During the height of last year’s summer unrest when shutdowns were showing no signs of waning, the government and its agencies embarked on a well-crafted plan to break the stalemate precipitated by the continued strikes. Obviously their attempts to reach out to the separatist leaders, who were issuing weekly protest calendars which were sanctifying these shutdowns, had not brought desired results. So they unveiled a plan which encouraged the street vendors to occupy main roads and streets and not only the footpaths and side-walks to do their business. The strategy worked. Even when the shops would remain closed, the street-vendors would throng the main business hub all the way from TRC to Batamaloo in uptown Srinagar every single day to sell their merchandize. The plan actually worked so well that some shopkeepers, who otherwise were not able to open their businesses owing to shutdown, also started selling their products on the side-walks near their shops. No wonder on every single day, this TRC-Batamaloo axis would remain abuzz will business activity even though it was altogether a different situation elsewhere – as anybody daring to defy shutdown would be greeted with stones, abuses and invectives.
As is the law of nature, separatists couldn’t have continued with their ‘hartal’ calendars till eternity – although they did over-stretch it to dicey lengths, attracting much rebuke and ridicule even from their most ardent supporters. Finally when they called it a day and allowed the routine business to resume, people, particularly the traders and shopkeepers heaved a sigh of relief. However, what they did not know was that the street-vendors who had by now evolved into a vital asset for the government for their “valuable contribution” were in no mood to make way for the regular activities which would demand that they vacate the roads and sidewalks to allow un-hassled movement of vehicular traffic and pedestrians. How could police and other agencies, who had until recently not only encouraged but even pleaded with them to come and occupy public spaces for doing their business, now tell them to roll-up their ‘lock, stock and barrel’ and go home? So the impasse continues to this day; and its fallout is that the entire city has virtually been taken over by the street-vendors and both vehicular as well as pedestrian movement is facing great hardships. No wonder hours long traffic snarls and jams have become a routine now and the administration is not able to do anything about it.
It might sound ironical, but fact of the matter remains that besides the complicity of the Municipal authorities, which certainly doesn’t come for nothing, it is the territorial police from concerned police stations which have all along encouraged and patronized this grab of the pedestrian pathways in the Srinagar City as well as in the towns. Both municipal employees as well as cops generate whooping sums as ‘Hafta’ from the transporters and roadside vendors and in return allow them a free-run. The amount and extent of the sleazy money thus generated could be imagined from the fact that in the jurisdictions of some police stations each roadside vendor pays anywhere between Rs 300-1000 a month to the police only. And a similar token amount is pledged towards the Municipal authorities as well. Now anybody wanting to check it could very well go and ask the roadside vendors in and around Batamaloo or Hazuri Bagh or Hari Singh High Street or Dalgate or Soura or Qamarwari, Parimpora and elsewhere as to how much they shell out on daily and weekly basis so as to buy undue favours of police and other concerned agencies, which then ensures that they could do business on the main roads and sidewalks without any hassles.
Indeed there are a few police stations which are so rich in terms of the money they generate through corrupt means of ‘hafta’ that cops actually pay huge bribes for posting to these “lucrative” locations. One thing that is very unlikely to be contradicted is that even the police top brass as well as the civil administration is in complete know of how this ‘hafta’ system works and how the same has been undermining the law of the land. Yet nothing has been, or is being done to check this problem.
So as long as corruption and trade in favours continues, expecting the roads, streets and footpaths being reclaimed for the ordinary people will be too foolish. Unless and until the municipal authorities as well as the police are taken to task and held accountable for the roads and streets in their respective jurisdictions, nothing is going to help. But the question is if there is a political will to do so!