On a rainy morning on May 4, a group of workers reached a major crossing in Srinagar city centre.

They walked up to a sandbag bunker – one among the scores of similar structures from behind which security personnel watch the city.

Within three hours, the pile of sandbags had been covered with a structure made out of blue iron sheets, with a wire mesh in front to allow a soldier to look out.

The final touch? A billboard with the G20 logo and images of the snow-clad mountains in Gulmarg, Kashmir’s popular ski resort, was stuck in front.

The “smart bunker” was ready.

Around 30 or 40 security bunkers are being renovated at the cost of Rs 44.44 lakh, as the Jammu and Kashmir administration prepares for a meeting of G20 representatives in Srinagar on May 22.

That is not all. Srinagar’s roads are being spruced up with demarcated cycle tracks, markets are being turned into pedestrian-only and barbed wire-free zones and art students are painting murals featuring wild peacocks and rababs – the stringed instrument used in Kashmiri folk music – on walls around the city.

“We are trying to portray certain aspects of Kashmiri culture and the past,” said Shahid Shabir Wani, a 23-year-old undergraduate student in fine arts at the University of Kashmir.

This will be the first international event in Kashmir following the scrapping of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and statehood by New Delhi in August, 2019. In order to make the meeting a success, the administration of the Union territory has mobilised massive resources and put in a great effort, even as recent terror attacks in Jammu cast a shadow over the state’s security situation.

The 'smart' security bunker is hidden by a structure made of blue iron sheets. Credit: Umer Asif.

“Over a period of time, things have drastically improved in Srinagar” said Athar Aamir Khan, chief executive officer, Srinagar Smart City Limited, a government-owned special purpose entity implementing the Rs 1,000-crore Smart Cities Mission in Srinagar. “Big bunkers have been removed but some places still need it.”

The makeover of the bunkers is part of the Smart Cities project, which has picked up speed ahead of the G20 meet.

According to Khan, the idea behind the “smart bunkers” is to advertise offbeat tourist spots. “We have just covered the bunker in an attractive structure and put a banner of a tourist site,” he said.

College students paint a wall in Srinagar. Credit: Umer Asif.

The symbolism

The Group of 20 is a forum of the largest industrialised and developing nations in the world.

Every year, the presidency of the forum rotates between members. India took over the presidency from Indonesia on December 1, 2022. This year, more than 50 cities around the country will host around 200 meetings of the forum.

Owing to its scenic beauty, Srinagar has been chosen to host the third tourism working group meeting between May 22 and May 24.

For the Jammu and Kashmir administration, the event is meant to send out a signal.

On the eve of Republic Day, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha had said the G20 meeting in Kashmir is a “message to the enemies of humanity who were attacking the interests of our citizens through cowardly acts of terrorism for decades”.

He also urged “every section of the society to come forward and make the G-20 an inclusive event”.

While China is part of the forum, Pakistan is not.

In April, Pakistan described New Delhi’s decision to hold the G20 event in Srinagar as an “irresponsible move”. China, too, has voiced its opposition about the event in Srinagar. It’s not clear if Chinese representatives will participate in the Kashmir meeting.

On May 15, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues criticised what it called India’s attempt “to normalise what some have described as a military occupation by instrumentalising a G20 meeting and portray an international seal of approval”.

Politicians in Jammu and Kashmir have been critical of the meeting. On May 1, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister and National Conference vice-president Omar Abdullah called the Srinagar G20 event a “tamasha” which has “only punished the residents of Srinagar.”

Another former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, has alleged that several hundred young people have been taken into custody ahead of the meet.

A new ‘work culture’

The G20 event has also given a new push to the Srinagar smart city project.

“We prioritised around 15-16 projects under the mission,” said Khan. “On certain projects, we increased the manpower twice or thrice and worked double shifts.” The G20 event, Khan added, “is a good opportunity for us to showcase the potential of the city”.

Among the sites being spruced up is Gupkar Junction, the street on which Kashmir’s most influential bureaucrats, leaders and functionaries live. Visiting delegates are likely to take this route to their destination when they arrive in Srinagar on May 22.

The delegates will also see newly painted roads and a cleaner Dal Lake, with colourful shikaras and houseboats, and the pedestrian-only Polo View Market, which also has got new cobbled streets.

Out of the total 137 projects under the mission, 66 have been already completed while work on 71 is ongoing, the Srinagar Smart city project’s website shows. According to Khan, roughly 35 ongoing projects are likely to be completed by the end of next month.

The G20 meeting has speeded up construction work in the city under the Smart Cities project. Credit: Umer Asif.

The push to the Smart City project driven by the G20 meeting has also helped develop a different “work culture” in the valley, he said.

“Earlier, no work happened in Kashmir at night,” said Khan. “All construction stopped from November to March-April due to winter. If Europe and other places, which are colder than Kashmir, can do it, why can’t we?”

However, the flurry of construction has caused great consternation among residents, particularly Srinagar’s business community. For months, trade bodies in Srinagar have been requesting the government to expedite work under the project as the extended construction work were causing them massive losses.

“Whatever losses we had to suffer, we suffered,” said Feroz Ahmad Baba, president of the Lal Chowk Traders’ Federation. “We are pleased that they have increased the manpower to complete the projects.”

For some, the city’s makeover has meant a lot of inconvenience.

“Buses do not ply on this road anymore. That used to bring a lot of customers,” said a shopkeeper near the city’s Ghanta Ghar area, while looking towards a group of masons laying stones to turn the road into a cobbled street. “Let’s hope they allow buses on this side once the project is complete. Otherwise, it will be difficult for us.”

On the street, too, there appears to be little enthusiasm for the G20 event.

“I don’t know who is coming here,” said a pedestrian in Srinagar’s Lal Chowk, while tiptoeing through the maze of construction material and machinery spread out on the road.

Threat perception

The security establishment in the Valley has made elaborate arrangements to ensure the G20 meet is uneventful.

On May 2, Vijay Kumar, additional director general of police, Kashmir, chaired a joint meeting of different security and intelligence agencies to discuss security arrangements for the summit.

The “special focus” of the meeting was “on the emerging threat of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices and other modes of potential terror attacks, including potential fidayeen attacks, standoff fire and grenade attacks…,” read a press release issued by Jammu and Kashmir police on May 2.

The police handout also said that the Marine Commandos, a special forces unit of the Indian Navy, as well as commandos from the counter-terrorism unit of the National Security Guard will assist the security forces in maintaining security during the event. While Marine Commandos will be “put in place to provide a strong security cover for the water bodies around the summit venues”, the press release said teams of National Security Guard to “counter fidayeen attack …will be deployed at all venues”.

Marine commandos from the Indian Navy patrol the Dal Lake, days ahead of the G20 meeting. Credit: PTI.

The security measures have also resulted in allegations that the police have illegally detained many young men.

“Since the process of holding the G20 event has started, the arrest, torture and questioning of youngsters has also begun,” alleged Mehbooba Mufti, the president of Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Democratic Party, at a press conference on April 29. “People are being called to police stations. Hundreds of youth from South Kashmir have been put in jails.”

The police have not responded to the allegations.

“There is no hearing,” she said. “The situation in J-K is worse than Guantanamo Bay. Let them do the G-20 event, but why are the youth being arrested?”

Attacks in Jammu

While Kashmir Valley gears up for the global event, there has been an uptick in attacks by militants in the Union territory’s Jammu region in the last few weeks.

At least 10 soldiers have been killed in two ambushes by suspected militants in Jammu’s Pir Panjal region since April 20.

On May 5, a group of soldiers, who were part of a cordon and search operation in the forests of Jammu’s Rajouri district, were attacked by militants. Five soldiers were killed and an officer of the major rank was injured.

National Security Guard commandos at the Lal Chowk area, in Srinagar, as part of the security arrangements for the G20 meeting. Credit: PTI.

In retaliation, security forces gunned down one militant in Rajouri. The operation is still on.

On April 20, five soldiers were killed when militants ambushed an Army truck in Tota Gali area of Bhatta Durian in Poonch district.

The Valley, too, has seen a rise in anti-militancy operations by the security forces.

In the first week of this month, three local militants affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba have been killed in two separate encounters in north Kashmir’s Baramulla district.

The tourist resort of Gulmarg, which the G20 dignitaries are likely to visit, is located in Baramulla district.