Interestingly the official website of Jammu and Kashmir tourism shows Tosa-Maidan, a vast meadow in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, a must visit tourist destination. The website claims that the 3 mile long and 1.5 mile wide pasture was one of the safest, easiest and nearest route to reach Punjab in ancient times. But the present day Tosa Maidan is far from safe as it has been leased out to Indian army for carrying out artillery drills in 1964. The lease agreement, which was valid for 50 years and ends on April 16, 2014, has become a bone of contention between locals and the army. In last five decades 63 people have been killed and thousands injured by unexploded shells that lay scattered in these green pastures.
The movement against renewal of lease to army that started from the village living just outside the official firing range has now reached Srinagar.
With Lok Sabha election in progress and state assembly elections slated to be held later this year Tosa Maidan is sure to snowball into a major controversy, as the cost of keeping army’s guns active is proving fatal for locals.
But politics apart restoring the natural beauty of this once serener meadow should be government priority as it has huge tourism potential that can help hapless villagers to rebuild their lives to an extent.
It is ironic that government often supports its peace claims by flaunting tourist numbers and yet fails miserably to rid tourism potential destinations from encroachments.
In Gulmarg and Botapathra area army has illegally occupied 175 acres of land. If one visits Gulmarg, which is one of the most visited destinations in Kashmir, a large stretch of meadow houses army hutments. This is besides the land that they have been utilizing for its winter warfare school.
In Pahalgham, which is the famous for its gushing Ladder waters, army occupies a vast stretch of Aru valley during summers for setting up makeshift camps.
Unless government does not take tough stand against such illegal occupations of its vital economic resources, Kashmir will remain a second grade tourist destination.
In last twenty five years of conflict Kashmir has been virtually caged under rolls of barbed wires. There is hardly any place in Kashmir where one can breathe freely and enjoy nature’s bounties without a sign of bunkers or men in uniform. If we want to grow as a world class tourist destination then we must free places like Tosa Maidan, Gulmarg and Pahalgham from such encroachments first. Let tourists and natives both smell fresh lilies rather than gunpowder and ammunition.
In last fifty years, from May to October, the deafening sound of artillery that army fires in Tosa Maidan has silenced the villagers protests. But with their voices reaching across Kashmir and separatist, despite their ideological divide, throwing their weight behind them, one can only hope that guns will fall silent in this valley of dreams.