by Dr Shujaat Bukhari
At the outset I would like to congratulate the FCIK and IYCN for organizing the three day seminar dealing with vital issues concerning the Jammu and Kashmir state. As for the promotion of eco-tourism is concerned, first of all it cannot be talked about in isolation as it forms the part of the overall tourism industry. In the past 20 years, the industry has received a major setback due to ongoing conflict. It has been trying to be on a path of revival but the hiccups with which it tries to regain the momentum have not disappeared yet.
However, the silver lining is that in past few years it has shown a gradual revival and the Tourism department has also been playing an important role in it. But the need of the hour is that we consolidate what we have at the moment rather than having an eye on expansion, which ultimately becomes unmanageable.
For attracting more and more tourists towards Kashmir it is important to ensure that the level of pollution in this place goes down which ultimately will help us to declare whole valley as a “distinct place” for eco-tourism.
While we have been going after polythene for its hazardous effects on the environment we miss more dangerous trend with which the majority of non-biodegradable items are imported into the state. They form more than 70 percent of total imports. Government has not been doing much in that direction as it could have been discouraged by imposing a heavy import duty on such goods as was done by Karnataka government. Civil Society also has a duty to wake up and put efforts to counter this trend. Otherwise the magnitude with which such goods come here it will prove disastrous and we cannot think about having a pollution free place, which could pave way for eco-tourism.
Eco- tourism is not possible in cities and towns like Srinagar or Baramulla but its potential is in rural Kashmir, which is gifted with plenty of beauty and relatively less polluted atmosphere. Government should encourage making tourist villages and tourist circuits in order to encourage the general public to contribute in this direction.
But the problem with which we have been going through during past two decades is that this place is heavily militarized and the state does not have much control over its places of resource. How can we expect that eco-tourism can be promoted while the security forces do not allow a civilian to move on a road like Srinagar-Baramulla highway when their convoys are on the move. For that purpose the Bungus and Lolab valleys, which came up during the discussion here, are out of bounds for the civilians who live outside these areas and those who permanently reside there are at the mercy of a soldiers.
The tourism department has been making vigorous efforts to revive the tourism industry and has gone a long way in past few years to achieve this goal. But there are places like Daksum which are yet to find place in their revival plan though people in large numbers want to visit and enjoy the place which could be the best example of eco-tourism. As for my information goes, the department is facing hurdles from Army in restoring the place to general public on one pretext or other. If this is the situation then how can we expect that tourism industry can be revived to its past glory? This is time for rejuvenating our efforts to show the political will and lessen the number of troops if we really believe that normalcy has returned to Kashmir. Tourism Minister Nawang Rigzin Jora is dynamic and known for putting his foot down in cabinet on crucial issues. I hope he will lead as an Ambassador of Kashmiris and work towards this important sector and help Kashmir to regain its glory.
The movement of troops is also telling upon the climate of this place. If we take a cursory look at the pace with which helicopters make their sorties over the hills it will lead us to think over this crucial issue as well. The beautiful places, which could be real abode of eco-tourism, have been turned into battlefields and have proved to be disastrous. Unless there is a political resolution of Kashmir issue there cannot be hope for regaining Kashmir as a favourite tourist resort. So peace is the key to any such development.
One more thing that needs attention is that we cannot revive tourism by putting burden on place already having fragile ecology. We are competing with Japan by having more and more amusement parks but it comes at a cost.
We have one such park in Pahalgam. We may be earning revenue but it does not help us to protect environment. To me it is the duty of government as well as civil society to rise to the occasion and take concrete steps to restore Kashmir as “paradise on earth.”
(Author is a senior journalist and Srinagar Bureau Chief of THE HINDU)