In the heritage city of Srinagar, attempts to toy and tarnish with heritage sites and sights are not new. In the name of development, face-lifting of heritage places like the one at Poloview underlines the methods and motives with which the government is handling the affairs of South Asia’s second oldest city all set to become ‘smart’.
Just days after a centuries old Chinar was found chopped on Srinagar’s famed Bund to the chagrin of the general public, a JCB was set in motion at a stone’s throw in the night of January 1, 2017 to tear down the famous Poloview avenue.
The brazen and rushed activity not only bruised the roots of the towering Chinars badly, but also exposed the government’s inability to act swiftly to avert the tragedy despite being informed beforehand.
But perhaps the Poloview episode in the heart of the capital city of Srinagar serves as a yet another stark instance of how things are being done in the name of development in the heritage city, becoming ‘smart’ anytime soon now.
Notably, the road-widening machines were pressed into service, at a place where in any given day traffic snarls remain on the lowest side.
But then, the contractors engaged by the government had already put their men at work without considering the importance of the place, also an official address to the law enforcing department.
By Tuesday when a team of officials were deputed by chief minister’s office to stop the work, the R&B department had already damaged the roots of the ‘sensitive tree’ known for its shallow roots.
After the pavement demolition, stark scenes were at display at a partially-torn Poloview on Wednesday: Scattered roots, now being buried in haste, under the new layer of soil accumulated by labourers around tree trunks and the right tilted Chinar, now standing with grazed roots.
Scores of people that turned up at the wrecked spot, sounded paranoid about the revival of Chinars: With severe roots, some of them might not bloom in the next spring.
“This thoughtless attack only highlights the fact how brazenly this government is handling Srinagar, and its affairs,” a distraught shopkeeper reacted over the incident. “They first allowed these mafia men to execute such brazen work through JCB and once they were done with the damage, they staged a drama of sending officials to suspend the work.”
Public ire directing at the government’s “callousness” doesn’t seem entirely misplaced.
In a similar attempt of road widening last year, the government oversaw the controversial Chinar chopping at TRC opposite the J&K Bank headquarters. The chopped Chinars have hardly made any difference to the space, as the tree stumps still make for a bumpy impediment around.
“It was an unnecessary move—rather a thoughtless step to rob the area of its grand splendour it used to carry,” said Shafeeq Ahmad, a cabdriver.
Notably, the TRC-Poloview belt is being revamped at the cost of heritage Chinars for some time now. First, a land portion of the Arts and Emporium Building was brought under the spread-out road — major part of which remains out of bounds for traffic, as the area continues to stay a Construction Zone. The move however has already wiped out some Chinars at the spot where, again, the vehicular snarls were the least.
“And whatever the troubles existed could’ve been handled by the traffic department’s able management,” Shafeeq, the cabdriver, said. “Otherwise the department has only gained notoriety for lifting peoples’ cars in the name of enforcement.”
But after a portion of Emporium Park became a part of the stretched road, the government came up with a flyover plan, which threatened to devour more Chinars. The civil society’s timely campaign and public outcry saved them from axing.
Such attacks, however, have been happening to Chinars—“central to Kashmir’s identity” (reaching Asia and then to Kashmir from Greece, according to a book The Trees of Our Heritage by renowned nature writer MS Wadoo)—from some time now, despite the government banning their felling and lopping on March 2009.
The ban was imposed at a time when large-scale felling of the tree made ecologists, environmentalists and NGOs sound alarm bells like doomsayers.
Permissions for felling of Chinar trees, the government said, can only be granted if five new Chinar trees are planted against each Chinar tree that is cut. But despite the official ban, cutting of Chinars is continuously going on in Srinagar.
By terming it “an integral part of Kashmir’s heritage”, the government said it’s planting around 14,000 more Chinars amid fast and enforced disappearance of the ones that exist.
But what happened at the Bund and subsequently at Poloview lately has only raised some serious questions over the state of affairs in the city about to be declared as a Smart City.