Automotive aspirations in Srinagar have long crossed into the bounds of nightmare, mainly due to dreams woven by loan merchants and ad gurus across the Indian landscape – dreams transported into Kashmir by politicians commandeered to create illusions of progress on the bedrock of backwardness: an art perfected in the subcontinent by the practitioners of its electoral feudalism.
One result, in the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, is that this city of nearly 1.4 million souls, and growing, has a vehicular density comparable to a metropolis of the future, but infrastructure of roughly about 40 years ago. Governments have allowed private cars in huge volumes, and roads and thoroughfares have virtually no space for parking them. Parking vehicles, indeed is asking for a bit too much, because roads, at peak hours, have practically no space to drive them. Obviously, governments cannot be expected to think that far. A rash of shopping malls and commercial complexes, invariably illegal, suits the purpose of showcasing the state’s development admirably. Never mind that almost all such monuments to modernity have inadvertently overlooked that their meretriciously rich clientele owns at least two cars per family.
When asked, many such proud motorists shrug their shoulders, and cite the shortcomings of the public transport system as reasons for driving fast into debt. But do they have the same to say about their motored journeys? Is it easier to get to work on time? Is driving home the same fairytale spun out in television advertisements repeatedly at prime time – trees and lovely homes with tidy gardens, and futuristic highrises, gliding past on the wide highway as you dart your eyes from the speedometer to your personable companion? And isn’t petrol, and diesel, so cheap, or incomes – from all sources – so high, that one can afford to be the only occupant of a fuel-guzzling SUV that takes longer to get from Polo View to Budshah Chowk than a cyclist would take to pedal all the way to Nauhatta from the city centre?
Winter had brought some respite, as a good chunk of Srinagar’s motoratti – politicians, bureaucrats, lesser bureaucrats and their long retinue of security vehicles, not to mention the sons and daughters of politicians, bureaucrats, lesser bureaucrats, their near and distant relatives, and their retinue of security vehicles, had been prowling around in the far more accommodating spaces of Jammu. Now that this proud and privileged tribe is about to descend on Srinagar, the situation can only get worse.