Municipal Limits

Official encomiums to the charms of Kashmir are seldom complete without harking back to the words of a smitten emperor - as if they have a magical pull to draw people to the valley despite glaring evidence to the contrary. Since there is little to show for what has been done for Kashmir in modern times, refuge is sought in the 16th century testimonial – justly deserved then – to claim a heritage long forfeited.

Listen to any Kashmiri bigwig holding forth on the attractions of the land, or even to a school-kid at a symposium, or, for that matter, a to dignitary from outside tutored to sound wise and learned on the subject, and out spout the inevitable, battered lines – agar firdaus bar roo-e-zameen ast ……

Little would the Mughal monarch have known that, down the centuries, his praise would engender a complacence turning his paradise into a travesty without parallel in the annals of human endeavor to live alongside what is priceless and irreplaceable. This is not to say that all that Kashmir has to offer has been obliterated, but to underline that what little survives has escaped purely because the defacing clutches of man, and his warped notion of modernization and development, have not grasped it, yet.

We do not have to look far, or undertake deep philosophical reflection, to realize that Kashmir is inexorably being driven into an urban catastrophe of monstrous proportions. One glance at the streets of Srinagar should be sufficient to convey to any one the gargantuan failure of the civic experiment in the valley. Even more than sixty years after being rid of the autocratic yoke, Kashmiri officialdom has yet to figure out a way of dealing with the unwanted but unavoidable byproduct of present-day lifestyles – the vast output of garbage generated in urban centers - the primary and fundamental concern of self-respecting societies worldwide.  

What a more conscientious people would have maintained like a gem has become a trash-strewn, dog-infested maze mainly because the hordes of government servants and public leaders - inalienable parts of the society and its outlook – have been too busy in maneuverings and manipulations to foresee a burgeoning crisis, or thought the issue too insignificant to merit their exalted attention.

The way found after six decades of experience is to let garbage rot in huge mounds in city streets for days, and then simply dump it out of sight on the outskirts without even a pretence at the precautions necessary for the primitive method.  

Not to speak of devising a mechanism of scientific and hygienic disposal of garbage, municipal authorities, and by association, the government in general, cannot even ensure the collection of household refuse from the doorstep, promoting the unhealthy and reprehensible practice of dumping trash on to the streets or the nearest open ground. The first sign of life of a functioning city municipality is how it manages the output of waste. But the evidence in Srinagar shows that its civic body, now a full-fledged corporation, is not even competent to perform this fundamental civic duty. The irony is that the corporation has a full complement of politically elected representatives whose sole concern should have been the upkeep of the city. But apart from flaunting government-provided security and being a heavy burden on the public exchequer, the corporation has little to show to justify its existence. The bright sparks of the government who came up with the idea of electing the corporation – an elaborate exercise incurring massive expenditure -  appear to have been intent only on creating an impression of public empowerment. Otherwise, the first logical step would have been to equip the municipality with the funds, the manpower and the machinery discharge its primary duty of keeping the streets garbage-free and treating the waste to reduce its volume to manageable levels.

Public servants here lose no opportunity in mimicking the customs and fads of their counterparts in more advanced societies – for example, they like to be seen moving around in state-provided transport bristling with security and appointing their homes and offices with the latest in gadgetry – but are found sorely wanting in adopting, or even trying to adopt, strategies and methods developed elsewhere in dealing with civic issues.

They tout Srinagar to the world as the capital of “Paradise On Earth,” and as such, a city of international standing, but six decades have not taken a single step to meet international standards in keeping the city clean.

In their obsession to keep up with the international Jones’s, successive Kashmiri rulers have imposed personal whims on the city, like giving Srinagar an allegedly world-class golf course and the largest tulip garden in Asia, requiring phenomenal investment in financial and administrative capital, and often inviting experts from oversees.  But the rest of the city, which constitutes the major swathe of the wannabe metropolis, might just as well have not existed. Not a penny has been invested in technologies that ensure environment-friendly disposal of garbage or recycling of waste for energy and other utilities. The governments here have never ever hired a consultant for advice on how to treat garbage. A chief minister-in-waiting will proudly show off his latest acquisition, a gizmo-filled vehicle procured for election campaigning, but will not lift a finger for buying plants and machinery developed for garbage sorting, recycling and safe disposal. Not to speak of the city in general, even major hospitals here lack the mandatory incinerators to take care of toxic wastes. The flagship Sher-e-Kashmir Institute of Medical Sciences dumps its wastes directly into the already highly-polluted Anchar Lake.  

Successive governments have never tired of promoting Kashmir as a world-class tourist destination, always trumpeting it as the paradise on earth, but the capital of this paradise, which should have been a trend-setter in civic management for all the world to see, has become an example in how not to run a city.

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