders. What about the refuse drained directly into the lake by scores of hotels and other business establishments on its banks?”
The fact is that smart cities cannot just be made of better brick, mortar and concrete structures.
A city with a rich heritage like Srinagar merits that its planners strike a delicate balance between its great past and its inherent fault lines.