By Baba Umar
IN PICTURESQUE Pahalgam, tucked in the sub-Himalayan ranges near the confluence of Sheshnag and Aru streams, villagers are fighting to safeguard an eco-sensitive region from a controversial Master Plan that is fast turning the tourist hotspot into a concrete jungle.
“It won’t be an exaggeration to say that these villages are under siege,” says Abdul Ahad Bhat of Manzimpora, one of the oldest villages in Pahalgam, located 95 km from Srinagar. “The Master Plan allows the rich to build hotels in eco-sensitive areas, but villagers can’t repair their huts, leave alone build new houses. My village was designated as part of the green zone,” says Bhat, who claims he is 130 years old.
Even a decade ago, Pahalgam had only a few hotels. Now, not only the banks of the Lidder stream have been occupied, businessmen, bureaucrats and relatives of politicians have violated norms and constructed hotels inside lush pine forests. Despite a five-year moratorium by the state tourism department and directorate of ecology and environment, the Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA) didn’t stop the rampant construction and gave the nod for building hotels with a condition that only a few rooms be built. The hoteliers raised huge buildings instead.
At the centre of the controversy is former Chief Town Planner Naseem Ahmad Mir, who designed the Master Plan in 2000. While the plan was in the works, his brother Javed Mir and some businessmen bought land in Pahalgam. Many land sales took place in eco-sensitive locations such as Chanhanji, Mir Pathery and Shikargah.
According to anti-corruption agency Vigilance Organisation of Kashmir (VOK), Naseem denotified the forest land and showed the land of neighbouring villages such as Rinzipal and Bradihaji as part of the green zone. The arrangement implied that local residents couldn’t get permission for repairing or constructing new houses.
VOK’s probe establishes that Naseem acquired 1,61,296 sq ft in Chanhanji and “fraudulently got the land mutated in the name of his subordinate employees”. The report says the area was designated as a green zone in the previous plans and had no commercial value. Naseem acquired the land at Rs 49.45 per sq ft and later sold it to developers M/s Yasmin Tramboo who planned to erect 10 huts and a restaurant in the lush foothills. VOK also discovered that the wives of Town Planner Hamid Ahmad Wani and Assistant Town Planner Nazir Ahmad Magray bought 22,848 sq ft in Chanhanji in 2007-08.
It was during this investigation that villagers were shocked to learn that their centuries-old villages have been notified as green zones and structures erected by big businessmen and politicians were not. “We never had separate laws for the rich and poor,” says Riyaz Ahmad Lone of Laripora Pahalgam village. Despite death threats, Lone formed the Pahalgam People’s Welfare Organisation in 2008 and filed a PIL in the Jammu & Kashmir High Court, which stayed commercial construction in Pahalgam and nominated a five-member panel to study the Master Plan.
Chief Town Planner Naseem bought land at throwaway prices even as he was preparing the new Master Plan
“Our battle isn’t directed at anyone but the Master Plan, which doesn’t benefit us. It doesn’t talk about villagers’ rehabilitation or damage assessment,” says Manzoor Ahmad Wani, 30, of Athwadan village whose two houses are sandwiched between the Animal Husbandry Department and a huge chunk of land allegedly owned by a cement baron. “You can see the discrepancy. Both of my houses have been notified as part of the green zone. And properties on my right and left side are not.”
The HC’s stay order in December 2010 halted further construction in Pahalgam but by then, some of the most scenic spots had already been plundered. For example, at Gujran Batikot, Naseem’s brother Javed had constructed nine structures close to Lidder stream that flows through the heart of Pahalgam and where pine trees grow in abundance. He was also allowed to build 10 huts near Hotel Hill Park, which locals allege, was included in the permissible zone in the Master Plan by his brother.
In fact, the then Pahalgam Assistant Director, Tourism, Muneeb Malik sent a letter to the PDA CEO in 2007 raising objections against the rampant construction. “During inspection, I was shocked to see that a large number of pine trees have been systematically lopped and their bark removed to render the trees dead and thereby paving way for the construction,” he wrote. “This vandalism of forest cover and destruction of nature on this scale merits an inquiry through relevant agencies.”
In May, the district administration, police and district sessions judge paid a surprise visit to Grand Mumtaz Hotel and found scores of trees had dried up around the hotel. Before that, contractors at the international golf course too had lopped pine trees and buried them nearby.
Villagers say the “highly influential” hotelier had used techniques employed by smugglers. They say the barks of the pine trees were peeled off and sprayed with chemicals so that the trees die a gradual death. TEHELKA found scores of dried-up trees in and around the hotel. The panel that submitted its report to the HC too has found over 100 standing trees “debarked and cemented at the base”. However, in his affidavit to the HC, hotel owner Mushtaq Ahmad Ganaie said that the “trees have dried up naturally and not deliberately killed by them”.
Construction of hotels and huts beyond the permissible limit is rampant in Pahalgam. For example, Hotel Pine Spring had permission for raising two huts with not more than 15 rooms. Instead, owner Sheikh Mohammad Iqbal, a cousin of Union Minister for Renewable Energy Farooq Abdullah, built a four-storey hotel with about 50 rooms in Larkipora. The sewage from the hotel directly empties into the Lidder stream, thus violating Pollution Control Board guidelines that make it mandatory for hotels with more than 20 rooms to have their own sewerage treatment plant.
Meanwhile, Hotel Hilltop had permission for minor repairs but its owner demolished the old structure of 40 rooms and constructed a new one with 100 rooms.
Hotel Baisaran, purportedly owned by Hurriyat leader Shabir Shah, has been built in a residential area where no commercial structure is allowed. Hotel Royal Hilton has come up in an area designated as a green zone in the old Master Plan. The new plan places this area full of pine trees in the permissible zone thus allowing the hotelier to erect a 150-room hotel.
PDA CEO Mir Altaf defended the authority, saying it has always tried to stop the illegal construction. “This time the issues of illegal constructions, drying of trees and the Master Plan are being heard in court. Let’s wait for the final verdict,” he said.
Meanwhile, the panel has criticised both the government agencies and hoteliers for “turning Pahalgam into a health hazard”. “The agencies say 95 percent of Pahalgam is eco-sensitive and only 5 percent has been reserved for development. But it’s not true. The concrete has reached beyond the figures they mention,” says panel member Ashok Kumar Pandita.
Pandita, who teaches environmental sciences at the University of Kashmir, says the panel is pushing for a review of the Master Plan. “Pahalgam’s beauty has been marred. Our report has found fault with the PDA for allowing haphazard construction. In fact, they have also built two concrete structures at the golf course that otherwise should have been wooden.”
While the Master Plan’s irrationality and wanton destruction of eco-sensitive area continues to be debated, Bhat is a sad man. “People are dying young. There is no mercy for the poor. I remember the time when Dogras ruled. They were brutal, but we didn’t have large-scale corruption and intrusion in our lives then,” says Bhat.
Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.