Neglected by the government and society, the erstwhile transportation pivot of the city, the Baba Demb lagoon has emerged as a new nuisance for the people. The officials insist they are aware of things and are working overtime to manage it better for posterity, reports Fahd Khan
It has been a literal investment in a bottomless pit. The government has spent huge resources on the renovation of Baba Demb lagoon but its lost glory seems lost forever. It is an open cesspool now.
Also called Brari Numbal – a wetland of cats, Baba Demb is literally a gateway to the Srinagar city, the Shehr-e-Khas. It was this distinction that led the National Conference (NC) to have a towering gate, Babul Iqbal on the main road in 2018. The SMC-constructed gate marks the formal entry into the main city. The tiny water body has its own history.
The lagoon was connecting the Dal lake with the Nala Mar water channel and was used for commuting and transportation of men and materials for at least half a millennium starting from the Budshah era.
When Zainulabideen’s medieval engineers conceived the channel they were primarily looking at creating additional space for the Jhelum water to flow down quickly during the floods; improving water supply to the main city and adding to the waterways for better movement. For all these purposes, the lagoon was a pivot.
The legend goes that the idea to renovate the channel came from a dream in which Budshah saw a snake crawling through the city. However, Sir Aurel Stein, one of the veteran European Kashmir scholars credited for translating Kalhan’s Rajtarangi into English, has stated that Budshah only renovated the channel. In the pre-Budshah era, he has written the channel was perhaps called Mahasarat. Budshah changed it to Nala (canal) Mar (snake).
Nallah Mar emerged as the jugular vein of Srinagar and the Western travellers were so impressed by the waterway snaking around that they started comparing the medieval city with Venice. That is why Srinagar is often referred to as the Venice of the East.
Most of the city started living on its banks. “Nallah Mar’s take-off point was at Baba Demb lagoon, somewhere near where the current Police Station Khanyar is located,” Kashmir’s most known raconteur, ZAreef Ahmad Zareef said. He lives in Shahr-e-Khas. “Many bridges including Nowpora Kadal, Navid Kadal, Bohri Kadal, Saraf Kadal, Kaed Kadal, Rajouri Kadal, Kawdar Kadal and Pachi Kadal, Dumb Kadal, Tarbal Kadal, Narwari Kadal were constructed on the channel or its smaller tributaries.”
Historians suggest that Budshah’s renovation was also aimed at providing water to the Aali Masjid (Eidgah), which was built by his elder brother Ali Shah and also to the farmers of Achan for irrigating their fields. Jamia Masjid already had access to water from a canal in Ganderbal that was also laid during Kashmir’s Sultanate era.
“When Nallah Mar was in full glory, Baba Demb used to be one of the famous tourist attractions. People used to take Dunga rides to the Dal lake, and it was also a route to go to Qamar Sahab via veer, Shadipora and to Ganderbal. Habakadal being the hub of Pandits and the City Centre, Hindus used to go to Kheer Bhawani via Nallah Mar,” recalls Zareef.
The water was crystal clear, and boatmen used to sell vegetables in the canal. Building material like wood, bricks, and sand was also transported to the inner city people via these routes. From Baba Demb to Aali Masjid, it used to have Chinars on both sides, making its view spectacular and picturesque.
The lagoon was home to a wide range of plant and animal species. Its crystal-clear water was consumed in kitchens and it was a key transport transit spot.
Lagoon’s decline is attributed to the 1970s decision to fill the water channel and convert it into a road. Residents, then, had claimed that the channel was in disuse and had become a crisis for the residents as it was an open drain. This choked the lagoon.
Earlier, the lagoon was spread over 5 sq km and after its exit was closed, it shrunk to 0.75 in the last three decades. Encroachments were rampant. Its water quality deteriorated especially after the people living around diverted their sewage and sewerage to the Demb.
Baba Demb is now an exclusive place famous for pawn shops, as most scrap dealers and flea-market biggies operate from the area. They sell almost everything including used construction materials.
Almost every government understood the importance of the lagoon and a policy failure in filling up the channel. That is perhaps why two sewage treatment plants (STP) were installed. One of the STPs is currently managed by UEED Srinagar and the other one by the Jammu and Kashmir Lakes Conversation and Management Authority. The first STP discharges its treated water into the Jhelum near Habba Kadal, while the latter discharges treated water directly into the lagoon.
“Both the STPs are fully functional, and we discharge our treated water into the Jhelum,” Riyaz Ahmad, Assistant Executive Engineer, STP UEED Srinagar said. “The STP managed by JKLCMA discharge treated water directly into the lagoon, but that’s also as per the permissible limits of the National Green Tribunal and the Central Pollution Control Board. Srinagar Smart City Limited is also going to construct 4.5 million litres per day (MLD) STP. They are also constructing a garland conduit, currently, no untreated sewage is going directly, but if there is sometimes, it will go into the garland conduit and will be treated at the proposed STP”
The 16.1 MLD STP is managed by JKLCMA, and the government has already proposed an upgradation and sent DPR. “We have also proposed new STP of 28 MLD based on new technology MBR Membrane Bio-Reactor technology. None of the STP in Kashmir is based on this technology. This new technology would give us treated water with biological oxygen demand of less than 2mg per litre and can be recycled for flushing toilets in hotels and cleaning floors etc. We have sent the plan to IIT Roorkee for testing and DPR to the administration department. Hopefully, we will see a new STP soon”. Ahmad added.
The Government formulated a project in 2013 to renovate the lagoon. The project was approved but funds were not released.
In 2017, the then Chief Minister, Mehbooba Mufti visited the site and directed for its speedy revival. But the 500 kanal of land, that locals own, has proved to be a significant obstacle in the restoration process. Former Deputy Chief Minister Dr Nirmal Singh had approved conservation work on the lagoon at the cost of Rs 16.91 crore under ATAL Mission for Rejuvenation. Also, under the Urban Transformation scheme under the Prime Minister’s Development package, footpaths, kiosks, and food courts were to be constructed along the lagoon for Rs 8.05 crore.
The restoration work did start in 2020. Apart from some fountainheads, jetties and kiosks were constructed along the lagoon’s banks to make it a tourist destination. Now, the jetties and kiosks are in shambles these days as there are no caretakers.
“The lagoon has turned into a cesspool as the sewage from the adjacent areas is drained into it,” Abdul Rahim, a resident, said. “It is home to dead animals, obnoxious weeds, and algae. The roads get inundated by a drizzle. The construction works are on and off, and there is no outcome. Some jetties constructed along the banks have become the hotspot of drug addicts and other illicit activities.”
Rahim said earlier, the lagoon used to be de-weeded intermittently but that has been stopped. “The exit point is said to be at Fateh Kadal, which seems to be non-functional too. Even light rain increases the water levels in the lagoon, posing a threat to the surrounding areas.”
Another resident, Shabir Ahmad Sheikh regrets that the foul smell emanating from the lagoon is a perpetual nuisance for the great city. “The jetties have become a destination for drug addicts,” Shiekh said. “The lagoon, which once helped to regulate the surplus waters of Dal Lake by diverting it to the Jhelum, is now destroying the Jhelum by draining the sewage into it and deteriorating its water also. There is also a Temple in the lagoon, and it’s also neglected. We hope the government finds a permanent solution to the lagoon’s problem.”
Authorities insist the work is in progress. JKLCMA Executive Engineer Feroz Ahmad said that the dredging work is going on, but the beautification work now comes under the ambit of Srinagar Smart City Limited.
“We are building a mechanism to trap the sewage that drains directly into the lagoon and to have a different treatment for the sewage,” Iftikhar A Kakroo, Chief Engineer, Srinagar Smart City Limited, said. “We are also constructing a dedicated STP for the sewage. We are also constructing some wetlands within the lake itself. There is a new concept of creating wetlands so that water quality and oxygen levels increase due to continuous water circulation. We are also doing much bioremediation. We had already tendered it, but there were some problems, and now we are going to re-tender it, and mostly by the end of this year, after everything is sorted out, the project of renovating the lagoon will be taken up”.
Viquar Ahmad, Assistant Engineer, of the UEED STP said the lagoon waters have an exit point at Fateh Kadal. “This outlet is managed by JKLCMA, which is opened once the water level in the lagoon increases,” Ahmad said, insisting that his STP is overloaded. “We have sent a proposal to install more STPs.”