What is it that makes a city smart? This should have been the question first asked by the administration to itself when it embarked on the ambitious mission of transforming Srinagar, an ancient city that is rooted in history but has increasingly become an urban mess, into a smart city.
The stated mission of the Smart City project is to renew and retrofit with the objective to provide core infrastructure, give a decent quality of life and apply smart solutions to improve services and infrastructure. Srinagar Smart City project was approved in Round 3 challenge held in April 2017 and the project consisted of two parts: area based development with an estimated amount of Rs 2869.24 crores and the pan-city solutions with an estimated cost of Rs 765.03 crores.
The shortsightedness and eagerness to show results, however, has forced the bureaucracy into a rat race which has resulted in many ill-conceived plans that serve none of the stated mission goals of the Smart City project.
The overwhelming and disproportionate attention to dismantling the already done works and redoing them appears to be one of the easy ways out to show the work is being done at an unprecedented pace.
At least four projects listed as ‘completed’ on the official website of Srinagar Smart City describe the project outcome as “aesthetic embankment and pathway.” What these four projects had actually done was dismantled the tiled or macdamised pathways and built new pathways.
Another project listed as completed is the pedestrian pathway along the Boulevard road that circles around the Dal lake. It is again the repeat procedure: dismantle the old pathway and build a new pathway and call it “aesthetically built.”
Another major project listed as ‘completed’, the ‘Hawker Zone’ near Jehangir Chowk, is the reflection of the failure of bureaucracy to streamline its ideas in league with the aspirations of the people.
The ‘Hawker Zone’ was previously utilized as a parking space. The space was closed for parking, creating a parking crisis in the heart of the city, and built as a separate zone for street vendors, despite the prior reluctance and disapproval conveyed by the vendors that they wouldn’t shift to that isolated zone due to commercial reasons – as pedestrians wouldn’t frequent the place. The Hawker Zone, now, remains defunct since it was built several years ago.
The illumination of bridges and façade improvement of three old-city markets are other projects listed as ‘completed’.
The question that needs to be asked is whether these projects were to be so important that they were prioritized to such a degree. The construction of cycling lanes in a city which is crying for more road space is an absolute example of what should not have been done.
The construction of broad walks, walkways and cycle tracks around Brari Nambal and Nallah Mar – which are the roads connecting Srinagar’s overpopulated downtown and the city center – are an example of a glaring disconnect. Instead of widening the roads by a few more feet, the crucial artery into the old city is further squeezed.
How is it that these projects have brought any change to the quality of the life of the people? In a city, where public transport vanishes from the roads at the first twilight, these projects sound like a joke. A joke on the bureaucracy that planned and ordered these projects, and on the people, for whom these projects are supposed to improve the quality of life.
The bureaucracy – in the absence of any elected government – should be answerable to what it is doing. The façade hides the ugliness; it doesn’t remove it. The projects aimed at improving the façade of historical old city markets of Bohri Kadal, Maharaj Gunj and Zaina Kadal have not at all improved the life of the people. These markets are still congested to a degree that vehicles cannot be parked anywhere in their vicinity so the experience of shopping can be enjoyed.
The ongoing works of building a new pathway along the Jhelum bund, near Residency Road, makes no sense. Why to spend taxpayers’ money on something that already existed in the same shape?
The first and foremost priority of the administration should have been to decongest the city’s roads – that is what would have made the city smart. The city’s roads are so narrow for the massive traffic entering the city that the inter-district passenger transport is not even allowed into it. It means anyone travelling from Kulgam or Baramulla to SKIMS Srinagar will have to change three to four vehicles – a mere distance of less than 100 kms.
The priority – instead of illuminating the bridges or dismantling the old pathways and building them anew – should be to introduce more passenger buses onto the city road that ply till late night. If need be, hire another set of drivers for SRTC buses and make these vehicles work in double shifts.
Easy access to public transport will encourage people to use public transport and decrease the plying of private cars and decongest the city.
Srinagar is a city of one and a half million. It is a growing city and a commercial heartland of Kashmir. It needs planners who know its problems. The copying of ideas from European cities and pasting them on Srinagar will not work. It did not work when a minister went to Russia’s Red Square and was mesmerized by its park. When he returned to Srinagar, he ordered the construction of a park in Lal Chowk – forever choking the city center, until another guy came and ordered it to be dismantled. It should serve a lesson for the bureaucracy.