The Vanishing Thajiwas

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“There was insufficient number of toilets for such huge number of yatris. The ponywalas, labourers, even yatris were using open air toilets right next to the Sindh river.  The ponies drank water, people washed clothes in the stream and there were clutters of polythene and wrappers seen floating on the surface of the stream. This highly contaminated water was used for cooking and drinking purpose. Once there was a carcass of a pony lying in the stream for five days.

A dumping site near Baltal - Photo:Bilal Bahadur

A dumping site near Baltal – Photo:Bilal Bahadur

The whole area was stinking badly and finally it was CRPF men who removed it. There were no dustbins anywhere in sight at the camp or on the track. So naturally there was litter everywhere on the roads, track and the slopes. There were thousands of empty plastic bottles scattered around the region. One rag picker told us that he and his team gathered at least 10,000 bottles every day from the camp area. The rag pickers were not allowed to go upwards on the track. The garbage collected from the camp and the Bhandaras was dumped on the outskirts of the camp. It seemed like a small hillock of dirt and filth. At some places un-segregated garbage was buried in the pits. There is a thick blanket of snow in the region during winters and when this snow melts in summers, the garbage flows down into the river. This results in further contamination of Sindh River.”

Asserting that pilgrims walk through “piles of garbage, water bottles, and occasional horse carcasses”, the IYCN members told Kashmir Life that Sindh is turning into a cesspool owing to the heavy flow of sewage and open defecation in the area. “The water is unfit for potable purposes. The heavy flow of solid waste results in the outbreak of water-borne diseases in dozens of neighboring villages after the yatra is over,” coordinator Reetu Asrani said. “Contaminated water flows from bathrooms, tent areas, and Bhandaras directly into streams leading to water pollution. Heaps of garbage & waste products are also dumped into the river. Tons of plastic bottles and polythene choke streams at many places restricting the flow of water. The glacier-fed streams running alongside the cave are also turning filthy.”

The larger reality is that the yatra has changed Sonamarg – Kashmir’s golden meadow, which was accessible to a  select section of tourists, mostly foreigners, interested in trekking, white water rafting or early spring, high altitude skiing. It is the yatra that is changing the profile of a serene and calm place, making it a hustling bustling township. As the pilgrim crowds have gone home with the conclusion of the yatra, it is the time for leisure tourists.

“We have a full unit of a TV crew stationed in the town for last many days shooting the Star Plus TV Teri Meri Love Story over the peaks on the track to Thajiwas,” explains an official of the Sonamarg Development Authority (SDA). “Right now we do not have 100 percent occupancy that lasted during the yatra but still we get enough of tourists to occupy one-fourth.” The highway town will remain open for a month and then snow will take over.

Officials say the accessibility to Sonamarg, 82 km from Srinagar on way to Ladakh, will change in the near future as the government is planning a six-km tunnel between Gagangeer village and Sonamarg to make Sino-Indian borders accessible round the year.

Sonamarg was a virgin meadow till the Baltal route was thrown open as an alternate trek to the Amarnath cave on July 18, 1999. By and large, it was used by the soldiers (Army’s High Altitude Warfare School operates from Sonamarg during summer and moves to Gulmarg in winter) and trekkers. Traditionally, it has been the base camp of a major trek that passes along several mountain lakes –Vishansar, Kishansar, Gadsar, Satsar and Gangabal, besides Thajiwas.

In 2006 when some bureaucrats sabotaged Alferd Ford International’s offer of creating the Himalayan Ski Village (HSV), an offer that neighboring Himachal Pradesh finally bagged, the-then government planned a detailed blueprint of Rs 300 crore investments for converting Sonamarg into a modern tourist village with focus on skiing. Officials of Asian Development Bank who visited the spot were keen to help J&K. The plan envisaged engaging the best tourist designer to create a concept and futuristic infrastructure including everything from health clubs to golf course with emphasis on white water rafting and trekking. With the fall of the Ghulam Nabi Azad led government in 2008 over Amarnath land row created a disruption and a change in the overall policy structure by the new dispensation later upset the cart completely.

Future plans afoot suggest the town will no more remain a summer destination that has less than 300 permanent residents living with

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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