Amid much fanfare, Srinagar residents got a new public space, well decorated and well lit, in the refurbished historic Zero Bridge on the river Jhelum. Inaugurated by the then chief minister, late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the bridge was renovated at a cost of 110 million rupees.
The 154-meter long bridge revamped with deodar and wooden decks on both sides. It was one among a few things that the coalition of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the People’s Democratic Party could show as proof of some form of development.
The historic bridge was promoted as a tourist spot owing to its historic and cultural blend. Four kiosks on the bridge and a food court, in the shape of a massive houseboat, closeby were intended to attract tourists.
The inauguration had grabbed many eyeballs and was widely covered by both local and the national press. The government spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, had tweeted in jubilation: “Inaugurated today- the food courts at Zero bridge Srinagar. I’m sure the food will be as delectable as the design.” Kansal also uploaded a picture of the bridge, one of the oldest in the summer capital.
While the food kiosks have disappeared, footfall on the bridge has only increased. It has become the only hangout for the youth in the city — significantly because of the nearby restaurants and a famed ice cream parlor. Youth holding cups of coffee and at times musical instruments can be seen dotting the Bridge constructed on wooden planks.
Today, government apathy and carelessness of the public has made the bridge a garbage dump, even as the number of people visiting the place even during chilling winter evenings has only increased. According to the locals, the bridge has seen a resurgence post the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s limited-autonomy last August. “While during the initial curfew days mainly locals would head to the bridge to get some sort of relief from the happenings around. It was around October, that the place became a hotspot for major get-togethers for the youth,” a local who identified himself as Suhail Ahmad said.
Like other bridges of Srinagar, Zero Bridge was also shut for to and through movement, a concertina wire was laid in the middle of the construction, to make sure that people don’t cross to the other side. “In mid-October, a group of employees from the water department cut down the concertina wire, and people breathed a sigh of relief as they could finally cross the bridge after over two months of remaining shut,” 24-year-old Ahmad said, adding that the government forces nearby camp had objected to it but the government officials insisted that it was necessary to be opened. “You never know had it not been for them the bridge would still have been shut.”
The remnants of last August’s insecurity, embodied in the concertina wire, to this day lies on the bridge though, none have bothered to clear it up—even as officials of the Municipal Corporation can often be seen taking a stroll here.
Samreen Ali, 22, from Srinagar’s downtown is a frequent visitor to the bridge. She says that she finds solace on the bridge, constructed in the 1950s when late Bakshi Ghulam Muhammad was the Prime Minister of J-K. “I come here almost every day, it is my therapy,” she said. “We all feel connected to the Jhelum and those mountains on either side, it is as if they want to speak to you, also the different forms of clouds look like people who have something to say. You see it depends on how you see things.”
While the bridge has been a meeting point for many, some have begun to moral police the groups of friends and young lovers merely conversing over coffee and snacks. On a wintry evening, this November, a commotion occurred inside one of the dilapidating kiosks.
A girl among a group of friends smoking cigarettes did not go down well with some youth who abused and manhandled the girl and questioned her character, merely for partaking in smoking for leisure. But the young woman responded to those questioning her character. “Am I only with lungs, are you guys without them,” she shouted, silencing the men who were offended and prompting laughter from others who had gathered.
While the bridge has become a place for many Kashmiris to unwind, government apathy and moral policing have played spoilsport. In a place with high levels of stress, merely decorating a dream is not enough — the administration must be proactive in ensuring its continuity.