Into the Marsh

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Hundreds of villagers in Dal lake took hard cash and moved out to live far away from the water body. But in Rakhi Aarath, one of the most ambitious projects of the government – which is part of an estimated Rs 1100 crore spending for restoring the lake, Umar Mukhtar found residents lamenting over the loss of their identity and livelihoods

Till 2014, Nazir Ahmad Sheikh was living a happy life in Sheikh Mohalla, one of the 58 hamlets within the Dal Lake. But Lakes and Water development Authority (LAWDA), the sole organisation taking care of the lake’s well being, asked Sheikh to abandon his two-storey house and shift to Rakhi Aarath, in Bemina outskirts.

Assured of rehabilitation, Sheikh moved out of his home within days after the September 2014 floods. In sector B9, he set up a temporary tin shed and since he and his family are living there.

Three years later, Sheikh regrets the decision. In the lake, he said, they had every facility at their doorstep but Rakhi Aarath has nothing.

“We were living in a clean environment but here we live in the dust,” Sheikh said, adding, most of the people who came from the lake have fallen sick and are suffering from many chest ailments. Terming the rehabilitation “an organised loot” of peoples’ homes and property, Sheikh said they cooperated with the government for a good cause. “In return, we only got sufferings.”

The biggest crisis for the migrants has been the loss of their professions. “We used to grow vegetables and make a living but here we sit idle all the day and kill it chatting at the shop fronts,” Sheikh said. “From an economic hub, we are pushed to a jungle.”

Rakhi Arth is a housing settlement developed by the government to accommodate the Dal dwellers who will be relocated. The basic plan envisages all basic facilities like schools, parks and health centres. The settlement is part of a larger multi-faceted initiative aimed at delaying the death of the lake, the epicentre of tourism forced to function as Srinagar’s kidney. The plan has initiated over the years.

In 1986,  Socio-Economic Survey, there were three villages – Asithal, Abi Karpora and Nandpora, in the lake which had 58 hamlets. After enumerating 2532 structures, the government imposed a ban on further constructions. It was planned to relocate them out of the lake. Interestingly, the people living in the lake have propriety rights over the water as well. So the government has to pay for houses, as well as the waterway.

After the Government of India approved Dal lake conservation and rehabilitation under National Lake Conservation Programme (NLCP) and provided Rs 298.76 crore, LAWDA, created to implement it, started identifying and acquiring the structures. It had not more than Rs 90 crore segment for acquiring properties within the lake.

In 2010, 631 structures located between Saidakadal and Ashai Bagh were also identified as a threat to the lake and it was decided they also need to be acquired and relocated. The Government of India agreed to fund Rs 356 crore under the Prime Ministers’ Rehabilitation Package (PMRP) in November 2006, of which nearly Rs 100 crore have reached the LAWDA.

So cumulatively, the government will have to acquire 3163 structures within and outside the lake. Besides, it also has to 21044 kanals of land – read water surface, from the lake.

“Till date, we might have acquired 918 structures and 8755 kanals of land,” a senior LAWDA official said, wishing not to talk on the record. “Of these 615 structures (families living in them) were settled in eight different housing colonies.”

With UEED, the LAWDA set up eight small settlements in and around the city: the housing colonies of Punchkarwari, Fishermen, Habibullah Nowshehri, Bemina, Bota Kadal, Agro Bagh, JKPCC and Davidee Bagh.

With 615 having a new address, this still required 323 structures which were acquired but not re-settled. Besides, there are still 2225 structures not acquired. The serious thinking over it led to the initiation of the Rakhi Aarat housing plan that would cost Rs 416.26 crore. Unlike all other lake-related projects, the government of India is funding only around one-fourth of it and the balance has to come from state coffers. Though almost Rs 100 crore has been released, the pace is too slow.

Regardless of the quality of the Rakh, usually meaning a sort of a grazing ground, the Rakhi Aarath is an ambitious project. Spread over 7526 kanals of land, the basic plan suggests 4000 kanals will go into plots of 10 marlas for around 8000 households. It is expected to have 1082 kanals under road, 175 kanals of commercial space, 50 kanals under institutions, 150 kanals for educational infrastructure, 189 kanals as playing space, 50 kanals of religious space, 52 kanals for wastage treatment plant as 340 kanals would be shared by high tension power transmission line with graveyards under it.

Officials said 2140 plots are ready and 298 families have already shifted. Earth filing has been done in 1914 kanals. There is only 1.7 km long main road and 6.7 kms of sub-main roads.

Officials admit a sluggish pace. “Or work in the lake is solely dependent upon what happens in the Rakh. Even if we acquire new structures, it does not create an impact because they do not leave the lake,” one senior official said. “The housing colony must come up as fast as possible.”

Ghulam Mohammad, 55, is Rakhi Aarath’s another resident. At the Dal Lake, Mohammad was a happy man, living by rolling a shikara.

Mohammad was assured by the LAWDA that apart from compensating him monetarily, one member among each of the families will be provided with a government job. “Three years have passed and we are still waiting for that job.” Mohammad regretted.

Many ‘migrants’ to Rakhi Aarath still lack a graveyard. This summer when Ghulam Mohammad died in old age, his family carried him to their ancestral graveyard at Rainawari, some 12 km away from Rakhi Aarath, to lay him at eternal rest. “We have lost our identity,” said Mohammad. They said they were not compensated for the losses they suffered in 2014 floods.

One hope for the Dal dwellers was that they will leave their aquatic homes and become terrestrial, literally. They allege they landed in a marsh, instead. Mohammad said basic rehabilitation programme entrusted LAWDA to fill the land by six feet but they did only half. Soil system is so unstable that many houses have developed cracks.

“LAWDA told us to build the houses but the land is unsafe as it is sinking here because vibrators were not used at the time of earth filling,” Mohammad said. “We live in constant fear that the houses may collapse on them.”

Taufeeq Ahmad, 30, was hospitality professional, earning by handling tourists, an occasional guide and a frequent Shikra rower. “I was earning a handsome amount there but this rehabilitation proved to be very costly,” Taufeeq said. “I used to work in the lake from the crack of the dawn up to the twilight of the dusk.”

Reaching the lake means a daily up-down of about 20 km that devours two hours and almost Rs 50 as bus fare. “In the lake, every family member was earning but here I am the sole breadwinner for the entire family,” said Taufeeq.

Taufeeq said the families that moved out of the lake have become model de-motivators for those still putting up in the water body. “When they see what has befallen us, they have a valid reason for not moving out,” Taufeeq said. “There are plots allotted to those families also but why would they shift to such a place where they will have miseries.”

There are no facilities around. There is no drainage system in place, no black-topped roads, no street lighting. “We are in a slum,” a woman, who has spent most of her life in the lake, said.

To induce their identity crisis, they are literally caught in administrative problems – they are migrating from Srinagar to the area that falls in Budgam. Officials said they preferred Budgam for the cultural affinity but in the movement of papers, it is adding to their tensions.

“For documentation, we do not know where to go. It is becoming a very serious problem for us,” said Ghulam Hassan Sofi, a shopkeeper.

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