R S Gul
For a little over three km stretch in the heart of Srinagar, the meandering Jhelum looks a bit pampered, especially when compared to the city itself.
Encroachments removed, parks laid along the banks from Sonawar to Tankipora and exquisite parquets dazzling with cool recreational spots in the background. All fruit of the labour put in by authorities in the last four years.
Encouraged, the officials now are looking forward to the second part of the Jhelum beautification project. The project, if approved, will extend the river’s manicured parks and impressive slopes up to Chatabal.
Everyone though is not impressed.
Abdul Gani, a resident of Abi Guzar, Lal Chowk, overlooking the beautified banks of the river finds the development of his neighbourhood good, but insists the parks better be maintained instead of laid and forgotten.
The project – primarily controlling soil-erosion and beautifying the banks, was first suggested by Indian prime minister Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru to J&K’s first Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah.
Decades later it was taken up by Sheikh’s nemesis Mufti Sayeed at the fag end of his government.
The project is jointly implemented by Irrigation and Flood Control, Tourism, and Gardens and Parks departments under the supervision of divisional commissioner.
“Jobs assigned to us are over but sister organizations may have to do a bit more to complete it totally,” Altaf Ahmad, an engineer with Irrigation & Flood Control department told Kashmir Life. Of Rs 25.55 crores allocated for the project, the overall expenditure till now is over Rs 18 crores. “Though both the banks have been converted into parks, one can conveniently say there are three major parks on the banks now,” he added.
For the project, removal of encroachments and rehabilitation was a major challenge. “There were a total of 495 encroachments on either side of the banks and we have removed, so far, 458 of them. Of them, 314 have been rehabilitated at other places,” says Ahmad. The rehabilitation included offering alternative plots to families for constructing houses in city periphery, mostly in Bemina.
Apart of the encroachment were the age-old dilapidated dongas. These were also considered to be a source of disrepute for some were allegedly involved in anti-social activities.
So far, Ahmad said, they have removed 43 of 63 dongas. “But most of the houseboats are there,” he said. “Of the 109 house boats, the tourism department has de-recognized 40 and they will have to be removed.” Some of them have gone to court resisting their removal.
Once commissioned the project would provide scenic sights and boating to visitors. That can also provide residents along the banks some livelihood.
The second phase envisages extending the development of banks by another 4.945 kms up to Chatabal. Sources in the government said it involves removing 433 encroachments of which 320 are residential. There are 37 Dongas and no houseboat in this stretch. Though a pre feasibility report is approved and detailed project report ready for consideration, the officials said they are unaware if restoration of famous Veir at Chatabal would be made part of it or not. Veir was a retreat for Kashmir’s autocratic rulers that later became a hotspot for nature lovers. Time took its tool and it is in a bad shape now.
While the government looks ahead to the second phase, there are fears of the first phase getting undone for lack of upkeep. Residents witness to the change say the transition is impressive, but say the government, for maintenance, must hand these over to a department with emphasis on accountability.
The residents along the Bund at the Abi Guzar resent vehicular traffic along the banks. “For a long time even cycling was not permitted on the Bund but now it pains that there are vehicles parked there,” said another resident Farooq Ahmad. This has to be open for joggers only.