AS the sun’s rays cast their golden hues upon Srinagar’s Dal Lake, situated at the foot of the Zabarwan sub-mountain range, the lake’s pristine waters shimmer and the stink is gone. It’s a rarity for locals as well as tourists, and a testament to the massive conservation efforts undertaken in preparation for the G20 meetings in Kashmir.
Work, under the Rs 980-crore Smart City project, is underway on a war-footing to complete 130 developmental projects ahead of the G20 tourism delegates’ working group meeting from May 22-24. At least 100 international delegates are expected to attend. The three-day event aims to strengthen economic growth, preserve cultural heritage, and promote sustainable development of the region.
Two dredgers and nine weed harvesters are among the machines that have been deployed to ensure the lake’s cleanliness. The effort is twice as intensive as compared to last year. The machines and men work tirelessly, round the clock, to remove silt and weed from the lake. “This is the first time we are seeing the Dal Lake so clean. In the past it used to be an ungainly sight, full of algae and weeds,” says Sunita Mahajan from Delhi, who is visiting Kashmir for the third time.
De-weeding and dredging efforts at the Dal Lake started way back in the 1960s and 1970s to tackle aquatic weed proliferation, particularly water hyacinth and other invasive species. However, limited resources and inconsistent efforts affected the efficacy and sustainability of the de-weeding initiatives.
Officials attribute the limited success to rapid weed re-growth, nutrient pollution, insufficient resources, socio-economic considerations and the coordination challenges.
Ghulam Muhammad Khosa, a shikara owner, agrees that he has never seen such urgency and a sense of purpose before. “Dredging will prolong the life of the lake, but it should not be limited to the surface. The condition of the lake in the interior is proof of its gradual decline,” he says.
Each weed harvester removes 24 cubic metres of material per cycle, completing around 12 cycles in a day. The operators work long hours from 6 am to 8 pm.
Khosa claims the authorities have increased the water level of the lake by 2 feet by locking the outlets, attempting to create the illusion of a cleaner lake. This adjustment, however, poses a potential threat to the shikara riders, he says. His allegations are vehemently denied by the Lake Conservation and Management Authority. “The Dal Lake is clean due to extensive conservation efforts and for no other reason,” an official responds.
That said, Khosa is all smiles as far as the tourist footfall is concerned. “From Rs 500, my daily earnings have gone up to Rs 2,000. More tourists are taking shikara rides because Dal Lake doesn’t stink anymore with mounds of algae over it.”
Over four lakh tourists have visited the Valley since the start of this year.
To improve urban mobility and beautify Srinagar, the administration is upgrading roads, pedestrian walkways and footpaths. Bridges and embankments of water bodies are being illuminated, the Clock Tower is being remodelled and new cycle tracks have come up. Smart poles with WiFi hubs are the new additions. Artistic murals adorn flyovers and walls across the city.
Security bunkers and pickets along the roads to be used by the G20 leaders, too, are being beautified.
The Polo View market in Lal Chowk, a significant tourist spot and a commercial hub known for its handicraft and handloom products, has been renovated. The mighty chinars still have the pride of place, even as the roads have been converted into walkways and a cycle track has come up.
Traffic has been restricted, and cycles have replaced two-wheelers and four-wheelers. All electrical and communication wires have been laid underground, the lighting has been improved, and floors have been beautified with stone-cladding tiles.
Shopkeepers anticipate increased business following revitalisation of the market. “We hope the Polo View remodelling will bring us more business,” says Mehraj-ud-Din, a shopkeeper.
Similarly, the road leading to Gulmarg has been macadamised, beautified with flowers, tree-lined and now has wooden signage boards. Included in the Smart City project is upgradation and expansion of the road network, building of flyovers and bridges, and implementing intelligent traffic management systems aimed at easing traffic congestion.
Srinagar is known for its rich cultural heritage and historical landmarks. The renovation project involves architectural conservation, beautification, and the development of tourism infrastructure.
The Jammu and Kashmir administration has partly demolished Srinagar’s landmark Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) to renovate it, triggering allegations of an attempt to erase Kashmir’s history.
Concerns have been raised about the impact of infrastructure improvement and beautification efforts on local architecture and chinars, the majestic trees that dot Srinagar as well as the rest of Kashmir.
it’s a big deal for kashmir
Bringing global attention to the region opens avenues for increased investment, economic growth and tourism. This can contribute to the socio-economic development of Kashmir.
Safina Baig, ddc chairperson, baramulla, and chairperson, j&k haj committee
The renovation work, accelerated by the G20 meetings, is facing criticism for replacing traditional aesthetics with “tacky and distasteful” planning. Urban landscaping, it is being argued, can be achieved without erasing the unique architectural heritage and natural beauty.
Former Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti finds the replacement of traditional and heritage architectural styles with unsightly tiles disheartening. “It’s sad to see beautiful divar stones demolished,” she tweeted. The local Kashmiri stones used earlier for pavements and pedestrian pathways have been replaced by cement blocks.
Imran Nabi Dar, spokesperson of the National Conference, questions how Srinagar can be smartened with the “blatant chopping” of its trademark chinars. “These green monuments are the script of our past and future. Why this obsession with changing the face of Kashmir?”
The CEO of the Srinagar Smart City Project, Athar Amir Khan, denies that traditional architecture is being compromised. “Conservation of traditional architecture is the top priority. All developmental works are being done while considering the traditional architecture by using local materials and patterns,” he maintains.
That is not enough to convince conservationist architects. The remodelling of Srinagar city, says one of them (who is not willing to be named), must address the ageing infrastructure, and cultural and environmental assets of the city. “New constructions can bring positive changes through modern technology and economic growth, but careful planning is necessary to protect Kashmir’s architectural identity.”
The sustainable solutions being talked out include involving the local community, using locally sourced materials, conducting heritage impact assessments, and creating pedestrian-friendly environments that evoke the spirit of Kashmir.
Another architect, who too prefers anonymity, feels the preservation of local architecture appears to have been overlooked in the Smart City project. “It lacks a thorough assessment of the resilience of the traditional architecture against potential threats such as earthquakes.”
Lal Chowk changes
People would avoid entering Lal Chowk because of congestion and traffic jams, says Nisar Ahmad Shahdhar, general secretary of the Miasuma Traders Association. “Now, Lal Chowk has become visually appealing and roads have become uniform. Pathways have been widened for people to walk with ease. It will definitely increase the stay time of customers and improve our business,” he says.
A conservation architect holds contrarian views. He feels Lal Chowk has been completely concretised under the guise of rejuvenation. “It’s now devoid of any greenery. The neglect of the historical context of the city is evident in the project’s generic and contextually disconnected solutions.”
longing for change
Amid the debate, some locals have a funny, and perhaps a realistic, take. Javed Ahmad Dar of Parraypora locality wants the G20 events to be postponed so that the scope of the infrastructure development projects can be expanded. “We are seeing Srinagar being renovated at such a pace for the first time. We have no reason to believe that work will continue at this scale and with such intensity after the G20 meetings are over,” he says.
“The situation is relatively peaceful and we are expecting a good tourist season. The G20 event will inspire confidence among potential foreign tourists. I am sure it will send out a positive message globally,” says Nasir Hussain Shah, a top hotelier.
Safina Baig, who is the DDC chairperson, Baramulla, and heads the J&K Haj Committee, feels the G20 summit carries immense promise for the future of Kashmir. “Influential leaders coming here reflects international recognition of the region’s importance, and the need to address its longstanding challenges of foreign tourist arrival and investment,” she says.
It’s a sentiment that not many in the troubled Valley would disagree with.
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