For Basit Mir, Zero Bridge was more than just a landmark; where the threads of his past and present interwove seamlessly. Along the banks of the Jhelum River, this picturesque locale had been a cherished meeting point for Basit and his close-knit group of friends for as long as they could remember.
From the carefree days of school to the hustle and bustle of their professional lives, they had formed a tradition of sorts. Together, they would purchase steaming cups of coffee and savoury chicken nuggets from the gable-roof cafes lining the bridge, spending hours.
"One cafe has been our favourite hangout since high school days," Basit reminisces, his eyes reflecting the nostalgia. "It's like living by a schedule that we've cherished for decades."
But recently, the cherished hangout was drove away by the newly imposed parking charges under the Smart City project.
Basit and his friends, who had shared countless memories at Zero Bridge, displaced their gatherings from the beloved spot to the calm shores of Dal Lake.
"It felt strange that even if you just want to buy a cup of coffee, you have to pay a 20-rupees like entry fees," Mir laments, his voice spattered with sadness.
"We used to spend entire days and evenings here without shelling out a dime. Now, you have to pay just to access the area. I mean, the Smart City project hasn't done any work here. What are they charging us for?"
"It's an open public space, and these parking charges are far from reasonable. It's like you're painting a wall and then asking the citizens to pay just to gaze at it."
"I paid a few times out of habit, but eventually, I suggested to my mates that we explore other places around the Boulevard," he adds "Paying 200 rupees a day just to visit Zero Bridge or take a leisurely stroll along the bund is simply unsustainable."
Mir was not alone in his discontent. The burdensome parking charges were also taking a toll on Srinagar's college-going students. Sheba Bhat, a 24-year-old student, used to have a penchant for ice cream shakes by the river, a memorable lenience.
"Having a break with ice cream shakes here in simmering summers was like an addiction," Sheba says.
"However, since they started charging for parking, I've had to reconsider my habit. My pocket money can't handle it anymore."
"The Zero Bridge area also houses Kashmir's oldest ice cream parlors, known for its trustworthiness and taste," Sheba continues. "The parking charges threaten to put a halt to the business of local shopkeepers as well, they have built a brand for ages.”
As discontent simmered among the public, the man at the helm of the Smart City project, Hardeep Singh defended the charges, viewing them as entirely fair and practical.
"These charges are an integral part of the Smart City project," Singh asserts. "It's an open public space, and like any other public space, it has its due spot charges. Visitors must bear these charges."
"In accordance with the latest SMC order, the entire city of Srinagar has come under the umbrella of a paid parking system, and this area is no exception. It's a crucial part of our project,” he tells The Himalayan Post.