COLUMN SERIES | Bottom-up Approach to Meet JK's Infrastructure Needs

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In 2019 the government announced a slew of infrastructure projects in Jammu and Kashmir, which included drinking water, roads, irrigation, railways, education, telecom, civil aviation, and work in defence sectors, but the bare minimum necessities in the UT continue to be elusive.

Bare minimum necessities are missing even at places that are thronged by thousands of visitors every day like Boulevard, Gulmarg, Sonamarg, Dodhpather, and Pahalgam. The valley has been and is mishandled when it comes to providing people with what they require the most.

True that political and social unrest has not permitted infrastructural development to keep pace in the Valley and both big and small projects have been hitting bottlenecks because of lack of funds, delay in clearances, land acquisition, and labor issues, but people allege that developmental policies pursued by the successive governments have been lopsided and arbitrary in JK. Women can still be seen holding pitchers over their heads and traveling miles to fetch drinking water from freshwater springs.

Things might be expected to show up though, as barely two weeks ago, Jammu and Kashmir Infrastructure Development Finance Corporation (JKIDFC), which was formed in 2018 to speed up infra projects, said that “over 600 projects of immense public importance, which had been left languishing for up to 25 years, had been completed”. In the financial year 2019-20, over 1,200 projects worth Rs 2,280 crore were financed under JKIDFC. JKIDFC is mandated to raise funds up to Rs 8,000 crore more.

A random public survey revealed that the most urgent emphasis of the UT must be on having insulated bus stop shelters, public utilities every second mile, in the Dal Lake, and even outside places of worship. Before any plans are rolled out by the babus, it is wise to reach out to people and carry out basic surveys to assess actual needs that would have a better outcome, rather than creating and implementing plans that have less relevance.

The problem lies with poor infrastructure planning. Data from the grassroots are not gathered efficiently and planners do what they think is the problem. Take Kupwara for example, where locals are upbeat about this new road being developed that leads them to picturesque Bangus Valley, but they are equally nagged by the absence of public toilets in Kupwara town. There is only one public toilet there being shared by 50,000 people. Projects need to be prioritized correctly.

Srinagar, that has a steady stream of tourists round the year doesn’t have worthwhile ones to mention. Even government offices don’t have proper public conveniences. A whopping Rs. 10.9 crore for the year 2014-2015 under the Swachch Bharat Mission was sanctioned but till date no progress has been made. Lack of public toilets makes a day out for women and tourists distressful.

Toilets on Wheels were installed at some points in Srinagar city and elsewhere, but for lack of their upkeep and maintenance, today they are no more than rusted, ugly enclosures dotting an otherwise lush landscape. Kashmir is bestowed with natural aesthetics; people with an aesthetic bent of mind must be the ones to manage it.

The situation is more or less the same across the entire length and breadth of JK including its highways. Astonishingly, the 265-km highway to Kashmir from Jammu lacks basic amenities. Not a single public convenience has been built as part of the road widening scheme.

In 2015, the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had pointed out “serious financial irregularities” in the state; one reason why development in Jammu and Kashmir remained a far cry despite huge central funding.

Civil engineering has been one of the chosen fields of study of many Kashmiri boys and girls; we have scores of them, many unemployed, while some have spent a lifetime in public works and other departments. A consortium of the best civil engineers – both young and old –  can be put together to brainstorm through ideas, identify the most pressing needs, and develop plans to address them.

They can work as the planning teams. Members in these teams should be handed our key result areas (KRAs) and activities that should be stringently monitored. The ones who do not perform should be shown the door.

These teams should be able to gather the opinion of people and then prioritize projects. There must be toilets for women, and the same should be designed to aid the elderly and the disabled. Covered bus stands must exist for people for the winters.

Existing infrastructure can be tweaked to meet public needs. For example, abandoned Donga boats can be converted into public utilities so that tourists and locals do not use the Dal to relieve themselves.

Random assessment of any city, town and village in JK UT will yield you almost similar findings of stink and garbage. Take Shopian as another example. Frederic Drew, the English geologist, known for his geographical study of Kashmir, once drew a parallel of Shopian with “Royal Stay”, for it was a distortion of the word ShahPayan – Shah (Royal), Payan (Stay). But as on the day, despite a string of developmental press notes being served every other day, the beautiful town stinks.

Sopore, once known for its pristine landscape, has garbage dumps just adjacent to the roads. One can see garbage everywhere, even inside the streets. The town that boasts of the biggest freshwater lake in Asia, The Wular, puts Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to shame.

It is an irony that an engineer Utpala, who founded Sopore during king Avantivarman’s reign in 880 CE, has been reduced to a dumping site by the modern-day engineers of the Valley. People responsible for the creation and upkeep of civic amenities in JK UT are indulging in a national betrayal.

For meaningful change, we must embrace a bottom-up approach while deciding on Kashmir’s infrastructure needs. The top-down strategy that has been in use so far has failed to yield. Bottom-up is the new model of infrastructure development in Kashmir that can deliver results.

The key to the failure of older political governments in Kashmir was their excessive reliance on a top-down approach that had little or no relevance. Unless a policy is matched with a need that exists, any plan based out of it stands the greater chance of being a failure.

Citizens’ opinions can be drawn in to develop a ‘hierarchy of infrastructure needs’ outline that can serve as a good starting point for prioritizing projects. The funds available can be distributed amongst the top priority areas with a completion timeline.

Individuals and groups of villagers can be roped in to think innovatively in developing the infrastructure that they need, prompted by modern construction methods and indigenous design.

Technology can be deployed meaningfully for all these initiatives. Apps can help monitor the realtime progress of projects and also address citizens’ concerns. We can have a good citizen complaint redressal mechanism so that the concerns are quickly addressed. If the administration is not being able to reach everywhere, let people reach the administration through technology. Similarly public grievances can be logged and resolved using a transparent mechanism

Infrastructure planning is not rocket science but it requires honest intention and the zeal to complete a project. Any infrastructure solution has to be well-planned and done in an integrative fashion.

For its infrastructural woes, many feel that Kashmir is still a medieval destination yearning to be accepted in the modern era. It is time to bail out the paradise from hell. 

Dr Sanjay Parva is a Kashmir-born writer and thinker and Dr Asim Chowdhury an academic and independent researcher.