Inside Dal Dwellers’ Decaying Lives at Rakh-e-Arth

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Glimpses of Rakh-e-Arth. KO Photos by Kanika Gupta

A promise land on papers and a flood land in reality, Rakh-e-Arth failed to live up to its assurances of a better living space for its residents.

By Kanika Gupta

LIFE for an erstwhile tourist guide Nazir Shangloo in the wilderness of flood basin turned human settlement has been a lingering nightmare.

Born and brought up as an “amphibian” in the heart of the Srinagar city’s famed Dal Lake—where the Imperial Englishmen’s departure from the 1947 would open the recreational spaces for the westerners and influence the Dal dwellers’ lifestyle—Nazir knew a different life.

He was a Hanji for the larger Srinagar inhabitants, but always an adventurous soul who peaked heights with his high-end tourists during his heydays.

But all this came to a grinding halt after his water-borne tribe was uprooted from the Dal Lake and left to fend for themselves at the forgotten corner of the city where flood waters quite often inundate lives.

Today, Nazir is a pale-shadow of his past. His handsome looks have now paved way to a frown face and a receding hairline.

“They threw us from our birthplace by terming us polluters,” Nazir shares his tribe’s torment.

“But now, they’ve proved friends to none — neither to us whom they dumped into this flood-basin, nor to Dal Lake which is putrefying right under their noses despite investing crores of rupees on it.”

Nazir’s new home is situated on the outskirts of Srinagar, which is known for acting as a flood sponge for keeping the heritage city of Srinagar safe from brimming Jhelum.

This forgotten territory was to be the new home for Dal dwellers, a community of people who were extricated from mesmerizing Dal Lake and resettled in Rakh-e-Arth.

The much-touted modern colony was supposed to have schools, hospitals, recreational facilities, playgrounds, and every means of development that justified relocation.

The reality, however, was a far cry.

Only a handful of people were aware of Rakh-e-Arth’s existence and even fewer knew its address. Arriving here was an all-new challenge.

Shrouded in dust and mystery, Rakh-e-Arth was nothing that the documents claimed. Potholed roads, lopsided structures, and abandoned playgrounds are some of the sights that greet its visitors.

The resettlement colony was to be the government’s answer to encroachment problem and an effort to preserve Srinagar’s prized possession – the Dal Lake.

The erstwhile residents were promised a package of land, monetary compensation, and liveable environs in exchange for giving up their lives and sources of income at the lake.

But what Lake and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) gave them instead was a poorly-planned and unliveable expanse of marshy flood land.

From being situated in a flood channel to reeling from negligence, Rakh-e-Arth soon became its residents’ worst nightmare.

The floods of September 2014 was a sordid reminder of how their fates have been sealed in what could be a lifetime of struggle just to survive.

The residents claim that their houses were damaged beyond redemption with very little help from the government to rehabilitate them. They continue to live in limbo and even threaten to reverse migrate if their concerns remain unaddressed.

So far, it has all fallen on deaf ears.

Fida Hussain, a local activist who was relocated to Rakh-e-Arth with his family 4 years ago, explains that the land was a former swamp that lacks the plasticity to hold a structure together.

The ground, he says, needs at least a filling of 2-3 meters to make it solid enough for construction.

A lot of their lifetime-savings have already gone into erecting a house of their dreams, only to watch it crumble in front of their eyes. Some locals have even failed to receive the assured compensation and had to live in makeshift tin sheds that are unsuitable for both hot summers and brutal winters.

The relocation began in 2007 when the government announced its plans to relocate the residents at Rakh-e-Arth that was to be a modern posh colony with all the amenities.

However, more than a decade later the authorities have failed to provide even the basics for over 100 families.

LAWDA does not take any responsibility for poor planning of the colony. The houses are bevelled and have cracks even without the flooding.

The residents complain that high construction costs make it difficult for them to maintain their homes. The compensation package offered by the government is not enough.

With fresh loans to pay for these expenses and lack of jobs, their problems have only exacerbated.

But that is not where the predicament for its residents end.

The deplorable living condition is only half the problem, the other half is to find reliable sources of income.

Where once all members of the family were able to contribute to the consolidated earnings, now there are hardly any opportunities for work except construction sites that barely pay enough to sustain big families.

65-year-old Zamruda Begum earlier added to her family income by working in the Dal Lake, collecting grass and lily leaves to be sold as cow feed.

Her tribe would act as cleaning agents even before the advent of costly machines would fail to uproot the cause of rising pollution in the lake.

The elderly woman’s family also had a farm where they grew vegetables and sold them in the vegetable market inside Dal Lake.

But ever since they moved here, the women have been rendered jobless. The only wages come from the men in the family who do odd jobs at construction sites and make a pittance for their labour.

In an effort to provide livelihood to the households, a government-run Aari—needle work—centre trains and employs unmarried women from Rakh-e-Arth which pays them Rs. 500 per month for 3-4 hours of work every day.

As such, many residents live in deplorable condition due to paucity of work opportunities.

On papers, Rakh-e-Arth also has a 100-bed hospital, 7 dispensaries, and a 30-bed nursing home/child welfare centre. But one look at the colony and it becomes apparent how these promises fall flat on its unstable marshy grounds.

Even though the settlement has been around for a while, there’s only one work-in-progress hospital that began construction recently after making several rounds at the LAWDA office.

The dispensary too lies at the far end of the locality that appears to be reeling from the dearth of medical resources.

Amid this disparity, the likes Arshid Hussain Akhoon is finding himself in a very tricky situation.

This 35-year-old daily-wage labourer is the father of a mentally-unstable child. Every time his son needs medical assistance, he has to rush him to a government hospital in Srinagar that costs him the day’s work and wage.

His 11-year-old son, Mohsin Hussain Akhoon, is not only a patient of cerebral palsy but also suffers from acute jaundice that his family struggles to pay for.

But Mohsin is not the only one suffering from mental health issues, residents claim that such diseases run rampant in the colony due to lack of primary healthcare infrastructure.

The colony is also consumed by hopelessness due to government’s negligence.

A local Fida Hussain looks around ruefully and explains that rather than being an ambitious project that the authorities claimed it to be, Rakh-e-Arth’s garbage strewn streets and polluted waters tell a whole different story of apathy.

In fact, what was supposed to be a colony only for resettled Dal dwellers, it is now being inhabited by outsiders, the locals say, as the land is being sold to them at subsidized rates.

Signboards speckled all over the colony strictly forbids sale of land to a non-Dal dweller. Even though the sale of property is forbidden, there are as many as 70% plots in Bay-4 that have been sold to outsiders, claims Hussain.

These sold properties are located right behind LAWDA office of which only 30% belong to the Dal dwellers.

Deemed as unfit for living, Rakh-e-Arth is so much more than meets the eye.

The project, so far, has failed to provide decent living conditions to its inhabitants with no hope in sight. There is not only shortage of basic resources, such as jobs and healthcare, but also schools and transportation, among other things. Most families are in debt who inadvertently end up selling their plots to the outsiders to survive.

The residents here believe that the resettlement colony of Rakh-e-Arth is a long way from becoming a project it was destined to be.

“Rakh-e-Arth was meant to upgrade the living conditions of Dal Lake dwellers and give them a suitable place for recreation and lifestyle development,” Nazir, the erstwhile tourist guide, says. “But the resettlement colony project is marred by corruption that has failed to provide any facilities to us.”

Clearly, the Dal community that was immune to Kashmir’s inherent volatility has now been thrown out in the open to fend for the basics, adding ‘survival’ to their compounding list of problems.

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