Death of a town

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The once serene old towns of Kashmir have lost their charm, thanks to the apathy of successive governments. Hamidullah Dar reports the neglect of south Kashmir’s biggest town, Islamabad
Some years back, the longest journey that most people in the villages in south Kashmir took was to the town of Islamabad. It often took an hour or two by a bus – the multi coloured bus lingered in every village on the way. The bus conductors, however, were some sort of local celebrities. Men attached to a symbol of modernity and progress to the bus and the two people who drove the bus and collected bus fare from passengers that came and went to the “town.”
Islamabad or Anantnag was a word spoken in revered tones in these villages. The villagers dressed carefully, tried to fight their self-consciousness, their awkwardness as they prepared for the encounter with the hub of urbanity, the centre of education, the heart of power in their small worlds.  The “town” was where the courts, where the powerful judges and lawyers sat, waiting for the villagers to arrive with their complaints. The “town” was where the Deputy Commissioner, the one with the white ambassador car with a red top, worked and lived. The town was where the hawkers raised their voices in bus stands, announcing the news of the world, spiced up, and ready to serve. And the town was where the villagers came every Eid in their buses to catch a movie at the only theatre in the second biggest district of Kashmir – Heevan Cinema.
Islamabad spread between high hills and the Jhelum; the old town was densely populated but a town where you could walk. There were enough footpaths for pedestrians, leaving motorists free to speed by. The hoofs of the Tonga horses provided a melodious score, as they ferried people from the peripheral villages to Islamabad. In 1986, when entire Kashmir had only 60,000 vehicles, Islamabad had taken it easy with a mere 7,000.
But the leisured old days of Islamabad seem to have ended long back. Villagers still arrive, now in Tata Sumos and Maruti cars. But their reverence is gone. They scoff at Islamabad. The roads leading to Islamabad have shrunk like clogged nostrils. The bulldozing of the encroachments on the Islamabad-Pahalgam has marginally opened some space, but the drive through the inner town is at your own peril.
The inner town of Islamabad was once a maze of streets lined with bazaars of everything money could buy – spices, clothes, copper ware, and electronics. One stepped out of the major market of Reshi Bazar and walked into the soothing shade of the shrine of Reshi Moul. There, hungry and thirsty would get their fill as people would bring food and traditional Kehwa for distribution among devotees. A few yards from the shrine is Sherbagh, a garden that was constructed by Islam Khan, Governor of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb in late 18th century. It was after this governor that the town was named Islamabad. The town was prosperous.
Now the town presents a shoddy look. Abundance of vehicles, particularly private ones, has burdened the roads and the space once occupied by the tawdrily ornamented Tongas has been eaten up by long queues of vehicles. Traffic jams at every crossing is a common sight.
The roads have hardly been widened over the years while the need has leapt manifold. The resulting vehicular chaos has thrown the elegance of Islamabad town into winds. The town has the same road length but the growth in population and the number of vehicles is spilling trouble on them. A simple walk from Mehandi Kadal to Sherbagh will tell the story of abysmally less space available in this ancient town. The footpaths are no more there and the strip of road next to footpaths is occupied by mobile fruit and clothes vendors. One has to walk on the road space left between vendors’ carts and the road divider, bumping against vehicles that drive at a snail’s pace among the jostling people.
As one reaches the DC’s office, an intersection here has everything that brings a sudden halt in the flowing inundation of people, vehicles with a sprinkle of Tongas creating suffocation where people experience an adrenaline rush. Sometimes fists swap between two drivers on slightest provocation of brushing others vehicle slightly. At Rehat Dedi Masjid, the road abruptly constricts to one third making the pedestrians seem part of a rally owing to the congestion. It almost takes half an hour for a vehicle to cover that half a mile distance from Mehandi Kadal to Sherbagh.
Islamabad has produced many politicians of great stature but unfortunately the town’s needs have caught no one’s attention. Some of them have been instrumental in shaping the political future of the state and even many who represented this constituency talk international politics once they get elected. However, every one of them betrayed the area which catapults them from nascence to prominence.
Uneven road surface plummeted with intermittent craters are a plague to life of this town where the vehicular traffic witnessed a five-fold increase during the last 20 years. In an area teemed with such a huge population of vehicles, authorities have failed to cure the menace. By-passes like K P road from other sides of the town could ease the atmosphere within and the planned widening of the roads can bring back the lost glory of Islamabad, which was planned to be constructed anew on the lines of Chandigarh or Jaipur during Indira Gandhi’s regime.
The space of Tonga stands has shrunk so much that many have given up the occupation once for all. About 500 in 1990, there are just 100 of them seen in the town, mostly ferrying goods than commuters. The proliferation of vehicles is considered economic prosperity but when there are no roads to ply smoothly, they become nuisance for one and all. And when someone who claims to be peoples’ representative happens to pass through town, life comes to a standstill as if some spirit has hypnotised all. The VIP weaves his way through the town easily; courtesy the hours of back-breaking hard work by police at the expense of common man’s time. But it needs the sight of a real representative that can discern the pain of a suffocating town ruined by the apathy of its ‘elected’ representatives.
Once, most of the places in the town were named after the bus stands that dotted its peripheries – KMD Adda, Achabal Adda, Mattan Adda, Qazigund Adda, Matador Adda and so on. However, that is now past and all those bus stands, barring Achabal Adda, have been replaced by a joint General bus stand. Achabal Adda has been relocated to the outskirts of District Hospital at Janglat Mandi, where the buses are parked on the road. Under the Roshni Act, a town resident took control of the Achabal Adda land and the case is now being heard in court.
The old KMD Adda, which was a hub of activities  those days, presents a sulking look with most of it fenced by Sumo Taxi drivers and converted into a Sumo Taxi stand. Many a times, the legality and authorisation of the Sumo Taxi stand was challenged, but no one knows why it is still there. Outside its fence, the road is simply rough enough to witness scores of falls and bleedings daily. During rains, this patch of Islamabad is inundated and everyone who happens to pass through has to remove his foot wear, roll up trousers and then slash across.
Across, there is the general bus stand that unlike any other bus stand is just an amalgamation of buses, Sumos, Trucks, pull carts, vendors and of course thousands of passengers who are awestruck to find buses to their destinations. It takes almost 15 minutes for a bus to leave the limits of the jammed bus stand.
A town bestowed with natural water resources in the form of springs, has little or no water management at all. The famous Sherbagh spring gushes gallons of pure crystal clear water but after circumventing the net of concrete streams in the garden, the water stream of water converts into a filthy drain. A bathroom tucked against the wall of this 18th century garden has been converted into a toilet, an immediate polluter of the sulphur mixed water. Then on, it is a stinky visual as drains empty themselves. Anywhere, it could have been put to best use but here, this treasure is wasted away. Way back in 17th century, some disciples of saint Reshi Moul Sahib constructed underground channels from Malaknag to Jama Masjid and brought water through them. Those channels still bring waters though multi-storied buildings stand over them. But the engineers of post modern era take pleasure in witnessing this valuable fluid being wasted.
Today, Islamabad may boast of the abundance of wealth and opulence of luxuries but the old town has died way back. Earlier, it was serenity prevailing everywhere in the town, now it is ubiquitous lifeless surplus. Earlier, it was a joy to visit Islamabad; today it is compulsion that drags one to it.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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