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Cement and Tin Tell Stories of What's Up in Kashmir

August 04, 2021 07:45 IST
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The transformative improvement promised in Jammu-Kashmir remains largely a mirage, observes David Devadas on the second anniversary of the Constitutional changes in the former state.

IMAGE: Boatmen collect weeds during a 'Clean Dal Lake' campaign in Srinagar, July 13, 2021. Photograph: Kamran Raashid Bhat/ANI Photo

Seemant ta teen. That's the current story of Kashmir. Cement and tin are everywhere as people build houses in every corner of the Valley, some along new roads.

That might sound like booming development, but it's actually a stark symptom of a lot that is going wrong.

Those mansions indicate that corruption is galloping, for ill-gotten money tends to be spent there on houses and weddings.

Indeed, people at large confirm that corruption has increased compared with how things were under elected governments. That's a pretty strong indictment, for corruption ran riot over much of the past decade.

Some of the new roads, and old ones too, look like moon faces in patches less than a year after macadamisation. That too signals corruption of sorts.

IMAGE: A newly-Macadamised road that has already been laid bare by the elements. Photograph: David Devadas

Some of the new roads are distressing indicators that those who planned them -- the bureaucrats who have run the place for three years now, many of them brought in from other states -- don't always have a feel for the place.

One comes across a new road, for instance, on the bank of the Jhelum, from one bridge to another, with a new bridge coming up halfway. This hems the river in dangerously, for there is already a highway just beyond the other bank of the river.

IMAGE: A tipper truck loads sand from under a Chinar near the river Jhelum. Photograph: David Devadas

There was a broad, high embankment with massive Chinars near where the new road stands. That bund was dug up for sand mining-in-the-name-of-dredging while the Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition ruled. The 'Naya Kashmir' set-up ought to have repaired the ecological damage, not potentially worsened it.

The new road will bring more people to build mansions along what ought to remain agricultural field-cum-flood plain. One already sees a high corrugated tin fence glinting uglily around a plot right on the most fertile paddy land. All is ready for construction to begin within the fence, less than a stone's throw from the river.

IMAGE: A plot right on the most fertile paddy land, awaiting construction to begin. Photograph: David Devadas

It is illegal to convert the most fertile land, but the 'who cares if you can grease palms' norm of the past has clearly survived the constitutional changes.

No 'outsiders' have apparently come to settle, but many Srinagar residents are buying fertile agricultural land to build cement and tin mansions, often on wetlands. That's not a new trend, but the increased pace shows how misplaced are the priorities of those who ran the place after it was brought directly under central rule three years ago.

To save wetlands, lakes and rivers should have been a priority, but the Dal continues to die, and the Nagin too now looks sick. Manasbal doesn't look healthy either and, of course, the once mighty Wular has shrunk terribly. 

IMAGE: Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha -- 'an efficient, business-like chief executive' -- at Parliament House, August 2, 2021. Photograph: ANI Photo

As in the past, large amounts and larger machines are being deployed to save the lakes, but they continue to shrink.

One reason for the death of the Dal is the direct flow of sewerage into it, but new mansions continue to come up without drainage. Some build sumps. Many let at least their bath water flow out. Long-term, lack of drainage could spoil the ground water, and is another dimension of ecological damage.

Meanwhile, a Kashmiri businessman's path-breaking proposal to turn waste into power is languishing in red tape. Convinced of the project's worth, Lieutenant-Governor Manoj Sinha is said to have instructed officials to fix a date for him to inaugurate the project this month. But nothing had apparently moved until the end of July.

That;s just one example of the increased power of red tape. Sinha is an efficient, business-like chief executive, but his hands are full.

The bureaucracy, which has been hugely empowered after the political class was silenced on August 5, 2019, rules the roost, people say. Real power is with district officers and the lower bureaucracy, and of course the extraordinarily empowered police.

The result is that the transformative improvement promised two years ago remains largely a mirage. Nor have measures been taken to salve the hurt caused by those constitutional changes, or to explain potential advantages convincingly.

So, militancy continues in fits and bursts. Much of it is just boys without much by way of arms or training. Yet, they go underground, despite knowing they will soon die.

The long-established separatist leadership is either in jail, or otherwise silenced. So are most of those known to be grassroots activists. But ensuring calm through police and investigative agencies can't be a long term solution.

The lockdown after the Constitutional changes, and then the pandemic, have put a break on things, it is true. Still, a visible breakthrough on the promised transformation could improve things. For, despite the tight lid on distress, it still lurks in the silent corners of minds and hearts.

David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir (OUP, 2018).

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