Late on Wednesday evening, a friend from Kashmir University (KU) sent me some photos which he had taken near the University’s iconic Iqbal Library. He wanted to show me how serene KU campus looks these days without cars honking and whizzing around – and parked on roadsides in the campus following a recent decision from the University of Kashmir administration to keep the campus free of diesel and patrol propelled vehicles.
The photos looked soothing to the eyes and depicted an atmosphere of picture-perfect peace and tranquillity with students and academics walking in little packs of three, four or more in the university’s sublime campus. After all, when it comes to natural beauty and charms of university campuses, KU can arguably take the crown at least in the south Asian region.
But oddly enough, some elements in the university have started building pressure on the university administration to remove this ban aimed at greening the campus. Insiders in the university said that many of these people are academics. Communication among the university staff members, which this writer gained access to, partly makes a pathetic reading with some members citing ridiculous reasons for removing the ban.
For example, one staff member has raised questions about health emergencies, inter-departmental visits and offering prayers at Hazrathbal shrine. All of these reasons do not hold water considering the fact that the university has already some electric cars and plans to buy more electric cars and e-rickshaws as part of its green mission even as the entire campus is just 1.06 km2 in area with a pretty good tree cover epitomized by the comforting and restful gardens like NaseemBagh and avenues lined with evergreen trees. The Hazrathbal shrine is just outside the main gate of the university.
Another member has cited harsh winters wherein “a couple of feet of snow can make walking very difficult in the campus and can make you sick also.” Yet another has suggested that the ban should be restricted to “young people” and “students” only. But most of the members seem to be in favour of the decision and have expressed their views on social media as well.
For example, Altaf Pandit, a professor at the Department of Chemistry wrote in support of a Facebook post which one of his colleagues had shared: “KUTA (Kashmir University Teachers Association) had an opinion poll in which a good number of teachers participated [and] some did not. Amongst those who participated, the majority want the restriction [on vehicles]. A small minority [is] against this restriction. That is why KUTA went ahead with this demand and thankfully [the] administration implemented it.” The ban was initially implemented for five days and was continued later as demanded by KUTA. The association, as mentioned in the communication among KUTA members cited above, is in touch with the administration for making some more alternative arrangements in view of the continuation of the ban.
Professor Shakil Romshoo, who heads the Earth Sciences Department and is one of the strong proponents of the ban, wrote in response to the same post: “The movement and number of vehicles had increased a lot within the campus; and in absence of the regulation, it was going to get worst in future. All of us are enjoying the serene ambience of the campus since the ban was implemented. We need to be patient and support the initiative keeping in view the tremendous benefits of a vehicle-free campus.” He also cited the parking mess in front of each of the departments in support of his argument.
Why KU needs to set an example?
In Kashmir, the government is struggling to cope with the proliferation of vehicles, for which the lack of viable public transport is partly responsible. But, in recent years, a growing middle class has resulted in more vehicles on roads. There are some households in Kashmir wherein each family member owns a car.
Due to these reasons, the number of vehicles has sharply increased. Bumper-to-bumper traffic jams in Srinagar’s roads are a common sight, especially in summers.
The number of vehicles on the roads has doubled from over seven lakh in 2010 to over 14 lakh (14, 881,90) in March 2017, as per the J&K Transport Commissioner’s office, foregrounding the need for better public transport.
Widening of roads for accommodating additional vehicles and addressing traffic jams is the most common solution which seems obvious to many people and policy-makers. But, there is a fundamental problem with this idea as it involves more concretization of land at the cost of the green area. Plus, many experts have argued that widening of roads never addresses the problem as it encourages people to drive more miles and thus bringing more cars on the roads.
KU’s decision of banning vehicles inside the campus can set an example that why people should not become dependent on personal cars. The government can also take a leaf from KU’s decision and can improve public transport besides buying more electric buses in addition to the four buses it has got last month.
The growing pollution in Srinagar is also a big concern and increasing traffic is one of the contributors to it. Shakil Romshoo, who was part of a study on growing pollution in Srinagar city, said that air quality of the Kashmir valley deteriorates significantly during autumn with the level of PM 2.5 touching 350 μg/m3 against the national permissible limit of 60 μg/m3.
Romshoo told this writer that vehicular traffic and biomass burning (burning of leaves and twigs for making charcoal) is also the main source of black carbon, which, he said, causes rapid melting of glaciers. “Average Black Carbon at Srinagar is the highest among all the observed high altitude Himalayan sites,” he said while quoting from the study.
Also, two years back, the state government placed a ban on the burning of leaves issuing circulars to various departments for its strict implementation. “With the onset of autumn thick plumes of smoke rise up in different parts of the valley because of the open burning of abscised leaves, willow and poplar twigs releasing large amounts of airborne particles (PM 2.5 and PM 10 – particulate matter less than 2.5 microns and 10 microns) which include fine bits of dust, soot, harmful particles and toxic gases aggravating air pollution,” read the government order issued from the chief minister’s office.
But this ban is affecting only the poor people who rely on burning of leaves and twigs for their livelihood. Why shouldn’t the middle class share the responsibility? KU has done well to bring middle class under the polluters’ bracket!
(Author is a Srinagar based journalist who writes on ecological issues of the place.)