By Shakir Malik
WHENEVER I would hear and read about Kashmir’s Sopore, a very pristine and green picture would spontaneously unfurl in my head. In the year 2018, I was fortunate to get to work there.
However, the first impression that I got there was of polluted air: endless dust swirling around vehicles, with women, men, children and all walking like silhouettes in near darkness. Roadsides devoid of sidewalks were powdered with dust, and probably because of that, people would walk and vehicles would ply side by side on the same although macadamized but narrow worn out road, making short traffic jams almost a daily ritual. The inner streets of newer colonies remained squalid in the winter, so much so that the jeans that one wore for the day would become too dirty to take off in your room.
The drains carrying sewerage were not covered making houseflies breed with greed. And Sopore lacking any dump yard or Sanitary landfill was so much strewn with garbage and filth that by that yardstick any charm or fame associated with its historical stature fell apart in front of my eyes, in shreds of desolation.
Some people told me Sopore is known as Chota London, which after seeing its unplanned growth makes the sobriquet look like a joke. But I am pretty sure, in the past, this comparison would have been drawn out wisely. It might be the case that there has been little positive involvement of the government in its developmental itinerary.
Why I started underscoring the plethora of problems before addressing the main point is because you can’t scapegoat tonga drivers instead of addressing core developmental challenges that Kashmir’s apple town faces.
Also Read: Good Riddance Tongas!
Cart-drivers mostly belong to the economically weaker section of the society. By banning them, you are rendering many underprivileged people unemployed. A healthy policy initiative would be to provide them with jobs before shutting them down. Okay, a libertarian might say cart-drivers are just unlucky sacrificial goats — a roadblock to development and that banning them will open up roads and parking lots. “Let’s not care about their employment”
However, when tongas are made invisible, there is a larger interest at stake here, that is preservation of cultural heritage. Kashmir’s future is wedded with tourism. And, if you ‘modernise’ everything at the cost of heritage, all you are left with is pollution, not just air pollution, but cultural pollution. And tongas are part of Kashmiri cultural heritage. Apart from the general life-style of people and the colours of the market, tongas are what made Sopore special to me. Krakow city, the second largest city of Poland attracts hordes of tourists not because of absence of tongas, but preservation of its historical aura. Cart drivers are not deemed a nuisance there, but a part of history.
There is an old adage in Kashmiri, ‘Kayanladas wanawukh power kar band, tym doup toyi kariw ache bandh.’ Because turning off the lights would have required effort, something that the listless person can’t afford, in this case that effort means building infrastructure, that is widening roads, building metros wherever feasible, introducing cable-cars and building a robust public-transport mechanism. Closing your eyes, a listless attitude, would mean telling tonga drivers to vacate.
If traffic jam and occupation of parking lots is a problem caused by tongas, let me propose one more alternative, and it won’t take long-term developmental work. If you lack funds and you want to lessen the traffic jam that is presumably caused by slow tongas, the best way that is recommended everywhere in the world to reduce traffic is to ensure a robust public transport system and discourage the use of personal cars. It not only reduces jams, but also preserves the environment and reinforces social cohesion, so after public transport is kicking, hop on the public vehicle and give up pollution-prone personal cars, or hop on the non-polluting tonga instead.
In my opinion, the administration should have incentivized using tongas. Not only this, it should have gone a step further, and strengthened the public transport system and urged people to use it as much as possible. But that would need some money and effort: buying brand-new buses, providing employment to new drivers, subsidizing the fares, etc. Tonga drivers are banned because they constitute low-hanging fruit.
Another nuisance related to horse-carts is thought to be the foul smell. I have heard it from many people who have been to Pahalgam that they think that smell to be its indispensable aspect. They can’t feel Pahalgam without that smell. By the way, we are not talking about some stinky sewer here. Probably, you might end up liking the smell after forgetting for a moment that it emanates from horse-shit.
Public policy is formulated keeping in mind the larger public interest rather than somebody’s personal tastes. Given the fragile ecology and tourist friendliness of Kashmir, the first priority on the cost-benefit scale should be preservation of the environment. And Tongas serve that purpose.
Here, I think the administration should also focus on preservation of animal rights as well. See to it that the horses are fed adequately, advise tonga drivers not to whip them and not to overload them etc. So, if you bring back tonga drivers, you restore their economic rights. And if you let Tongas ply, you take care of the environment.
- The writer has worked in Sopore and can be reached at [email protected]
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