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In ‘scenic’ Srinagar, where are green open spaces?

May 29, 2019

In ‘scenic’ Srinagar, where are green open spaces?

Srinagar: Once a city known for its lush green gardens, Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is turning into a hotchpotch of unplanned constructions. While the development of urban infrastructure is moving at a brisk pace, the city has already lost valuable green cover. Green spaces like the Zabarwan hills, Kohi Sulauiman and Kohi Maran or Hari Parbat have turned into barren hillocks, while the foothills have seen a surge of residential construction. The city which known for gardens have in turn lost many like Dewan Bagh, Baghi Ali Mardan, Baghi Dilawar Khan.

Since the Mughals constructed a few gardens in Srinagar centuries ago, there has hardly been an addition to the city’s green space during the previous governments. Except for Tulip Garden, no mentionable new parks have been created. On the contrary, many such areas that existed are now buried under tall concrete figures, which the state disdainfully allowed and still does.

Haphazard urbanisation has put Srinagar behind cities like Varanasi, Bhopal and Chandigarh in terms of organised green space.

Houses but no parks

According to the Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation (URDPFI), a set of guidelines passed by the Union Ministry of Urban Development, a city like Srinagar should have a minimum of 570 hectares of land under organised parks and gardens. The city, however, only has 287 hectares of such green space spread over the 169 parks. The city has about half the accessible and organised green spaces for its residents as compared to the standard set for urban India.

“Rapid population growth and unplanned urbanization are fast resulting in depletion, deterioration and over-extraction of Srinagar’s ecological resources including green space. Even more precarious situation is seen in the core city which is comprehensively without green cover presenting a very desolate picture,” read the document. The bubble of being ‘world-famous’ and ‘paradise on earth’ is pricked when one compares Srinagar with other denser cities of India. The World Health Organization (WHO) has set up a minimum scale of 9 square metres (SQM) of organised green space that should be available to every inhabitant of a city. While cities like Varanasi (24.78 SQM), Bhopal (18.62 SQM), Allahabad (24.06 SQM), Noida (278 SQM) and Chandigarh (17.43 SQM) surpass the standard of 9 SQM, Srinagar stands at a disappointing 2.6 SQM.

An array of houses constructed in uptown areas with hardly any green space in between. (Photo: Nisar Dharma)

The WHO also suggests designing green area networks so that all residents live within a 15-minute walk to open space. However, given the present scheme of things, it seems unattainable in Srinagar.

Khalid Bashir Gura, 25, a resident of Khanyar area in downtown (old city), said that he is a witness to how his part of the city has seen unplanned expansion at the cost of almost all the green space that was available when was a kid. “It (the green spaces) is all gone. In just over a decade, all I have seen are houses after houses being constructed,” he added.

Moving uptown, the situation isn’t any better as unplanned constructions are rampant in areas which were once vast swathes of land, where kids used to play. Mohammad Shafi, a resident of Mehjoor Nagar area, said the colony where he lives has expanded by around ‘1000 per cent’. He pointed out that the government has constructed houses in the area, but not even a single park was constructed in the last 20 years.

Open defiance of Supreme Court 

A look at the 2017 State Annual Action Plan (SAAP) under Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation scheme (AMRUT) revealed that the Jammu and Kashmir government plans to marginally increase the existing per capita green space cover to 4.5 SQM by 2020. That is because the government plans to develop just four such spaces––the parks along the Jhelum Bank, Green Park at Harwan, Tulip Garden, and a park along Nishat Bund. Besides, there seems an apparent rift between the Srinagar Smart City plan, which is silent on increasing the green cover, and the Draft Master Plan, which foresees the construction of 860 parks between 2015 and 2035.

The situation remains so even though there are five government establishments– Floriculture, Srinagar Municipal Corporation, Srinagar Development Authority, J&K Housing Board, Landscape Division of  Roads & Building Department, directly responsible for the development and maintenance of public parks.

A huge commercial structure being constructed on the banks of River Jhelum. (Picture credit: Nisar Dharma)

The apathy to the issue continues in apparent defiance of Court directions as well. In 2016, Justice (Retd) Bilal Nazki wrote a letter to the then Chief Justice J&K High court pointing out the lack of green spaces in Srinagar. Treating the letter as a Public Interest Litigation (PIL), a division bench of Justice Ramalingam Sudhakar and Justice M K Hanjura, in December 2017, directed the J&K government to set up and implement an action plan for enhancing green space of the capital city.

Almost a year later, on September 15 2018, the Court, however, observed that there was hardly any improvement in the creation of green spaces in the city. Justice Gita Mittal then questioned the state’s government’s response that Rs 64 lakh had been released for development of green spaces in Srinagar, asking where the money had been spent.

Historic gardens lost to apathy

Chief Town Planner, Fayaz Ahmad Khan, who formulated the Draft Action Plan agreed that Srinagar severely lacked in green spaces accessible to an ordinary person. Fayaz was wary of mentioning that 2276 hectares of land is under defence and paramilitary establishments in Srinagar alone. He, however, agreed that the city had lost many historic gardens to “indifferent and apathetic” attitude. “Gardens like Dewan Bagh, Baghi Ali Mardan, Baghi Dilawar Khan have already been lost,” he said. Fayaz, last year, had asked for public feedback on the ‘Action Plan’.

A year later, however, he told 101Reporters that they had hardly received any response. “We did not receive any substantial feedback. We finally submitted the draft to the Court. On Court’s direction, an SOP was formulated and submitted to the floriculture department.

“To be very honest, nothing much has happened,” Fayaz said. His Draft Action Plan recommends 15 per cent surface area of any development project to be earmarked for the development of organised green spaces. It adds that Malkhah, the oldest graveyard in the city abutting Kalai (the historic wall separating parts of the old city) can be developed into a “vital lung space” in the area.

The Plan recommended that the state government shall ensure proper landscaping of historic graveyards and Eidgahs (open spaces for offering Eid prayers) for enriching the biodiversity and ecology in these areas.

This graveyard is the only open space in Mehjoor Nagar area of Srinagar city. (Picture credit: Nisar Dharma)

[The author is a Srinagar-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters]