Not many may have noticed but Kashmir is one of the few places in the world where a river runs from South to North, meandering through almost the entire city before touching the frontiers and flowing across. Any other place would have seen the waters of Jhelum as a huge economic opportunity for public transport. But not Kashmir, not at least till now.
It is very easy to imagine boats, maybe powered by solar engines running up and down the river ferrying passengers and even supplies. A cleaner, relatively safer and economically feasible system is a dream for urban planners, especially in Covid times where spacing and distances are a pre requisite for any start up.
While there is a growing clamour for a metro in Kashmir, the water transport system has been effectively over looked and whatever had been done by earlier administrations getting lost in translation many times over.
When former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti decided to revive age-old inland water transport in 2017, people felt that Kashmir will now regain its pristine glory and Srinagar particularly will become Venice of the East.
In fact, the central team from Inland Waterways Authority of India headed by its Chief Engineer had conducted a pre-feasibility survey. But the decision never saw the light of the day. Despite all hullaballoo, neither water transport was revived nor did Srinagar become Venice of the East.
In fact, people felt that it was another betrayal by the politicians.
The water transport was a part of the Jhelum revival plan to de-silt the river and restore its pristine glory. Jhelum Flood Management Plan was a two-phase project to de-slit the river to ensure flood protection to the people living in the catchment of the river.
The first phase of the project costs Rs 400 crore while the second phase will cost Rs 1,684 crore in Kashmir valley. Under the project, dredging of the river was to be undertaken at Srinagar and Baramulla and starting earth cutting a Bemina and Naidkhai to give the water a push to move downwards.
For centuries, water transport has been at the heart of the economic activity in Kashmir. According to poet historian Zareef Ahmad Zareef, Jhelum was known as ‘Wyth Prawa’ and it was worshiped during the reign of Lalitadaitya and Awantiwarman.
“In the recorded history water transport was modernized by King Zain ul Abideen Budshah (1420 to 1470). He used to cruise in Jhelum in Paranda (ancient boat). The tradition continued till 1947 when modern buses were introduced for commuting”, said Zareef Ahmad Zareef, noted historian, poet, and satirist.
British used houseboats to cruise through Jhelum to reach Wullar Lake and Sindh River. There were several Ghats on the banks of Jhelum which were used as stops for commuters. From Amira Kadal up to the old city of Safa Kadal and Noorbagh, people used to take boats to reach their destinations
Jhelum is the lifeline of Kashmir and the main feeding channel for power generation, irrigation and potable water supply. Jhelum originates from Verinag of south Kashmir and flows through Srinagar to north Kashmir before entering into the Pakistan administered Kashmir. The Jhelum releases its water into Wular Lake before it takes the route towards the Pakistan administered Kashmir via Sopore, Baramulla, and Uri.
Since 1967, people have been demanding the revival of water transport in Kashmir. In fact, traders’ federation had submitted a memorandum to former chief minister GM Sadiq for the revival of the water transport.
The proposals and attempts to revive the water transport was revisited by the government back in 1999 and then again in 2011-12. Every time the decisions fell flat. After the government’s proposal to revive the service in the year 1999 for Rs 25 lakh, officials had even chalked out a route from Pampore to Chattabal.
In 2011, the government had said that it had allotted the IWT contract to Kashmir Motors Company. Five motorboats were ready to ferry the passengers. Even the Omar Abdullah government in 2012 started a trial run of Inland River Water Transport on Jhelum from Zero Bridge to Chattabal to reduce the traffic pressure.
Buoyed by the decision, the then divisional commissioner Kashmir Asghar Samoon had said the next step would be to start water transport from Pantha Chowk to Chattabal and later from Khanabal to Khadniyaar.
Eight years on, water transport is like an unfulfilled dream. Enter pandemic, the need for water transport is being felt more than ever. With vehicular transport shut and social distancing becoming a norm, water transport is being seen as a panacea for economic activity.
Water transport is the best way to maintain social distancing. A small boat carrying goods will have two to three people on board. They will have to maintain 10 feet distance because of the water buoyancy.
It is economical, cost-effective, and eco-friendly. The water transport will reduce traffic congestion. Vehicular emissions due to heavy diesel vehicles will come down drastically as goods will be transported through the boats.
Imagine the River transport control room where GPS fitted boats are regulated like the air traffic control. Imagine the Wi-Fi connected boats with lifesaving jackets and emergency boats tucked away in boot. Imagine coming to Srinagar from North or South Kashmir in a clean boat, seated and without a speck of dust on your clothes. Imagine getting down at PoloView Jetty for a tea at Ahdoos and taking home the next boat on the hour!
People are now pinning hopes with the Lieutenant Governor GC Murmu for the revival of the centuries-old project. Elected governments always used water transport as an emotive issue. But never has been any work done. If this project is revived, Kashmir will see an accelerated economic activity which is the need of the hour.
Lieutenant Governor Administration has a perfect opportunity to reduce traffic woes in the valley. It, however, depends on how quickly the idea can be translated into a reality.