Paradise Lost

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In spate The sole outflow or drainage source is the Jhelum, which is quite choked with sedimentation. Photo: Abid Bhat
In spate The sole outflow or drainage source is the Jhelum, which is quite choked with sedimentation. Photo: Abid Bhat

Could Srinagar have been saved from the great deluge that sank 70 percent of the city? Could the impact of the flood on the city have been reduced if the state government had anticipated its scale and taken pre-emptive measures like diverting the Jhelum and issuing timely warnings to the people? Did proliferation of illegal residential colonies and government infrastructure in the flood plains make the devastation of the city only a matter of time?

Three weeks after the great flood sank Srinagar and the people are busy mopping up the consequent humanitarian fallout, the debate in the Valley is slowly shifting towards the man-made causes of the deluge with questions being asked about the role of the state government and its predecessors in creating conditions for it.

“The lack of awareness among the people about their vulnerability to flooding was the single-most important reason for their complacency. The government issued an advisory for vacating some of the highly vulnerable areas in the city at the eleventh hour,” says geologist Shakeel Ramshoo, who in 2010 had predicted the “worst flood in the history of Kashmir” and warned of widespread devastation in Srinagar if the policy planners did not build an alternative flood channel on a war-footing.

Srinagar could have been partially saved had the state government moved swiftly to divert water away from the core areas of the city, asserts Ramshoo. “The precipitation part can be attributed to climate change but the inundation and the destruction of the city has a distinct human angle to it. It could have been reduced if not avoided,” he says. “Water could have been stopped just short of reaching the commercial hub of Lal Chowk.”

But the state government rejects this contention outright. “It was just not possible. The highest danger mark is 28 on our flood gauge; it was 34 this time,” says National Conference leader Tanveer Sadiq. “Besides, how could there be a diversion when south Kashmir was already flooded and the Jhelum in full spate was heading towards Srinagar?”

However, while the controversy over whether the flooding of Srinagar could have been prevented is far from settled and an official inquiry could be expected to establish the truth, clearly the unplanned growth and the encroachment of flood plains had left no room for the city to escape the deluge.

Ever since the armed separatist movement broke out in the Valley in 1989, Srinagar has witnessed a steamrolling juggernaut of illegal construction, choking the last breath out of the city. Colonies after residential colonies, almost all of them unregulated, and a large number of houses built without permission from the Srinagar Municipality Corporation, have taken over every leftover space. Their owners pay municipal officials small bribes to get on with the construction unhindered. So, a forbidding mass of cement and bricks has been taking shape in all its ugliness across large swathes of the orchards, green highlands, paddies, swamps, flood plains, canals and, of course, even on Dal lake.

These colonies are guided by the sick commercial pursuits of the rapacious land mafia. For example, Bemina, the submerged residential colony on the west of Srinagar was built on a marshy land, some of it led by the state government, which filled the land up, divided into plots of varying sizes and sold it off to the public. What is more, the state government also constructed official buildings in the area. The Hajj House, the Jhelum Valley Medical College, the State Motor Garages, the land records office and even the Srinagar Development Authority, which plans and executes the city’s physical growth, are housed in Bemina and are now under 10 feet of water.

And another part of this flood-prone area was sold off as a prized piece of real estate by the land brokers with official connivance. Before the colony went under water on 7 September, the area was a chaotic spectacle of the work in progress on hundreds of residential houses. Big imposing bungalows with all the architectural detail reeking of wealth, ostentatious medium-sized structures and petty, obnoxious dwellings, all coming up side by side in full anarchic glory.

This was followed by the construction of more illegal colonies in the low-lying flood plains of Soitang, Padshahi Bagh, Kursoo, etc., and further downstream on the left side of the Jhelum, which traditionally used to be the flood basin of the river. Whenever the Jhelum level rose, the authorities emptied the excess water on to the left side of Srinagar by breaching the bund, which reduced the discharge in the river.

Sinking feeling Construction of illegal colonies in low-lying flood plains made matters worse
Sinking feeling Construction of illegal colonies in low-lying flood plains made matters worse. Photo: Abid Bhat

Srinagar’s modern urban growth is tied up with the political conflict in the state. In the local lore, the haphazard growth of the city began after the 1975 Kashmir accord between Sheikh Abdullah and Indira Gandhi, which ended Sheikh’s 23-year-long struggle for the right to self-determination for Kashmir. Failing to deliver on his political goal, Sheikh loosened the rules for his party workers and materially awarded them for their sacrifices. This is how some blatant land encroachments took place in the commercial hubs of the city and how Bemina came up.

The separatist struggle of the past 25 years only further vitiated the scene. As the government collapsed in the 1990s and the internal migration to Srinagar from the countryside created the need for housing on a mass scale, the land mafia took over. People, most of them from the affluent rural class, rushed into the city seeking respite from the widespread terror and harassment in the villages. But what turned Srinagar into a veritable refugee destination was the mass migration of the thousands of activists of the Jamaat-e-Islami, who had become the selective target of the pro-government insurgent group Ikhwanul-Muslimoon. In response to this influx, hundreds of people turned into real estate agents overnight to find land for building houses.

In no time there was a whole food chain of builders, property dealers and foot soldiers who pounced on any free space and soon turned it into a concrete jungle. Land, most of it in the flood-prone areas, was sold at astronomical rates that almost doubled every year. Over time, as the government regained a measure of its writ, this real estate edifice was sustained by administrative and political corruption. Politicians and bureaucrats also got on the gravy train. Real estate became the predominant business activity of the Valley and over the course of a decade turned Srinagar into a monster city, choking every open space, hill and orchard with concrete, leaving the city gasping for breath.

“In fact, new Srinagar has been planned by the land mafia, not the government,” says PDP leader Naeem Akhter. “Most of the residential colonies that have come up in the past two decades have choked Srinagar and contributed to the severity of the current deluge.”

According to Akhter, prior to 1975, the state government had planned two residential colonies in Srinagar and both of them escaped the deluge: one at Soura towards the north of the city and another at Sanat Nagar and Rawalpora in the south. And before 1947, Maharaja Hari Singh had founded Karan Nagar on the then periphery of the old city and the colony, which has now grown into a thriving upscale market, also escaped the flood.

It was Hari Singh’s uncle Maharaja Pratap Singh who, after the great 1903 flood, brought English engineers to Kashmir to devise a way out. As is the situation now, the flood had turned a large expanse of Srinagar into a veritable lake and caused death and destruction. The engineers built a network of small and large flood channels across Srinagar for the diversion of water from the Jhelum in case of flood.

The maharaja also started the dredging of the Jhelum at several places, which deepened it, increasing its capacity to absorb excess water. Together with the flood plains, these channels ensured that the fury of floods was turned away from Srinagar proper, its government installations, businesses and the health and educational infrastructure. It is this elaborate flood-control mechanism that was disrupted by the unregulated expansion of Srinagar in the past two decades.

“In my opinion, the single-most important reason for the high magnitude of the 2014 floods could be attributed to the loss of flood plains along the Jhelum,” says Ramshoo. “Horizontal expansion of settlements and encroachments on the water courses, reclamation of low-lying flood-plain areas for agriculture, siltation of rivers and the construction of roads along the river banks have worsened the flood risk in the Jhelum basin.”

With most of the flood plains turned into thriving settlements, the government found itself severely constrained in its bid to deflect water from the Jhelum. At Soitang, a flood plain turned into a residential colony, local MLA Javed Mustafa Mir along with several thousand inhabitants maintained a vigil along the course of the Jhelum in Srinagar to repulse any government attempt to breach the dyke. That is until the bund gave way on its own after flooding the heart of Srinagar.

Similarly near Pampore, a town through which the Jhelum passes before entering Srinagar, a flood plain, which just 10 years ago had a population of 8,000 people is now a habitation of around 2 lakh people. This, according to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, left the state government with no option but to redirect some Jhelum water and reduce the impact on Srinagar. But as it turned out, the strategy hardly paid off. The Jhelum burst all its borders and drowned all the areas, including Srinagar.

This has raised some troubling questions for the government. People are asking as to why the administration did not take all necessary measures to safeguard the capital of the state, the administrative and economic hub. People also hold the government responsible for allowing the illegal residential colonies to come up in the low-lying plains.

The Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) too has blamed the loss of wetlands for the disaster. “Over the past 30 years, nearly 50 percent of the wetlands in the Kashmir Valley have been encroached upon or severely damaged beyond restoration due to reckless developmental activities with no regard for nature conservation. The construction there is mainly due to commercial activities,” says BNHS director Dr Asad Rahmani. “The disastrous damage caused to life and property could have been minimised if the large number of wetlands that once existed in the Kashmir Valley had been preserved.”

But through all this, questions are also being raised about the viability of Srinagar as a capital city. Being low-lying and thus prone to recurrent floods, and made further vulnerable by the filling up of its flood plains, the flood has shaken the confidence of the people. There is now a growing chorus about the urgent need to take preventive measures to avoid or reduce the impact of a future flood.

“The reality remains that Srinagar and its surrounding areas are low-lying and hence prone to floods. Glacial melting due to climate change can aggravate the situation,” says Anisa Draboo, a city planner. “The sole outflow or drainage source is the Jhelum, which is quite choked with sedimentation. Unless serious measures are taken to facilitate drainage, such flooding could become a recurrent affair in the future.”

But the urgent measures will include undoing the wrongs of the past 25 years: the interplay of the need, greed, corruption and the violence that turned Srinagar, a once fabled city of orchards and an inspiration for the emperors, travellers, poets, Sufis, etc., into an unrelieved spread of ugly and unregulated residential colonies.

While this will not happen — a study by the state’s Sher-e-Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology has revealed that Srinagar will exhaust every inch of its land area meant for constructions by 2031 — the government will need to deepen the Jhelum through dredging and also strengthen the existing flood channels to pre-empt or minimise the impact of a future calamity.

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