Elevating Stink

It is the latest in a series of jokes on Kashmir, the others notable being the Valley’s peace and ‘thriving’ democracy. Its capital city of Srinagar has been ranked ninth on a list of India’s cleanest cities in a survey conducted by the India Today magazine. What a quantum leap from 2010, when a survey on sanitation standards had placed Srinagar at 420 among 423 cities of India. Sometime earlier, the city had distinguished itself as the country’s fourth dirtiest. The new survey, apparently, has evaluated Srinagar on the basis of picture postcards, particularly those spruced up with Photoshop. Reality, which is there for everyone to see, belies the claim. Take a stroll along the banks of the Jhelum and you come across innumerable rivulets of urine as tributaries to a river which had been the cradle of our civilization. The mounds of human excreta replenished on a regular basis have left the banks a veritable minefield. Tales that our forefathers used the river for bathing, washing clothes and cooking-vessels, and potable water, must be myth indeed. The Baba Demb too is said to have been a pristine lake in the days gone by, but who can believe that of the cesspool flanked on one side by the ‘new,’ and on the other, the old city.

Numerous streams, that had earned Srinagar the appellation ‘the Venice of the East’, have either become ‘reclaimed land’ after a prolonged term of swamp-hood or continue to assail our senses with the effluent flowing as their water. Many of these kuls, with sweet-sounding names, now exist only as part of folklore: those that survive are an affront to sight and smell. There was a time, not too long back, when they sparkled with purity, not only sustaining the population that invariably settled on their banks but also providing aesthetic relief.

Authorities concerned are anything but concerned: our municipal bodies are more prep schools for politicians than custodians of civic norms. A proper system for garbage collection and disposal has never been devised.  Dumpers overflowing with garbage – a feast for the burgeoning population of foraging dogs and stray cattle – stand as stinking monuments to inept and ineffectual civic institutions. Open sewers and clogged drains are a frequent sight. Manholes are open death-traps, their occasional cleaning leaving mounds of muck to be propagated far and wide by treading humanity. Public toilets are almost non-existent, and those that remain, too revolting, and insufficient for the growing number of road-bound citizenry, and Valley-bound touristry. Stray cows, summarily impounded in previous times, vie with pedestrians and motorists for road space. Canine and bovine carcasses lie ‘in state’ on streets for days, and when finally disposed off, make a pageant of bloated remains down a river choking on memories.

Instead of addressing issues related to public hygiene, municipal authorities have busied themselves with setting up fountains. Tokenism instead of concrete action has become a hallmark of this political launching pad. There was a time when, early in the morning, municipal workers would clean streets, followed by a bhishti sprinkling the roads with water to settle the dust. Sweeping is an infrequent sight these days, the only proof of the workers’ existence being salary-bills growing longer with the passage of time.

Paradise inmates cannot altogether be absolved of their role in contributing to the literal and metaphorical filth all around.  It is a fact that we completely lack civic sense. We are concerned with our own selves and show a total disregard for others. We treat our streets as open dust-bins, spittoons and urinals, all the three rolled into one. Everyone wants to keep his own house spick-and-span and gives two hoots to the garbage outside his boundary wall, to which he is a generous and regular contributor. We consider it a fundamental right to spit in the streets, with an extended jurisdiction over corridors of public buildings. Legendary Srinagar is dying an ignominious death by drowning in its own vomit and yet some researcher has found it among the ten cleanest cities of India. What a stinking mess cities in India must be.