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Concrete eats into the Dal – slowly and steadily

Whole illegal colonies have come up in the Dal Lake,with full cooperation from the LAWDA and the local authorities - for a fat payback.

Written by MEHRAJ D LONE | Srinagar |
March 20, 2009 12:13:15 pm

A two storied concrete house painted light green with its door and windows shut overlooks a row of ornately carved houseboats. A crumbling shed made of rusty tin shards and erected on wooden pillars rises out of water,and a row of naked-brick shops directly opposite the shed across a narrow strip of water,littered with garbage and colourful polythene bags,stand in the shadow of the house. This is a scene from Mir Mohalla inside Dal Lake. Except for the houseboats,the towering Zabarwan hills in the background and the turbid water,the entire scene is illegal.

Once the postcard picture of Kashmir,the Dal Lake in Srinagar is dying a quick death; with the illegal structures – that have been constructed in full view of the administration – acting like cyanide. Behind the rows of glitzy houseboats and Shikara,illegal colonies dot the waterscape of the lake. The worst affected parts are Chaku Mohalla,the area around Rainawari,Jogi Lankar,Mir Mohalla,Jalla Mohalla,Bakhri Mohalla and Kand Mohalla.

Aslam Provision Store – a single storied naked brick building with three shuttered shops on the left of the narrow waterway from Jalla Mohalla to Bakhri Mohalla is illegal and so is the butcher’s shop,a rusting tin shed on decaying wooden pillars,inside which the butcher is standing in prayer,a few yards from the Store. At least a dozen houses,including two newly built concrete houses,across the waterway from the butcher’s shop are also illegal.

Azam Art Palace at Jalla Mohalla is illegal and so is Mahboob Tailors,a half concrete,half tin shack where a bearded man is sewing. Two water-lanes – that can barely accommodate two Shikaras side by side – across stands Manzoor Hair cutting saloon,a decrepit wooden and tin shed on pillars. The saloon is illegal but a yellow plastic dustbin on a wooden plank that goes for the shop’s verandah is legal – LAWDA is written across the dustbin in bold black letters.

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At Bakhri Mohalla,LAWDA has recently pulled down what appears as a large concrete shopping complex. Iron rods sticking out of the skeleton point towards other concrete buildings surrounding it. “Except for two,all are illegal,” says a resident. Nearby,Gulfam Tailors,a wooden shop looks down illegally at its reflection in the murky waters of the lake.

But this is only the clichéd tip of the iceberg. “About 60 per cent of the houses and shops in the Dal are illegal,” said a Dal resident. “And now those people whose houses are legal too have started building illegal constructions as their families are expanding. The authorities know everything but they don’t take any action and I don’t think they ever would. They make lots of money out of it”.

Over the years the state government made several plans to dismantle the constructions inside the lake and to resettle the Dal residents at some other place,but the plans were never implemented. “Officials come to us to take our house numbers,ration card numbers and family details. They say we would be provided plots and houses outside Dal. They have been doing this for more than ten years now,” said Altaf Ahmad,a Dal resident. “But as you see we are still living here”.

And in the rare cases that the administration tried to implement the resettlement plans,it did so half-heartedly and with a clear lack of vision. As a result,the problem instead of being solved got aggravated.

In mid-eighties,the state government,in an effort to clean the Dal of illegal constructions relocated the residents of Shia-majority Kand Mohalla and settled them at Hawal,near Firdous Cinema. The constructions they had made inside Dal,however,were not pulled down and the residents resettled here after a few years.

“At that time,each family got one plot of land. But since their children have now grown up each family has split into three or four families. And now they demand a plot for each of the new families,” said a resident who owns a showroom inside the Dal. “The LAWDA people don’t dare go in that Mohalla. If they go they will be burnt alive”.

The intervention of the J-K High Court in recent months has,however,had helped stop the constructions. “I don’t know of an illegal building that has come up in the last five to six months. The officials fear the High Court and have prevented people from constructing new buildings. But I don’t how long it will remain like this,” said Ahmad.

Modus Operandi: How the illegal structures are constructed.

The process of building the illegal structures starts and ends with Lakes and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA). Even before the first line of the blue print for the illegal construction is drawn,bribes (LAWDA officials prefer the word commission) are negotiated with the LAWDA officials. There is no fixed rate for the commission but the more guidelines the builder intends to flout the fatter commission he has to pay.

Once the rates are settled the project gets underway and construction material is smuggled inside Dal. Most of this material comes through the “smuggling lifeline” of Rainawari but it doesn’t come cheap. Builders have to pay a standard rate of Rs 500 per truck to the policemen before the trucks are allowed to move beyond Zind Shah Mosque at Rainawari. The trucks are emptied on the banks of the lake after the city has slept for the night.

From here,Kochas – large boats designed specially for this purpose – ferry the material across the lake. “We have spent our entire lives here and we know every inch of this lake. It is not difficult for us to row in the night,” said a boatman. But before the boats can leave the bank with the material,the policemen see to it that their Khaki pockets are bulging with crisp notes.

The brick and mortar is laid the moment the material arrives not to build a structure but a shack. The LAWDA officials,police and SMC (the SMC has no jurisdiction over the Dal but they too want a share in the gold mine) cruise in on their motor boats and knock down the shack. “They usually bring photographers with them to show the government and the people that they are doing their duty,” said a 40-year-old Dal resident.

The next day the construction starts again,this time permanently. “The officials tell them to finish the construction quickly,” the resident said. “Once the construction is complete nobody can dismantle it. The officials say that since the structure has been standing there since the owner’s grandfather’s day,they can do nothing about it”.

For every new illegal house constructed,the officials get Rs 1-2 lakh. “They don’t care whether you are rich or poor,you have to pay,” said a resident. “If you paint your home or shop,you have to pay the officials Rs 500 for even that. Or they won’t let you paint”.

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