In July 2013, two motorboats and one motor-driven shikara sailed down the Jhelum river in Srinagar. They wound down from the wooden Zero Bridge, near the Lal Chowk city centre, to the Habba Kadal bridge in the old town. District Development Commissioner Farooq Ahmad Lone, watching over them, expressed “satisfaction” with this trial run for a state-run water transport service in the city.

In Srinagar, once called the city of canals or the “Venice of the East”, boats were a popular means of transport until its waterways were sealed up to make way for roads. Proposals to launch an inland water transport system and decongest the roads, however, were floated in the late-1990s. A trial was conducted in 2012 and a pilot project launched. Five state-run motorboats would ply down the river in the old town until 2014, when they were damaged by the floods. Now, only a few wooden boats remain, owned by local residents who ferry passengers across the river near Lal Chowk.

In 2016, the government tried once again to revive the transport system. “We can use the water transport for cargo transport, passenger transport and sightseeing for tourists,” then Divisional Commissioner of Kashmir, Asgar Samoon, said. “This will generate new avenues of employment and help reduce the rush on road transport.”

But a year on, the fate of the ambitious transport service remains uncertain.

‘No one’s baby’

To begin with, there is no dedicated government authority to administer all components of the Jhelum. “The water comes under one department, the bund comes under another and so on,” explained Ufair Aijaz Kitab, managing director of Kashmir Motors, which is to run the river transport. “The main problem is that it is no one’s baby. We had proposed setting up a Jhelum development authority which, besides the river, will be entirely responsible for the affairs of transport.”

According to Kitab, the flood-prone Jhelum lacks safety mechanisms. “This authority would be able to continuously monitor water levels,” he said. “When we navigate, maybe the water levels are not enough [in certain stretches]. There are no rescue boats either, on the Jhelum or on the Dal Lake, where there is a rush of tourists.”

There are other operational glitches, Kitab said. In downtown Srinagar, for example, the boats are prone to accidents. “The base of the bridges there is not visible when water levels are high,” Kitab explained. “There are piers of old bridges and boats get stuck in the whirlpool they create. We had asked the authorities to remove those.”

This year, dredging of the Jhelum has hampered operations. “We need to follow a standard operating procedure to ensure entry and exit times and to check equipment, life jackets, etc,” Kitab said. “For that we need a base to handle operations. Our base station on the Rajbagh bund was filled with sand due to the dredging.” Moreover, he added, the government has started building a new bridge over the river near Lal Chowk, making their operations difficult.

Javed Jaffar, former chief engineer of the state’s irrigation and flood control department, said the pilot project in 2012 failed for various reasons, one being high fares.

A motorboat provided by the J&K government for a trial run of the waterway transportation system on the Jhelum. Photo credit: Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times

Running dispute

The government has ambitious plans to start similar water transport service in North Kashmir, but, again, this is easier said than done. Not least because keeping the Jhelum navigable in all areas and through the year is difficult. For now, the river is navigable only in the summer, when the water levels are high.

Zahoor Ahmad Chatt, formerly with the Lakes and Waterways Development Authority, said the transport system would be “successful only for limited portions” of the river. To make the river navigable all year round, he explained, it would need a long series of weirs, or barriers across the river that would raise water levels during lean seasons. At present, there is only one weir at Chattabal in Srinagar, built in 1905 by the Dogra ruler Hari Singh. It raises the level of the Jhelum from Chattabal to Pampore, about 14 km south of the city, said Chatt.

As the river travels down north from Chattabal, the long awaited barrage at the mouth of the Wullar Lake in Bandipora district, known as the Tulbul Navigation Project, would be crucial to the transport service, Chatt said. He explained that the barrage would ensure adequate water levels from Wullar to Chattabal. If boats are to ply from South Kashmir to Srinagar, Chatt said, “then weirs behind that [south of Chattabal] will ensure that the river is navigable from Baramulla to Anantnag.”

But the Tulbul project has long been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan, which believes it would violate the Indus Waters Treaty, signed by the two countries in 1960. “Pakistan has raised objections to the barrage and despite 13 meetings between the Indus Water Commissioners of the two countries, the matter remains unresolved,” said Shakil Romshoo, head of Kashmir University’s earth sciences department. Over the years, construction of the barrage has happened in fits and starts. In 2012, separatist militants attacked the barrage in an attempt to stop work.

Jaffar said the flood control department had also attempted to construct rubber dams, which could be inflated or deflated, on the river. “But the Chinese company that was given the contract backed out,” he added.

Even if the river were made navigable, it would be a long commute. By river, the distance between Sangam in Anantnag and Ram Munshi Bagh in Srinagar is 56.5 km. By road, it is about 42 km. According to Kitab, the inland water transport system might work in the congested areas of Srinagar. Beyond that, it would just be too slow for regular commute. “From Srinagar to Anantnag, it will take four hours,” Kitab said.

A boat procession carrying Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and J&K Prime Minister Sheikh Abdullah on the Jhelum in September 1949. Courtesy: Photo Division, Government of India

Stately legacy

Yet, before motor vehicles became popular, both people and goods would travel on the river and the canals that snaked through Srinagar.

There were ration depots on the banks of the river. Even now ration depots, no matter where they are, are called “ghats”. Coal, firewood, and vegetables grown on the islands of the Dal Lake were also supplied through the waterways to other parts of the city, Chatt said.

Often, visiting dignitaries would take a stately ride down the Jhelum, from the Mughals to the viceroys in British colonial times to Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1940s.

In the 1970s, the government filled up a 14th century canal, Nallah Mar, which had earned Srinagar the moniker “Venice of East”. “That was the main blunder,” Chatt said. “It was the jugular vein of the Dal Lake. It would pass through downtown Srinagar, and vegetables and goods would come [to the city] through this route.”

Romshoo also lamented the lack of scientific thinking in policy. “Successive state governments have not bothered to conduct pre-feasibility assessment of the work they want to do, to assess the long-term viability and implications of a policy,” he rued.