MAN VS NATURE
In 1999, sitting in the Srinagar Development Authority office with a team of planners to prepare the city’s 2000-21 master plan, I had not thought that it would stand gravely defied within its lifetime. Did the planners foresee Jhelum swelling up to breach the embankments, and water engulfing the whole city? Probably not.
Perhaps we were not so far-sighted, and driven only by the history of disasters in the city rather than their future possibilities. This is not a handicap exclusive to those of us who drew up what we thought was a forward-looking master plan for Srinagar.
Veteran planner G M Pampori was leading the team based on his experience of preparing the first master plan of the city (1971-91). At 78 years, he appeared impatient and twitchy, as the exercise had started late – almost a decade late. The last master plan had lapsed in 1991. For almost 10 years we lived without a master plan in one of the most rapidly urbanising cities, and Srinagar in all probability was not an exception. The city grew at a fast rate, water bodies shrank, unauthorised colonies came up. Residents certainly took their land, nature, vegetation and water bodies for granted.
Stand on top of Shankaracharya hill in Srinagar overlooking the city, and you can tell that the centre of Srinagar city is Dal Lake. The city shares a unique relationship with water. Water bodies have played a huge role in its expansion and development. Geological evidence proves that Kashmir was once a vast lake, and this is also part of the many narratives on Kashmir, most famously Rajatarangini by Kalhana.
Meandering Vitasta — ancient name of river Jhelum — was the genesis of Srinagar city, which served as the main artery of transportation and as the nerve centre of its social and cultural life. People’s daily life revolved around the river and the numerous water channels linked to it. Today, old-age monuments situated on its banks are clustered with buildings of the modern city.
Dal, Nagin, Anchar lakes, river Jhelum, wetlands like Khushalsar, Hokarsar and many other water bodies make the city a picturesque sight, besides continuing to provide it vital means of sustenance. They have borne silent witness to ruthless modernisation, villages turning into towns, towns turning into cities. Modern concrete structures squeezed out natural bodies, and master plans were repeatedly violated.
The city grew oblivious to its surroundings and expanded without showing any mercy to its water bodies and natural habitat. Encroachment on Dal Lake reduced its size to 15% of the original, shrinking it from 75 sq km to around 12 sq km.
The natural hydrology of this region connects its water bodies through small channels, to provide natural flow and even outflow of water within them. Rapid urbanisation and growth have cut off these connections between the water bodies and increased pollution in them. This has led to choking of several lakes — including Dal Lake — which earlier formed a natural flood lung of Jhelum, and took in reverse flows when it flooded. A flood spill channel was also constructed in the early 20th century to take the strain of water in Jhelum when it passed through the city, but it hardly worked.
The early 20th century also witnessed the beginning of a continuous, ongoing process of migration from the inner, older core to city suburbs. New residential colonies came up and Srinagar got its first motorable roads, leading to a decline of its traditional system of canal transportation. As a result, in the 1970s the famous Nallah Mar Canal (built in the 15th century) was filled in and a road-widening scheme was launched along its bank, cutting through much of the historical fibre of the city. This scheme also spelled ecological doom for the Brarinambal and Khushalsar water lagoons.
In the 15th century, when Sultan Zain ul Abidin (commonly known as Bud Shah) was building the Nallah Mar Canal as a main artery of communication between the old city in Srinagar and the villages near Dal Lake, was he ahead of his time in understanding and sensitively promoting the natural linkages of water bodies?
1. How and why were the city planners of Srinagar Development Authority caught unprepared by the unprecedented disaster that struck it recently?
2. Name some of the causes that led to such a sorry state of affairs in Srinagar.
3. How have rapid urbanisation and growth affected the natural hydrology of the region
4. How was Sultan Zain ul Abidin ahead of his time?