The messed-up city and its man-in-charge

With the revival of a top office in Srinagar earlier this year, the controversial wetland remark sent a celebrity cop on an obscure posting and thus made the official take on environment telling. Later as Srinagar got its new District Magistrate, the environment question soon took him to the heartland of the encroached lake on a ‘mess-clearing exercise’. The work-in-progress is now making the office of Srinagar’s another Shahid a watchful window.

Hosting a few middle-aged men in his single-storey house on the banks of Khushalsar at Zadibal Srinagar, Javid Khan was getting impatient to return to the murky waters.

His day starts early, but a tea-break before noon, is a routine for Javid and his colleagues. They exchange hearty laughs and animated gossips over tea, while sitting in front of the stinking water body covered with weed and algae.

“How are you guys able to have tea in this strong stench? It’s pathetic!” exclaimed Mushtaq Pathan, a local, with salt-and-pepper appearance, who knows Khusharsal as home.

Having spent his entire childhood playing and swimming in this water body, Pathan is now negative about his lake foray.

“This water body wasn’t always stinking and dead,” Pathan recounted with a sad face. “It was full of fragrance and life, drawing tourists in droves, for sightseeing and tranquility of mind. Khushalsar was a jewel, which was stretched to Aali Masjid Eidgah and Zonimar.”

Sadly, that Khushalsar is gone now.

And the one which currently exists is unsettling Pathan and many thoughtful natives like him. They’ve come to believe that Khushalsar is going the Nallamar’s way—dead and extinct.

Mushtaq Pathan.

Meanwhile, Javid started venturing into the dying lake. Every time the flat part of his oar touched the water, pieces of trash surfaced. He soon bumped into three young men, wearing long boots and holding long rakes. They were water cleaners, trying to infuse new life in the lacklustre lake.

Battling nauseated stench and dirt, Javid kept oaring, until he ran into two more men.

The duo had anchored their boat in the middle of the lake. One was deep in the filthy water, while the other had his eyes fixed on him from his boat.

Since morning, they were extracting Nadru—lotus stems—from the toxic lake for public consumption.

“Can anyone think of going inside this trap full of diseases?” asked Mohammad Akbar, the man on the boat, intermittently receiving lotus stems from his submerged colleague. “But we have to, as we don’t have a choice!”

Pointing to his co-worker, who dramatically reemerged from the murky waters of Khushalsar, Akbar continued, “This person knows that he has to spend next three days either at home or at some hospital but still he’s risking his life as he has a family like everyone one else here.”

Mohammad Akbar.

Apart from these unaddressed daily struggles, the lake has now become a new residential address in Srinagar.

As Javid started to move back, the signs of encroachment from the locals’ side were quite blatant. Drainage, sewage and garbage from the fast growing neighbourhood have also been adding to the devastation of the once pristine water body of Srinagar city.

The unabated construction in the heart of the dying lake lately mobilized Srinagar Magistrate for a fact-finding exercise. During his surprise visit to Khushalsar this past May, Dr Shahid Iqbal Choudhary found that the lake has been turned into a posh residential colony.

The soon-to-be-followed preliminary inspection report submitted by a task force comprising members from Revenue, LAWDA, PWD, Soil Conservation and Remote Sensing Department constituted by DC Srinagar revealed that the construction of more than 80 houses and over 300 plots in the shape of an organized housing colony has come up in Khushalsar lake.

Almost two months later, an initiative to save the Khushalsar and other water bodies in the city is still underway. And the man who ordered it was attending routine delegations at his busy office, few kilometers from the lake.

“Permanent damage has already been done on Khushalsar and other water bodies in the city,” Dr Shahid said, sounding terse, while expressing concern over the illegal constructions and provision of civic amenities including water, power and road supplies in these water bodies.

In first phase, the administration has tried to stop further construction and encroachments along with the demolition drive against newly-permitted structures in Khushalsar, the DC said. The blockade of incoming material and other supplies for construction purposes is being checked.

“We’re trying to retrieve land under illegal construction and even if we cover most of it, the permanent damage to the course of the water body can’t be restored,” Shahid said. “Still, our focus remains to save the surrounding areas from further devastation along with the lake rescue.”

Delinking Khushalsar from the drainage status is also part of a proposal, the DC said, while terming Srinagar’s drainage and sewage system as messy and clueless. “The proposal that has been sent to the government includes holding the expansion of further drainage in the city until the existing ones are made properly functional and also delinking of drainage exits in different water bodies, including Khushalsar.”

But being in charge of a city with a diverse range of problems and issues is not easy.

DC during his surprise visit to Khushalsar.

Even as Shahid was lately seen patrolling the city routes during dusk hours to check the free movement of construction material loaded tippers and trucks, the challenges in the city don’t seem to be a cakewalk for him.

The immediate challenge, however, he said, is to control filling of wetlands happening from the past three decades. And for that, land mafia is his target. “We’re being pragmatic in dealing with land mafia in the city as it isn’t possible to fix the mess on a short notice,” Shahid said.

But inside Khushalsar, his clearance drive is apparently facing hitches, amid the tug of war between ceaseless encroachments and unbending demolition drive.

“We’ve a tough task on our hand,” he said. “But we aren’t stepping back either. We’re fighting against the forces that have eroded the sheen of Srinagar.”

Back in Khushalsar, boatman Javid was continually grappling with stench and dirt, as unabated encroachment and demolition drive was playing hide-and-seek around him.


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