The Old Town with a ‘New’ Face

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The historic old town in Baramulla which played a central role in trade before the 1947 partition of Asian subcontinent is about to see a complete overhaul with widened roads in coming days. Is it only for the sake of development or is there more to it than what meets the eyes, Sameer Yasir reports.

A view of old Baramulla Town -- Photo: Sajad Hussain

A view of old Baramulla Town — Photo: Sajad Hussain

One afternoon, in late December last year, sixteen people sat on a space for ten in the plush, wood-paneled office of deputy commissioner (DC), Baramulla, to discuss the road-widening project in old town of Baramulla. The atmosphere in the meeting was tense and DC, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, was patiently listening to the every one present in the meeting. A sudden silence overpowered the loose talk which was broken by the announcement of Nissar Ahmad, a resident of old town, that he was not ready to give up his ancestral house in Kakarhamam to the government and he unexpectedly walked out.

The meeting between the residents of old town which has a population of around one lakh and the district administration was convened to convince the proprietors of Kakarhamam, whose houses are located in the areas where the government wants to widen the road, to give away their properties so that the government could go ahead with the expansion of the existing road which passes along the Jehlum river in the heart of the town. The meeting ended up without any conclusion, leaving the government officials tad disappointed.

Last year, the J&K government started work on a project called ‘Decongestion of Old Town’. This project was initiated by the Chief Minster, Omar Abdullah and it aims to decongest the old town by remove some of the existing properties to pave way for constructing multi-lane roads in its interior areas.

In late December last year, when some of the residents refused to gave their land up, the project came to a standstill. For the project to become reality, the deputy commissioner had travelled on foot all the way from Azad Gunj to Kakarhamam, the hot bed of militancy in the early nineties, to convince the locals.

Along with the officials, the DC visited the old town and held deliberations with business community and senior citizens of the area. The first step was to widen the Jehlum road into a double lane. The road which starts from Gulnar Park in Azad Gunj and ends in Drangbal area was to be connected with Baramulla-Kupwara road in Azad Gunj and its other end with Srinagar-Muzzafarabad road in Khanpora.

Apart from many houses which were planned to be procured, 120 shops were also to be bought and demolished for expansion. The government has already released Rs 10 crore for the road widening project. But while different departments under the supervision of DC Baramulla worked to make way for the road, the disagreement over the issue of compensation for the houses and land became a roadblock in government’s plans.

“The compensation is not enough even to construct a garage,” says Nissar, whose house is planned to be demolished for the road widening. “Apart from the shop, I will lose my house. Where will I go? They should first think of rehabilitating us in a better way.”

This became the main reason why some people whose houses were to be acquired under this project left the meeting without agreeing to give away their property. One of the house owners is believed to have said in the meeting that if their houses were demolished ‘the entire town would be on roads.’

The government is acuiring seven Kanals of land in the main hub of the old town --Photo: Yaqoob Lala

The government is acquiring seven Kanals of land in the main hub of the old town –Photo: Yaqoob Lala

“They have to move out sometime because there are three to four families living in one house. Apart from the development of the area, we want to rehabilitate them. The place is congested and needs to be decongested,” DC Baramulla, Bashir Ahmad Bhat, a soft spoken officer who is overseeing the negotiations, told Kashmir Life.

In the first phase of the project, 120 shops on the Jehlum road would be demolished and the road widened. Most of these shops are in the main hub of the old town. Authorities say all the shop owners would be given shops in two new shopping complexes which are coming up in Syed Karim and Kakarhaman area.

Senior journalist, Gulzar Ahmad, however, says there is no doubt that the development should take place but it would for sure take away the charm of old town. “Old town market is a place which is known for delicious street food. The street vendors won’t get shops in the shopping complex, where will they go? When the project would be completed, it would look like any other colony. There would be nothing old. ” —

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