I travelled to Kashmir in September 2009, the first time since the early 1990s. My flight landed in the small hours of the morning at the international terminal of the Indira Gandhi airport and I took a bus, guarded by armed policemen, to the domestic terminal of the same airport and waited a few hours to catch the connecting flight to Srinagar. A branch of a British coffee chain had already opened and it catered to local tastes while serving hot and cold beverages. There were continual announcements for flights to various destinations. The Indian skies had opened to private airlines on domestic routes and the airport in Delhi had become noisier since the last time I was there. Half-a-dozen different aircrafts taxiied on the runway, their liveries painted in garish colours and the ground staff guarding their pitches.
My flight to Srinagar was almost empty. I was surprised that the new airline I was travelling with would fly there with no more than a handful of passengers. Kashmir had been restive for a few months and tourists were staying away from the Valley for the second year in a row.
The aircraft flew over the hazy plains of northern India before crossing mountainous terrain. When it turned, I saw snow on the mountaintops, the white stuff somehow feeling very reassuring. As the plane descended into the Vale of Kashmir, the landscape transformed in my mind’s eye into one of Van Gogh’s paintings until it touched down with a jolt and I noticed the camouflages on both sides of the runway.
I was lucky to be visiting Kashmir just two days after Id and hoped that Srinagar would remain peaceful for some time. My father was there to meet me. It was still very hot and dry. As he drove me through the town, the scores of heavy vehicles on the road blew small storms of dust. A lot of the roads had been dug up for the laying of drainage pipes. The words of the Led Zeppelin song ‘Sure as the dust that floats high in June, when moving through Kashmir’ rang in my head. I asked my father when it had last rained in Srinagar. He seemed perplexed by my question. It was bad enough for him to drive on dirt roads, let alone muddy ones if it rained.
The town hadn’t changed much in a decade and a half except for a flyover that had been built in its centre and the monstrous telecom towers that had sprung up everywhere. Most of the shops and houses en route were covered in fine dust. But it was the dust on the leaves of the chinars and poplars that I found really unsettling. How I wanted it to rain in Srinagar that night so those trees would be washed. The grass of our lawn had turned brown and my father told me that there was no need for him to use a lawnmower any more.
While driving along Dr Ali Jan Road, there was a rancid smell in the air. I was told it came from a rubbish dump in Achan. Perhaps it was irreverent of our municipal council to have named this road after a famous son of the soil, given its proximity to a dumping site. So much for the perfumed air of Kashmir, I felt overpowered by the fetid breeze. I thought of the people living around there and learnt later that they had been protesting for some time and the police had recently resorted to firing bullets in the air to disperse them.
Some decades ago, people in the old town called those living a few miles away ‘Fronteliers’. Today, Srinagar has exploded.
Srinagar is a sprawling city. It was a densely populated town at the end of the millennium and its population has increased by a more than a quarter since then. Only a few decades ago, people in the old town described anyone living just a few miles away from Jamia Masjid as a ‘Frontelier’. The number of vehicles on the road has increased exponentially in the last quarter of a century. I was bewildered to see how congested the town had become and how recklessly men and women drove. I asked my father to be mindful of other road users like motorcyclists, to which he retorted, “Why don’t you get in the driver’s seat and try it yourself?” A little later, someone came riding a motorbike on the wrong side of the road, forcing my father’s car to the kerb. It was then I realised how risky it was to drive in this town.
I’d been warned by friends and acquaintances to be careful of pickpockets while walking through crowded places in the town. But I wasn’t alarmed to hear about pickpockets in Srinagar. I often meet people at my place of work whose pockets have been picked while visiting one of the various London attractions. Sometimes the pickpockets in Central London disguise themselves as policemen to empty the wallets of unsuspecting tourists. On my second day in Srinagar, I saw a mob in our neighbourhood mercilessly beating up a man who they said was a pickpocket; later in the day I saw another man being paraded past Lal Chowk in handcuffs by a couple of policemen. He too was allegedly a pickpocket. While walking through the alleyways of Maharaja Bazaar, I held firmly to my wallet in my back pocket.
One of our quick-tempered neighbours in Srinagar asked me what I liked about living in a city like London. I told him that I could get around easily on my push-bike. This reply, which he thought was absurd, made him more irritable. He told me that his son lived in America and drove a big car there.
The real extent of the deforestation in Jammu and Kashmir dawned upon me during my subsequent visit, when I unwittingly booked a flight to Srinagar from Delhi via Jammu and saw the dried-up Tawi from the sky. It wasn’t hard to guess that the glacier which fed it had receded. The landscape was mostly denuded, the seasonal rivers and rivulets like fresh scars on the barren hills. The second leg of my journey made me realise how little arable land there is in Kashmir and how keen our people are to turn prime agricultural land into construction sites. The vales of Kashmir are considered one of the wonders of the natural world. But it would be the people living in mountainous regions, like Kashmir, who’d be hit hardest by climate change. However, no one should be surprised by the landslides in the state because it has got very little forest cover. The vale of Kashmir does not drain well and is prone to floods, so the homes built on a flood plain are bound to be inundated.
I’d been toying with the idea of travelling to Srinagar in September last year when I heard that the Jhelum had broken its banks. I couldn’t help thinking it was a man-made disaster brought about by the burning of fossil fuel on our planet and the felling of trees and the shrinking of forests all over the world. But some of my friends in Srinagar understood it as a disaster caused by the breaching of the banks of the Jhelum by men in fatigues. I preferred to look at aerial pictures to see the extent of the flooding rather than listen to reporters shouting on a Delhi-based television news channel about the scale and scope of the rescue operation by army personnel. The town of Srinagar, its streets filled with muddy water, appeared very serene in the pictures taken from above, except for a few houseboats on the Dal Lake that had gone askew. These pictures showed the wetlands as green swirls and Raj Bagh—one time Jardin de Rajahs—submerged by the waters of a calm river.
The threat of landslides and flooding due to deforestation poses a bigger danger to human life and food security in Jammu and Kashmir than that posed by militancy. In the words of the 15th-century Kashmiri poet Nund Rishi, “Ann poshi teli yeli wann poshi (Food will last as long as the forests last)”.
(London-based Iqbal Ahmed is the author most recently of Sorrows of the Moon.)