From Sangam in south Kashmir to Asham in north, Jhelum’s serpentine course is literally battling for its space. The river that once witnessed an epic Battle of Hydaspes on its banks is now in row of claims, stakes and discourses. Following the track of Kashmir’s lifeline, Bilal Handoo reports the larger crisis that has angered the water body

Jhelum at Bijbehara by James Duffield Harding in 1847.(Jhelum at Bijbehara by James Duffield Harding in 1847.)

It was turning out to be a routine evening for Mushtaq Bhat until a radio announcement set him tizzy in late March 2015: “Government is mulling to remove Jhelum encroachments!” He grew restless — as he is one among the 35 families who live in sheds on Jhelum riverbank opposite a tank point in Srinagar’s Badamibagh area.

Some 40km away in south Kashmir’ s Marhama, Ghulam Rasool Dar early that day was facing marching Jhelum that had reached at his doorsteps. A couple of days ago, he was told by some Irrigation and Flood Control (IFC) officials: “Back off from Bund!” But he stayed put in the line of flood, assuming it Jhelum’s passing phase. What made him edgy was the rumour, running rampant in valley: Flood akin to September is about to hit Kashmir.

That night at Srinagar’s Habba Kadal, Fozia was predicting the worst. In less than seven months, she was again getting ready to be homeless in face of swelling Jhelum.

Her home, a shed on riverbank, was about to get submerged. An hour later, marching Jhelum screamingly forced her to run from her home.

A day after, scores of shopkeepers turned at city centre Lal Chowk who started emptying their shops from stock. “There is no point of taking risk,” one shopkeeper said. “I don’t want to end up having September 2014 flood fate,” another said.

At a stone’s throw, breached Bund was escalating fears. “Jhelum will go berserk at any moment now,” some predicted.

But shortly the worst was over. Jhelum mellowed down and assumed a normal course. And thus March 2015 didn’t become September 2014.

A few days later as sun shone over valley, south Kashmir’s Zirpara market located on Jhelum bank in Bijbehara was bustling with life. Nearby, Jhelum was passing peacefully. One side of the bank dotted with shops and sheds blocked Jhekum’s landscape view from the bridge. Close by, an open sewerage pipe flushing everything into the river apparently turned off senses.

Ahead of Zirpara is Marhama (toward Srinagar). Jhelum banks there were buried under sand dunes. Other than peering army, austere faces and donkeys (no pun intended!), sand seemed main sight in this part of south Kashmir. The quest of sand has motivated many villagers to raise their dwelling on riverbank. This, locals said, narrowed down Jhelum borders over the years.

“All these houses you see,” said Mushtaq Mir, a villager pointing to a cluster of houses close to bund in Marhama, “used to be a riverbank in my childhood.” As accumulated sand and unattended silt buried the bund and turned it into a patch of land, “many pounced to have their booty.”

But after decades of onslaught, Jhelum had its “moment of retribution” when it went berserk out of its banks and made people living on them to run for their lives in last fall.

Signs of September devastation were still glaring in the village: flood-torn sheds, uprooted trees and silted banks.

On face of these devastating scenes, one argument on roll is: Messing up with Jhelum has always cost dear to Kashmir. This rolling argument does seem to have mass — as floods in Kashmir have been always linked to Jhelum. And September floods, worst since 1959, only maintained the status quo.

For instance when Jhelum lost its cool in September 1950, it drowned 100 persons to death besides ravaging 15,000 houses.

Seven years later — in fall of 1957, swelling Jhelum submerged the entire valley. Unnerved by the river’s fury, the then Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad told Hindustan Times (on September 2, 1957): “The floods recorded in Jammu and Kashmir were the highest ever recorded in the state, and that the damage caused by them was colossal.”

And then two years later, Jhelum roared again. Four days of nonstop rainfall in July 1959 forced Jhelum to run through human habitations. “The swirling flood waters of the Jhelum River touched 30.25 feet on 5 July, over six points above the danger level,” The Hindu reported.

The roaring Jhelum and torrential rainfall in mountains pushed Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru back to plains. “There can be no doubt about the calamity that has descended upon the Jammu and Kashmir state because of these floods,” Nehru later said. “What is distressing is that many of the development works which have been built up in recent years have been washed away and we have to start anew.”

Back in valley then, Bakshi had started dredging in Jhelum on larger scale after witnessing two major floods during his tenure as state’s premier. It is said that Bakshi was the last ruler who invested massively on Jhelum by improving its banks.

Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad is being credited for improving Jhelum bunds.(Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad is being credited for improving Jhelum bunds.)

But 55 years later, Jhelum banks are dotted with human habitations. Those habitations or encroachments start not far from Jhelum’s fountainhead that lies at the foothill of Pir Panjal in south Kashmir’s Verinag.

Amid encroached banks, as Jhelum starts taking its serpentine course, many tributaries feed it, including Vishav, Romush, Dudhganga, Sukhang, Liddar, Ferozpore Nullah, Sind Nullah and a few streams from Tral. And last tributary after it passes into Wular Lake is Pohru stream that drains the Lolab Valley and enters Jehlum at Dubgam in north Kashmir’s Sopore. With total length of 725km, Jhelum is itself a tributary of the Chenab river.

Jhelum passes through three major districts of Kashmir province – Islamabad, Srinagar and Baramulla – before entering Pakistan side of Kashmir, where it is famously known as Kashur Daraya.

But to its woe, Jhelum’ isn’t merely feed by tributaries. It also receives countless sewers in the form of dirty channels and countless surface drains. They enter the river without pre-treatment, discharging huge quantities of domestic and other wastes. This has reduced Jhelum into a dumping ground.

Such treatment with Jhelum, however, wasn’t always part of life in Kashmir.

A quick rewind of so-called repressive Dogra rule reveals: Polluting water bodies was a punishable act.

“Maharaja Hari and his predecessors were quite mindful of the importance of Jhelum and other water bodies for Valley’s normalcy,” said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, a Kashmiri poet-historian. “Had he been around today, he would have thrown entire Kashmir into jail for making muck of Jhelum — the lifeline of Kashmir.”

Amid its present pathetic state, an overall scientific study to unravel the river’s rot remains elusive till date. And for this, many flay State Pollution Control Board and other bodies for failing to undertake research work to find out means for Jhelum’s maintenance.

Apart from elusive scientific research, absence of deterrence is equally putting Jhelum at an unremitting human onslaught. Amid this anarchy, Jhelum is battling against the bottlenecks created in its course.

In south Kashmir, where Jhelum’s mother source lies, the river is under relentless risk. Illegal constructions at places like Khanabal, Bijbehara, Sangam, Halmula, Kakpora, Samboora and Padhgampura dot the riverbank.

At Sangam in south Kashmir — one of three spots where the level of Jhelum is being gauged, apart from Ramunshi Bagh (in Srinagar) and Asham (in Bandipora) — habitation on the riverbank is at peace with life.

“All these years, these habitations swelled under the very nose of flood control department, which is now issuing summon to bank dwellers to retreat,” said Jehangir, a resident of Sangam.

This lanky man from Sangam wasn’t wrong. Shortly after the 2014 September floods, IFC was activated by JK High Court’s decree (in Oct 2014), directing it to remove and stay all constructions from Jhelum banks and its tributaries. “You see, it took a massive flood to wake up the flood department against the encroachments,” Jehangir continued.

Well before floods struck the valley, the judiciary had directed IFC (in 2013 summer) to take necessary action for removal of encroachments and obstructions along the river banks. But, as Jehangir pointed out, IFC simply shrugged off the judicial direction. “The end result of such indifference became clear to everyone in last September,” he said.

Even after the 2014 September floods, IFC took its time at act against the riverbank encroachments. But the moment flood threat was again declared in the valley in March 2015, a stern judicial warning was shot to IFC: “Act or face the music!”

This time the direction was taken seriously. IFC sent its demolition squad with JCBs to raze Jhelum bank encroachments at Srinagar’s Parimpora. The action triggered a fierce reaction. And shortly, the demolition squad winded up what it had started with a renewed adrenaline rush!

But before passing through twists and turns, Jhelum discourse saw DC Islamabad doing some quick fact-finding exercise on the 2014 September floods. While simplifying the flooded complex, he blamed Jhelum encroachments for triggering massive floods.

The remark came at a time when an official expert committee was tasked to do a flood post-mortem. And the moment the final report was out, it became known — “Only one by the fifth of Jhelum bund has been left out without encroachment!”

The report maintained that breaches in Islamabad, Bijbehara and in other villages during September floods occurred due to constructions and plantations along the river banks. This revelation was a clear dent to the official position that claims — “22415 trees have been axed on Jhelum bund.”

A peaceful co-existence of plantation and construction in places like Kakapora, Koil, Nayen, Ratnipora and other places not only mocks these figures but also violates the judicial verdict.

At certain places, instead of plantations or constructions, Jhelum bunds have been turned into commercial spaces. Brick kilns, stone crusher units and macadam plants dot the riverbank in south Kashmir’s Wokhoo, Marval and Kandizal villages. These units are owned by some big-shots whose contacts supposedly ran deep in the system. This provides them with enough impunity to face the law, locals said.

Jhelum passing through Srinagar’s Zero bridge. Pic: Bilal Bahadur(Jhelum passing through Srinagar’s Zero bridge. Pic: Bilal Bahadur)

The same anarchy prevails once Jhelum enters Srinagar. An erstwhile boatmen community living on riverbank sheds at tank point Badamibagh is a glaring sight of encroachment. This community with 35 families are mainly into sand mining for a living. They are assertive enough to admit that they have occupied a crucial space. “But, we are living here for the last 80 years,” said Mushtaq Bhat, a community member. “Before rendering us homeless, state govt must rehabilitate us.”

On the face of the ‘pack up’ summons shot by IFC, a simmer is rising in the riverbank community, demanding suitable rehabilitation, if their sheds would be devoured by the demolition.

In Srinagar, deteriorating doongas (small one-storied boats) have paved the way to riverbank huts. The unchecked growth of such structures has led to the filling up of Jhelum tributaries, like Doodhganga. These structures have turned these pockets into ghettoes, waned Jhelum’s beauty and stirrup up nostalgia in people — if not a collective will to heal the rot.

“Jhelum was life to city dwellers from ancient times,” Zareef said. “It was used for navigation, community bathing, drinking and for water sports.” There was a time, he said when Jhelum banks would light up with festive looks. “School children dressed in colourful uniforms would wave flags to Daryave Jaloos (water parade) that used to move from Chattabal (Vir) to Lal Chowk,” Zareef said.

But now the same Vir looks strangulated due to encroachment. From Dubji ghat to Chattabal, locals said, “it is impossible to undo the damage — unless something extraordinary step would be taken to give a facelift to the existing blemished face of Jhelum”.

Though Chattabal-Shivpora stretch was given facelift during Jhelum beautification drive in 2007, but, said a Chattabal local, “nothing great was ever done to stop encroachments.” Encroached and silted Jhelum, he said, “has made the process of reviving the river a herculean task!”

But the task doesn’t seem ‘herculean’ — at least for authorities, after implementation of the Water Regulation Act (WRA). The Act has made the task for authorities easier, as they can file challan against the offenders — that too without seeking police consent.

The official inaction, however, has set off a sense in the public that an ironic pair of law and lawlessness has made a perfect peace in Kashmir!

In spite of being armoured with WRA, the authorities appear reluctant to act against riverbank encroachers in many pockets of the summer capital. “This government inaction has put our lives at risk,” said a Shivpora resident, decrying that the encroachments have reduced the original width of the riverbank in the area.

“It was the first point where flood water entered into the city in September 2014,” he said. “Due to encroachments, the bund has become too weak that it can be easily breached.” The same state of affairs is prevailing in nearby Batwara-Raj Bagh Jhelum bank, where many encroachments have come up, thus making the area flood-prone.

In Kashmir, where floods aren’t an uncommon feature, many flood warnings were issued time and again: encroaching banks can backfire any time when roaring Jhelum would reclaim its original borders. In last fall, all warnings rested, when crestfallen deluge shook the state.

And once flood scrutiny began, major blame was put on city expansion. Since 1900, it is argued, stretching Srinagar devoured the Jhelum flood basin. Even state revenue records don’t keep it a secret: “Upscale residential areas, left of the Jhelum, are its old flood basin.”

As a matter of fact, Walter Lawrence, the British land revenue settlement commissioner of Dogra Maharaja Pratap Singh, noted in his celebrated book, ‘Valley of Kashmir’: “This huge flood basin had taken the brunt of the 1893 deluge and formed a huge lake right up to the present central Kashmir’s Badgam district.”

What Lawrence termed a “huge flood basin” is now present-day Rajbagh, Kursoo, Jawahar Nagar, Gogjibagh, Wazir Bagh, Chanapora, Natipora, Bemina, Qamarwari and among others.

Jhelum submerged all these areas and thus again demarcated its flood basin. And in fury, it claimed over 200 human lives besides making muck property worth billions.

Even after creating large scale devastation, some crucial loopholes were left unplugged — like unattended breached bunds.

Breached Bund near Abi Guzar in Srinagar during September 2014 floods. Pic: Bilal Bahadur(Breached Bund near Abi Guzar in Srinagar during September 2014 floods. Pic: Bilal Bahadur)

But unlike the present dispensation, the erstwhile rulers of Kashmir weren’t taking any chances with Jhelum. As per the first well-documented flood (of July 21, 1893), 59 hours of nonstop rainfall swelled Jhelum that flooded miles of land.  Apart from many houses, all the bridges expect Amira Kadal was destroyed.

After that flood, the Jhelum bank was strengthened and the new bund came up. Lawrence noted: “This was the first of ‘Great Flood’ in recent history after which modern preventive measures were started.”

On July 24, 1903, the second of the great flooding in modern times submerged the whole valley. A Kashmiri poet of that time named Hakim Habibullah wrote a work titled ‘Sylab Nama’ based on that flood. This flood later led to the first proper scientific approach to control the floods in Kashmir.

One year after that flood, a spill channel was excavated above Srinagar. It proved much helpful in protecting Srinagar. And by 1907, dredging in Jhelum started from Baramulla.

1891 census of Jammu and Kashmir revealed that around 34,000 boatmen were using Jhelum as Kashmir’s only highway. Over the years as dredging became a matter of official priority, silt kept accumulating in Jhelum. It reduced Jhelum’s water retention capacity besides narrowing down its borders.

“One of the reasons that prevented Baramulla and Sopore from flooding in 2014 September floods was large scale dredging in Jhelum there,” said Javid Jaffar, Chief Engineer IFC.

Like Srinagar, as Jhelum leaves for north Kashmir, its banks remain dotted with plantation and constructions at many places.

Ahead of Asham, a row of poplar trees have come up along the bank in Hajin, Bandipora. In case of strong winds, these trees could damage the entire bank, “which is already receding”. And till Jhelum reaches Muzaffarabad, the dotted banks remain its feature.

But central to Kashmir’s identity — Jhelum or Hydaspes (in Greek) saw King Zian-Ul-Abidin Budshah paying considerable attention to it. And it was on its banks that saw Alexander the Great fighting the toughest battle of his life. Battle of Hydaspes has some lessons to offer though: Jhelum doesn’t always make it easy — if subjected to confrontation. Perhaps flood-hit Kashmir doesn’t need Alexander to reckon that.


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