Breathing life into old water transport project in Valley

Breathing life into old water transport project in Valley

With Srinagar city roads struggling to cope with  growing number of vehicles, the Jammu and Kashmir government has started ambitious water transport project on historic Jehlum river. The experiment has been started with an aim to revive the centuries-old water transport system and promote heritage tourism.  

Srinagar, once called the city of canals or "Venice of the East", was robbed of its title due to human greed as waterways were sealed up to make way for roads. In 1970s, the state government filled up a 14th century canal, "Nallah Mar", which was the jugular vein of famous Dal Lake. It   passed through downtown Srinagar and vegetables and goods would come to the city through this route.  

Though a proposal to launch an inland water transport system was  mooted in late 1990s, the trial could be conducted only in 2012. The pilot project  could not take off due to the devastating floods in September 2014.  

In July, the government re-started Jhelum cruise services to promote water transport and heritage tourism. The cruise service was started jointly by the Department of Tourism, the Tourism Development Corporation and the Divisional Administration on August 25 after a over month-long trial.  

The planners believe it could power Srinagar's potential to own a robust river transport system like Venice and Amsterdam. The department of tourism operates the service twice a day at 10 am and at 4 pm at Rs 25 per head from Peerzo to Veir Chattabal in Srinagar.  The charges were slashed from Rs 100 per person following suggestions from various stakeholders. The plan is to extend the services to Pulwama and Anantnag in south and Baramulla in north. The action plan has  adopted standards  followed in Italy and other European countries.  

Director, Tourism, Mehmood Ahmad Shah believes the service could boost tourism as there are many heritage sites on the banks of Jhelum which tourists want to see. "We have released the drone video on the seven bridges on Jhelum which received overwhelming response from locals. Both locals and tourists want to have the cruise on Jhelum to see the historic places," he said.  

The tourism department has already roped in Shikara owners in the initiative. A tourism department official said that Shikara owners will be trained first and then provided with motor boats. "We have involved them as we want them to  run the services. They  will be given 50% subsidy. Many Shikara owners have applied for   training and participation in the initiative," he said.

Experts say that the plan needs lot of coordination among different government departments because keeping the Jhelum navigable in all areas and throughout the year is difficult. For now, the river is navigable only in the summer, when the water levels are high.

The water transport system would be successful only for limited portions of the river. To make the river navigable all year round, it would need a long series of weirs, or barriers across the river that would raise water levels during lean season," an official of Lakes and Water Ways Development Authority said.  

Ufair Aijaz Kitab, Managing Director of Kashmir Motors, which is to run the river transport, says there is need to set up Jhelum Development Authority which, besides the river, will be entirely responsible for the affairs of water transport, if the project has to succeed.  

"There is no dedicated government authority to administer all components of the Jhelum. The main problem is that it is no one's baby. The flood-prone Jhelum also lacks safety mechanisms. There is need to continuously monitor water levels," he said. The environmentalists have also issued an advisory saying the service should be eco-friendly and there should be no oil spill from boats.

"If the service is for only tourists, then the impact will be less. But if the government intends to develop it as a regular mode of public transport, then proper environmental assessment is needed," Shakil A Romshoo, the head of Kashmir University's department of Earth Sciences, said.

Habib-ullah Bhat, an octogenarian, while recalling his childhood, said people of the city used to go on excursions in boats. "There were many ghats that served as ports for loading and unloading the boats.  Even goods would  be transported in boats in the river and the canals that snaked through Srinagar. But with increasing  human greed, all these ghats met the same fate as the nallahs (canals)," he told DH.

"Often, visiting dignitaries would take a stately ride down Jhelum, from the viceroys in British colonial times to first Prime Minister of India the late Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1940s," he recalled.  

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