Heritage Demolished?

The twin-road project to expand the narrow arterial network of roads in old city has altered the demography of the area known for its rich cultural heritage. While the displaced people offer mixed reactions to what the displacement has done to them, the civil society is aghast at the reckless manner in which the demolition was carried out, BILAL HANDOO reports.

The twin road project which passes through the historic narrow lanes and bustling marketplaces of old city in Srinagar has erased an important part of Kashmir’s cultural heritage. The multi-crore road widening project has not only cleared the old picture-perfect structures in old city but has also displaced families forcing them into lifeless neighborhoods.

The existing road from Dalgate to Zakoora which has been rechristened as Syed Merak Shah Road (SMS) and passes through Rainawari and Hazratbal (10.30 kilometers) is one of the busiest routes in the city. A few years back, in order to decongest the historic old city and its feeding arterial roads, the J&K government proposed to widen both the Dalgate- Zakoora road and Khanyar-Zadibal-Pandach (KZP) road.

Both roads will be upgraded to four lanes and the residential properties and commercial structures on either side of roads will be demolished. The Roads and Buildings (R&B) department which is implementing the project would require Rs 336 crore to acquire the property rights of 332 residential structures and 750 shops sitting on 145 kanal land. Once completed, KZP road will pass through Nowhatta, touching the historic Jamia Masjid and SKIMS on its way to Pandach in Ganderbal where it ends.

But the demolition has displaced families residing in old houses which characterized the cultural heritage of old city. The families who lived along these new routes have been scattered in different parts Srinagar. For some, the widening proved to be blessing while for others, it has created a sense of longing and loss.

Shakeel Ahmad lived in a small house near Nowhatta Chowk. The three rooms of his archaic house accommodated eight members of his family. “Life was truly bothersome for us,” said Shakeel. After the authorities came up with a plan to widen the existing road, life has never been the same for him.

Shakeel got a plot of land and Rs 10 lakh as compensation from the government which lifted the economic state of his family. “This road widening was a savior for me and my family,” he said. He is now living a comfortable life at a house he built in Ilahi Bagh.

His neighbor, Showket, who lost both his house and a shop during the ongoing road widening drive, is now living in Parimpora. “Though this place is quiet as compared to the old city, but it has less uncertainty associated with it than where I lived,” said Showket.

For Mushtaq Ahmad, an auto driver from Nowhatta, life changed for better after he was displaced. His existing income was not enough to dream of building a new house. But after his house was demolished, his dream turned to reality. He received a small plot of land and Rs 10 lakh cash which he sold and bought a house in Lal Bazar, “I am now thinking of starting a new business,” he said.

However, the civil society is aghast at the manner in which the government has demolished the old structures without caring for the cultural heritage. Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a noted poet and social activist, said the development plan will create an identity crisis for the displaced people, “Old cities in any nation are a cradle of its culture and tradition. They must be preserved and people from such places should not be displaced. It will lead to an end of cultural practices,” said ever articulate Zareef.

Zareef’s argument has few takers. Khurshid Bhat, a vegetable vendor, dreamed of owning a house. His dream became a reality when he was served a notice by the state government informing him about the road widening project. “Since we loved this place and never wanted to leave it, we were shocked. Later we realized how that our fortunes were changed,” he said. Like others, he also sold the land and is now living in Soura.

Most of the displaced families are living in Ilahi bagh and Parimpora. Some of them are finding it hard to cope with the new surroundings. Nazir Khan, who got a plot of land in Ilahi bagh, sold the land and purchased a house in Lal bazaar. The hustle and bustle of the old city forced him to choose house closer to it. “People from the old city have to face many unexpected changes, not because of our locality but because we get separated from our age old culture and tradition,” he said. —

Sociologists believe the displacment of people could have social implications. Shahzada Salim, a research scholar in Sociology at Kashmir University, feels that displacing populations not only brings affects culture but also creates social disturbances. “How can you expect a person living for years in vibrant ambiance of old city to suddenly find solace in a new place?”

“When the World Bank or the Asian Development Bank announces any such plan, they not only consider resettlement of people but also their rehabilitation without causing any damage to the existing social milieu. Social order forms the core of their projects. But in our case, the social disintegration will be an unfortunate outcome.”

For Abdul Rashid, the resettlement has bought a bag of worries with it. His family was sharing a house in Khanyar area with other three stakeholders. Every now and then, there used to be a battle of egos fought between the occupants. “Certainly we are missing our neighbors and charm of the old city. But we are happy at the same time to find a breathing space without any interference from others,” Rashid’s wife, Shamima, said.

And for a shopkeeper near Naqshband Sahib Shrine, who used to sell pigeon feeds, the sacrifice of his ancestral shop for the sake of road widening has caused a huge concern. He used to earn around Rs 7000 daily. Now, with a new, rented shop and a population displaced, his earnings have been reduced to just Rs 1500.

“The aura of this place has gone with this project,” he said. “Now this place looks deserted soon after the dusk. Only dogs are seen prowling in the area after the night falls.”

Then there are people who owned large properties but have received meager compensation following the government’s policy. Shabnan, a resident of Khanyar, who owned six shops and a house worth around Rs 1.5 crore, received just Rs 70 lakh as compensation. “Earlier I used to earn by renting out shops. Now I have to find an alternative source of income to feed my family,” Shabnum said.

Zareef’s opinion on displacement holds true for the family of Muhammad Ramzan who are facing problems in adapting to the new locality in Ilahi bagh. “The beauty of our old house in the old city was its strong social bond and a true sense of compassion for one another which is missing here,” said Ramzan. It has been four months now since this family has moved to new place but they are still missing the charm of their old home in Khanyar.

Zafar Iqbal, the head of rehabilitation centre of Psychology, Bemina, says the population coming out of strong social bond will find it difficult to adjust to the environment where there will be reduced social interactions. “In old city, life is not only socially healthy but also compassionate in a true sense. People from such environment will have marks of uneasiness on their psyches in an entirely self absorbed society.”


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