The need for infrastructure to cater huge tourist rush has reactivated land mafia in Pahalgam. This time they have their eyes set on residential areas. With law enforcing bodies watching helplessly land mafia is forcing locals to take extreme steps including mass migration. Suhail A Shah reports.
At Kilometre one, on the right side of the Pahalgam-Chandanwari road, a medium sized walnut tree stands guard at the entrance of a local playground which locals like to call their sports stadium.
Squeezed between ‘stadium’ and the local Higher Secondary School runs a narrow dirt track, the only approach road to Poshwan Mohalla, a part of western half of Pahalgam village.
To an outsider the pathway seems to be inconsequential for what lies at the end of it are just over two dozen mud dwellings.
However a casual chit chat with the inhabitants and one gets to know why the track has become a bone of contention between the locals and the powerful land mafia of this picturesque tourist destination.
Beyond the mud houses there lay more than 900 Kanals of proprietary land and that’s what the mafia has their eyes on.
Over the past more than four years a blanket ban on construction has been in place in Pahalgam.
The ban was enforced through a court order following the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by some social activists after a flawed master plan (2005-25) was formulated by the officials at Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA).
The officials came under the scrutiny of the State Vigilance Organisation and a case, FIR. No. 27/2008 P/S VOK was registered against them.
“Now that the new master plan is in the pipe line and the land mafia, with their proximity to the power corridors, can smell what is cooking,” said Aijaz Ahmad Lone, a local social activist.
Lone believes that, given the hardships the locals faced during the last four years, the new master plan might deem residential areas of the town permissible for construction.
“The land mafia, thick as thieves with some corrupt officials, have been making life difficult for us,” Lone added.
The pathway to Poshwan Mohalla has been the only way for ingress and egress for the residents ever since they have lived there.
The PDA in 2009 issued Notice, serial number 10 of 2009 dated 25-05-2009, Inviting Tenders (NIT) for, what the notice said, “Construction of approach road in between Higher Secondary School and Sports Stadium leading to Poshwan Mohalla,”
“After the initial soil filling on the pathway,” said Lone, “God knows from where, the Department of Youth Services and Sports (DYSS) stepped in,”
They, claiming that the strip of land belonged to the stadium, brought a stay order on the construction work.
Lone, following the stay order, moved to court of Chief Judicial Magistrate, Anantnag.
The honourable court in its order dated 03-08-2009 observed that the DYSS has no right to encroach upon the pathway to widen the breadth of the sports stadium.
Since 2009 the honourable court, in its repeated orders in 2010 and 2011, has reinforced its judgement.
Furthermore the court directed the concerned station House Officer (SHO) to ensure the implementation of the order.
However in complete disregard of the court orders, nothing has been done as of now and the pathway continues to be in limbo. The residents believe that with their entry and exit point sealed the land mafia will fancy it easy to cajole them into selling their land at throwaway prices.
Poshwan Mohalla is not the only neighbourhood with such problems.
Most of the neighbourhoods in Pahalgam village including Laripora, Mamal and other places do not have access routes to their houses.
Some people are even devoid of an access route to their proprietary land across the Sheesh Nag Nallah in Laripora and Mani-Pal Nallah in Chanhaji.
Instead, treacherous narrow pathways have been erected using boulders along the Shesh Nag Nallah, which serve as the access routes to the most of the houses.
These bumpy footpaths make the residents vulnerable in face of a natural calamity and/or in case of emergencies.
“I fear the land mafia might be proved right,” Lone said and he has a reason to believe so.
The flurry of problems residents of Pahalgam faced in the last four years might culminate into these people taking some catastrophic decisions.
Influential hoteliers, despite the blanket ban on construction, have not only been able to renovate their existing structures but they have also erected new structures.
Locals at the other hand have found it hard even to mend their humble dwellings, which could have deemed them liveable.
Over the last few years, dozens of houses in and around the Pahalgam town have been damaged by natural calamities, including wind and snow, and a devastating fire that engulfed the whole Frislan village on the peripheries of the town.
However the inhabitants, mostly pony wallahs by profession, were not allowed to even renovate their houses, leaving them at the mercy of the harsh weather the region has to offer.
“We have been living in a tin shed ever since the inferno,” said Abdul Samad Sheikh of Frislan, “And I guess we will have to live like that for another bone chilling winter.”
Moreover the state government has been of the view that existing village houses should be an alternate means of accommodation for the tourists.
“The argument however is that given the condition of our dwellings what kind of a tourist will like to stay in our houses,” questions Abdul Salam Bhat, a local elderly.
At this point in time all hopes of the poor locals remain pinned onto the drafting of new master plan.
According to the civil society members of Pahalgam, even though flawed, the earlier master plan had some very valid suggestions, which must be included in the new draft.Suggestions that could in the longer run benefit the locals, for a change.
One of the standout recommendations made by the now abolished master plan, drafted in 2004, was to develop the existing residential accommodation as guest houses.
The suggestion if included and implemented in the new master plan has the potential of changing the fates of the local populace, the social activists believe.
“A big chunk of the population is either involved with agriculture or work as pony wallahs,” said Reyaz Ahmad Lone, a renowned social activist and hotelier.
He says that most of the locals do not benefit from the tourist influx and such a step will expose them to the opportunities provided by the trade.
Another important point made in the plan was the expansion of the Pahalgam village into the adjoining agricultural land, in view of the ever increasing population.
At the same time the locals demand that the construction restrictions should be lifted from the residential areas.
“Which again is valid for the development of these small hutments into proper guest houses,” argues Lone.
Earlier this year, on 10th of May, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court expressed hope that the revised Master Plan for Eco-Sensitive, Pahalgam area, would be completed expeditiously, preferably within two months.
More than three months have passed since-while the people of Pahalgam wait anxiously for their fates to be written in some posh office somewhere in the capital city, the officials seem to be in no hurry.