Plundering Pahalgam

Despite high court banning fresh construction in Pahalgam influential people manage to build huge structures in eco-sensitive areas. Shams Irfan reports the daylight plunder of Kashmir’s famed tourist resort

Illegal structures raised at Gujraan Bhatkot village by a Sringar based doctor. Pic: Umar Mohammad Attar
Illegal structures raised at Gujraan Bhatkot village by a Sringar based doctor.
Pic: Umar Mohammad Attar

A blink-and-you-will-miss hand painted signboard of ‘Walnut Hill Resort’ arrows towards a diversion that cuts into deep forest just outside the Pahalgam town.

The freshly laid road, which awaits concretization, runs through a thick cover of pine trees, crisscrossing past some half-and-dozen mud and brick hutments, a two room single storey primary school, a small one room green coloured mosque and numerous wood and mud kothas (huts).

“This place used to be piece of heaven. But things have changed since last two years,” said Karim Khan, who spends summers in one of the kothas with his family and herds.

The only sound that one can hear is of crickets, cows, and, small kids who play in the open. As one walks pasts these kothas that dot the landscape, a sense of serenity and calmness takes over. You are in the middle of jungle with no signs of civilization around.

All you see are nomadic gujjar’s who have been living in these forests since centuries.

Every summer they come along with huge herds of sheep, cows, buffalos and goats to this area as pastures are ripe for grazing.

A 10 minutes drive further uphill takes one to the top of the mountain and into Gujraan Batkoot village. It is a small village, with less than 250 odd households scattered across vast hillock, mostly built on the left side of the newly laid road. The entire right side, which was once ploughed by local gujjars to harvest maze, is blinded by large tin sheets, making it inaccessible for locals.

“Behind those tin sheets, around 50 structures of all sizes and shapes are in their final stage of construction,” said Mohammad Abdullah, 55, who is the deputy Sarpanch of the village.

Abdullah owns 4 kanals of land adjacent to a four storey hotel called Walnut Hill Resort. “The pace with which this hotel was constructed is simply amazing. It was all green with corn crop two years back,” says Abdullah, who spends six months in a kotha – just opposite the hotel – with his herd of sheep. “This place is my second home. It used to be peaceful before people from outside came and started making huge buildings,” says Abdullah while pointing towards his kotha.

Interestingly one of the hoteliers has blocked access to Abdullah’s fields by erecting sharp razor wire fence. “Can you imagine, first they took our land and now they don’t even allow us to move freely. I had to fight my way into my fields,” says Abdullah. The land on which Walnut Hill Resort is constructed belonged to a local farmer. “He sold it off to a Srinagar based hotelier some ten years back without telling anybody in the village,” says Abdullah.

A few meters away from Walnut Hill Resort, deeper into the forest, behind the tin protected wall, around 15 new structures look mockingly at the nearby greens. “This entire stretch belongs to one doctor Javed of Srinagar,” says Razak Khan, a local herdsman who lives in a kotha overlooking these illegal structures.

Interestingly, these illegal huts were constructed despite Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA) checking the areas on and off for any unauthorised construction. “How can they (PDA) miss these huge buildings, I fail to understand,” asks Khan.

“These structures were raised before I took over,” says Mohammad Yousuf Bhat, newly appointed Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of PDA.

Interestingly, despite High Court’s directive in place to freeze all construction activity in Pahalgam till new Master Plan (MP) is put into effect, structures like Walnut Hill Resort and other hotels have mushroomed in eco-sensitive areas like Gujraan Batkoot village.

Hotel Pine spring has excavated a part of hill to construct basement despite ban. Pic: Umar Mohammad Attar
Hotel Pine spring has excavated a part of hill to construct basement despite ban.
Pic: Umar Mohammad Attar

“Just two days back I demolished an illegal wall and a private hut in Gujjar Bhatkoot area,” claims Yousuf.

The High Court order came into effect from December 2010 after a PIL was filed by representatives of Pahalgam Welfare Society (PWS), seeking to rid the area of land mafia and illegal structures.

Yennar In Danger

With PDA busy harassing locals who seek repair of their houses damaged in snowstorms etc., the entire waterfront in Yennar is turned into concrete jungle.

Yennar, some 7 kilometres ahead of Pahalgam, is the point from where water rafting is done during summer season. After High Court banned all sorts of construction in Pahalgam in December 2010, land mafia shifted its focus to land around Lidder in Yanner area as it was for some reasons out of the PDA’s authority.

Within a span of two years around 70 small and big structures came up along the water front; some dangerously within the flooding range of the Lidder River.

Sensing danger Chief Judicial Magistrate, Islamabad issued orders bringing Yanner under the purview of PDA. This was done to stop the reckless illegal construction that has left fragile ecology of the area under threat. “These structures came up with lighting speed. But without PDA men hand-in-glove with mafia nothing can happen,” said a local activist who wished anonymity.

Walnut Hill Resort stands tall amidst lush green fields of Gujraan Bhatkot Village.  Pic: Umar Mohammad Attar
Walnut Hill Resort stands tall amidst lush green fields of Gujraan Bhatkot Village.
Pic: Umar Mohammad Attar

Interestingly, despite CJM’s orders and under the very eyes of PDA illegal construction in Yanner is going on in full swing. Sources told Kashmir Life that many former and a few current PDA employees own hotels or plots in Yanner. “They have got these properties registers on their relatives and friends name to avoid detection,” says Source. “Who is going to stop such a deeply rooted mafia?”

Some 3 kilometres further downstream towards Islamabad town, in Srechan area, on top a small hillock, a huge concrete structure gapes through the denuded forest.

The said hotel was constructed by clearing a large section of sensitive forest area. “They chopped hundreds of trees to make way for construction material in the jungle,” says a local who wished not to be named. “This hotel belongs to a minister’s brother.”

“I know there were structures raised despite court ban. We will intimate the government about these violations,” says Yousuf.

Violating Green

If you have money and/or political clout you can do whatever you like in Pahalgam, says an elderly man who has been trying to get his damaged house repaired since last two years.

This elderly man lives in the vicinity of sprawling hotel Pine Spring which had permission for just 2 huts. But despite ban on fresh construction, it is alleged that the owner of the hotel managed to excavate the adjoining hill to construct a basement. “If he (hotel owner) is not stopped from constructing such a huge building illegally, why am I stopped from repairing my house?” asks the elderly man.

How come the owner of hotel Hill Top is immune to court ban, asks an agitated local activist. Sources told Kashmir Life that no one stopped hotel Hill Top from raising fresh structures in the compound.

The ban on construction, that came into effect after Pahalgam People’s Welfare Society (PPWS), a local rights body, approached high court against well organized land mafia that had local administration officers involved.

“Our fight is against the corrupt and powerful who know how to exploit the loopholes in law for their benefit,” said Fayaz Ahamd, a member of PPWS.

Interestingly the new Pahalgam Master Plan (PMP) is under review currently. There were 350 objections filed so far that are being reviewed by a committee headed by the DC Islamabad. “Once the objections are cleared and addressed PMP will go to government for implementation,” said a senior officer in State’s Tourism department privy to the development.

But locals feel that the delay is deliberate as people who have brought land illegally in eco-sensitive areas on throwaway prices are waiting for PDP to come to power and address their ‘grievances’.

Locals allege PDA of taking land mafia’s side by turning a blind eye to the illegal construction done by them in most sensitive areas in and around Pahalgam.

“I just took over. What can I do,” says Yousuf, CEO, PDA.

“If government fails to act quickly then Pahalgam will soon turn into a concrete jungle with no natural beauty whatsoever,” says Riyaz Ahamd Lone, a local activist and hotelier who was instrumental in filing a PIL in 2010 against illegal construction. “They (land mafia) have now gone deep into forests in their pursuit of wealth.”

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