‘Ignored and punished’

A robust business town is decaying fast under crumbling infrastructure and official apathy. Residents believe they are being victimized for their political beliefs, reports Sameer Yasir

It is a town with a population of around 100 thousand. An important trading centre, almost all financial institutions operating in the valley have a presence in Sopore. Ideally, a town generating an economy of more than Rs 2000 crores a year should be thriving and developed.

“It would have been, if it was not Sopore,” says a trader associated with the local traders union.

The town has terrible potholed roads, almost no amenities, no working drainage system or even a reliable supply of potable drinking water. Traffic jams clog the town but no traffic policeman can be seen in the town. Cops think horse-driven carts do not require management!

“The only government presence is the police and other security agencies deployed in the town,” says one among a group of elders, this reporter talked to. They allege that Sopore has been left out of the development sphere of the government because of its “political and ideological orientation” and there is nobody caring what happens to this once thriving town. “The ideological affiliations of residents of this town have made it an eyesore for successive governments,” they said.

There is nothing official. But it seems the policy makers in the state administration see Sopore’s underdevelopment partly because of the system’s preoccupation with managing militancy. Sopore is the only major town in J&K where from armed militancy related incidents are still reported. Official circles refer Sopore more as a “rebel town” than an “apple town”. Police officials have been consistently maintaining that militancy is being fed from areas like Sopore.

Mohammed Ashraf Ganai, who heads Sopore Traders Federation says, “When insurgency erupted in valley the developmental issues took backseat. Even when militancy was on its peak, development didn’t get halted in any district but it remained frozen in Sopore.”

Ashraf believes that the town has “always suffered because of poor representation in the government”. Last two assembly members including the present incumbent representing Sopore constituency were from adjoining villages.

Former MLA from Sopore Abdul Rashid Dar of Congress claims that he tried to do everything to take up the developmental issues in Sopore. “Be it roads or beautification of graveyard it has been done in my time,” Dar said. “There is nothing new happening in Sopore these days.”

Dar believes his rival Mohammad Ashraf Ganai could have done much more for Sopore because he belonged to the ruling party. “But he has never visited Sopore after winning the assembly elections in 2008.” Ganie denies the allegation.

He says in the initial days after his election he had tried to come to Sopore and talk to people but “no one turned up for these meetings.” Historically, Ganai said, Sopore has always been represented by people who were not residents of the town. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Geelani who has represented the constituency thrice does not live in Sopore.

Whether people don’t come to the rulers or rulers ignore them, it is a fact that Sopore town is ignored by the establishment, as can be gleaned by its crumbling infrastructure,” says Ashraf of the traders federation.

MLA Ganie says that he has proposed major development plans for Sopore, which includes a road from Jamia Qadeem to Wallur so that “tourism in the area would get a boost”. Last year, he says more than 70 per cent of roads in the interiors were macadimized.

But what has Sopore to do with tourism where you don’t even have a small public park? Sopore has always been a business town, which has always contributed immensely to the state economy.

Sopore’s core business is the apple and it produces substantial quality of the overall Kashmir produce. “From Sopore mundi, we sold 76 lakh boxes to different markets this year which is less than 1.41 crore boxes of last year,” Javed Ahmad Khan, Director Horticulture (Marketteing) told Kashmir Life. “It was because the production was less and most of it was hail hit.” The road connecting the wholesale fruit market with the town was repaired last year after 11 years.

Malik says that that the J&K Horticulture department (Marketing) had appointed an officer for the Sopore mundi who was supposed to “help traders but instead has become a headache”. After the association lodged a complaint with the chief minster the officer was removed from the post but after sometime he joined back at the same post.

The department, according to Malik collected between 70 to 80 lakh rupees as the entry fee to the mandi from vehicles. But no one knows where the money had gone? This money, Malik says, was supposed to be spent for the development of fruit mandi.

Sopore Fruit Mandi receives traders from all over India. Established in 1988, the fruit mandi was a Rs 38 crore project. “It has been 23 years and only Rs 12 crores stand spent, so far. Of this Rs 4 crores were spent on making sheds. It has 400 kanals of land,” says Malik. “Look anywhere and you would see water logged lanes and rut. It has been years since it was macadamized.”

“The traders have been demanding a cold storage facility, but the government never built one though it could have earned handsomely,” says another fruit trader who refused to reveal his identity. Even private sector is not encouraged. While there are three major controlled atmosphere storage (CAS) units in south Kashmir, there is not even one in north, especially Sopore that is a major producer.

But the town is not only about trade and armed militancy, says a retired teacher Noor Mohammed. The town that gave Kashmir the first MBBS in 1931 takes their children’s education seriously.

The Sopore Degree College was one of the main centers of higher education in north Kashmir just a couple of decades back, says Mohammed. Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the then prime minster of J&K had laid its foundation stone on Sep 27, 1951.

“There has been tremendous increase in staff, infrastructure and facilities besides introduction of new courses in other colleges, but Sopore College has hardly changed. Ask anybody who has studied in the college in 1950’s or 1960’s he will tell you that not much has changed except that the roll of students has increased manifold,” says Mohammed. A fire gutted the college in early 1990’s. It was rebuilt over the same edifice without changing the design of the old building.

Disliking the co-education, residents have been demanding a women’s college. But the government did not oblige them. So the town set up its own college for women that was destroyed in another fire on Jan 6, 1993.

“The Boys college now is a co-ed college. The government recently opened a women’s college on the outskirts of the town but it has just a few courses. I mean it is just coming up,” says Mohammed. The “now-co-ed-boys” college doesn’t have a ground of its own. A teacher admitted that it is chaotic during summers when session is on as college premises is full of students.

Principle Sopore College Prof Nasreen Malik has joined last June. She says she is trying to do everything possible to take the college to the “new heights”. “But there is a pause on everyone’s face when they come to know that you have to do anything in Sopore,” she said.

Inviting politicians to preside over functions in the college would have helped but, as an Assistant Professor said, “We can’t call any politician for anything because the environment outside is not conducive and actions have repercussions.” The standard and level of education here, the teacher said, is going down or at least is unable to keep pace with the changing times.

“Sopore had more than one private English medium schools when Christian missionaries-run schools were the only places of quality learning in the rest of Kashmir,” said Noor Mohammad.

The town is growing in all directions and ugly residential colonies have come up everywhere. As the old residential areas are congested, run down and rotting, the newer ones are poorly planned and outright ugly. Large mansion-like-houses are barely accessible by narrow streets and alleys. Even in the upcoming colonies no road is more than 14-feet wide.

The new colonies, which have come up, are poorly planned and the old ones are congested, broken and chaotic, says a local architect.

Mohammed Maqbool, a 75-year-old resident of Jamia Qadeem locality says he has not seen any development happening in his area from decades. The areas like Chankhan, Jamia Qadeem, Hatishah and Ningli, according to him, have suffered badly since 1990’s. “These are poorest pockets of Sopore. We don’t bother what government will do for us. They have not been able to provide us with clean drinking water from decades,” he says.  The water woes in Sopore seem to be tragic as Asia’s biggest fresh water lake is just outside the town. “Half of Sopore receives unfiltered water and the rest doesn’t get it at all,” says Maqbool.

The government had announced that it would releases 32 crore rupees  to upgrade the water supply infrastructure in Sopore. “But it only reminded confined to the statements,” he added.

The town has a Sub District hospital, which has been under construction for more than 25 years now. The Block Medical Officer at the hospital Dr Masood, who has earlier worked in Delhi, complained about the working atmosphere in valley. “Almost 80 per cent of the construction is left midway because of shortage of funds. The only completed thing of this ambitious project is its OPD,” he said.

Compared to an average of 120-150 patients that sub-districts hospitals get across Kashmir, the one in Sopore receives 700 patients in its OPD daily. One fourth of them needs to be admitted, says Dr Masood. The hospital is facing an acute shortage of doctors and paramedical staff with only three surgeons on rolls.

Sopore is suffering, says Mohammad Sayeed Khan, who retired as Secretary GAD last week. Khan was appointed as Special Commissioner north Kashmir at the peak of 2010 unrest that helped him to understand the crisis. “Those were mostly curfewed days but I tried to understand the factors that make the belt restive,” Khan told Kashmir Life from Jammu. “When I would visit the lanes and roads it would look deserted, backward and haunted.”

Khan was there for a brief stint but he had series of interactions with the residents who never participated in the elections after 1987. “They took me to see the water supply scheme and I was astonished to see that the water was being pumped from a spot where the sewage of the town was being dropped,” Khan said. “Even common sense would guide that water lifting point should have been upstream.”

In his detailed report to the chief minister, Khan said there is not a single stadium or a park and youth lack space for routine extra-curricular activities. Even street lighting was absent. “It seemed as if we were entering a graveyard so I suggest the cemeteries be fenced,” Khan said. “Locals had many issues and I listed all the basic requirements in the report.”

Of the Rs 35 crore Khan sought from the government, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah released Rs 11 crore almost instantly. “A number of issues were solved and I believe the rest of it might have been planned,” Khan said. It was the same pattern that was later applied to the old Baramulla town.

Khan says the “little interactions” he had with the people helped him to see the pathetic condition of people very closely. “A large segment of population in Sopore is living much below the poverty line and at the peak of crisis I ordered the Food Department to issue them ration on loan,” Khan said. “As the situation improved there was no default.”

The families whose youth were killed, Khan says were living in pathetic conditions. “I remember the boy who was killed while going to prayers and it was his mother who would work in the nighbourhood houses and earn for the family of five including four daughters,” Khan said. He visited the family that had their son killed and both the parents paralyzed.

“I do not know what happened to the family that was one of the five families living in almost 100 year old house,” Khan said. “They also had lost their son and were living in abject poverty.” If, Khan believes, the families I visited would be made basis of a sample survey, then the town is in a very bad shape.

For the overall infrastructural development the government had released Rs 5.14 crore last year under the Special Area Development Programme meant for creating basic amenities in Sopore town. Under the programme, Rs.11.25 crore are to be spent on the project. The released money has been used for 14 development works in the town, Deputy Commissioner Baramulla, Bashir Ahmed Bhat said.

Bhat says the money which was released last year has already been spent. “For providing safe drinking water rupees 50 lakh have spent. For the electricity line for sub district hospital an Rs 18 lakh has been spent and for the essential feeder for it 22 lakh has been provided. For the same hospital Ambulances worth 27 lakh has been purchased,” he added.

He also says that next year the government will be spending same amount of Rs 5 crore on the town.
“Forget the government, the J&K Bank’s CSR initiatives like building parks and helping hospitals is a nice thing but the bank has ignored Sopore when they have a thriving business in the town and are earning good money here,”  a businessman said.

It has created a situation that people avoid talking to strangers. Explains a businessman, who wishes to remain anonymous: “This is a forsaken town. More than two dozen people have been detained over allegations of helping an injured militant get medical care, did anybody report it? Do you know how many of them are still behind the bars?”

The latest on Sopore front: Deputy Chief Minister Tara Chand flew to Sopore on January 30 and addressed Congress workers.

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