The Vanishing Thajiwas

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detachments of the armed force and the border roads organization under 15 ft of snow for more than half a year. The change has set in.

Currently, Sonamarg appears a fast developing town. Local entrepreneurs assert that more than Rs 10 crore private sector investments in hospitality sector are at various stages of implementation. Hafiz brothers live in Kangan. Prior to insurgency, they were running a high-end restaurant Hi Harmukh in the main town with around five rooms. It remained locked for a decade.  In 2000 they started looking towards Sonamarg.  “We started with 22 rooms and right now we operate 44,” said Farooq A Hafiz, who owns Snowlands Hotel in Sonamarg. “By now we might have invested more than Rs 6 crore and we do have expansion plans.” He sees the duration of the yatra directly linked to the development of the place. “Our business is solely linked to the yatra.”

10,000 bottles collected by a rag picker from camp area-Photo:Bilal Bahadur.

10,000 bottles collected by a rag picker from camp area-Photo:Bilal Bahadur.

In his immediate neighborhood, his brother Tariq is in the middle of building a huge hotel, the Sindh Resorts that might initially have nearly 50 rooms. Abdul Majid Sofi of Ganderbal has set up Namroz Resorts with 50 rooms. This is in addition to the old players, most of who are not housed on the banks of the river. “It will grow because the peak bed capacity demand during yatra is 3000. Right now, by all means, it is only 500 that is available,” Hafiz says. The SDA has introduced creation of tented towns and there are six camping sites being developed. The state owned JK Tourism Development Corporation is planning a major hotel even as SDA has invested substantially in creating certain facilities.

SDA CEO, Mohammad Youuf  Bhat says the people invest because it pays. “Even SDA which is no commercial agency is making better money,” Bhat points out. “Last year, we generated a revenue of less than Rs 6.50 lakh and this year we have already crossed one crore rupees.”

The SDA, locals said, has helped Sonamarg take off. Ever since it was created, it might have invested more than Rs 20 crore in creating various facilities. The projects that were entrusted to the authority are innumerable. Apart from the tourist reception centre in the main town, it has set up or is nearing completion projects like Children’s Parks, International Youth Hostel, Yatri Niwas, Island Retreat Park (Hung), Durinar Glacier Sarbal, development of Gangangir, Sutkudi, Lashpatri, and Yuchmarg as satellite tourist spots, an office complex, shelter sheds and a picnic spot at Thajiwas,  Pony Park, Toll-bar, mobile toilets, a slaughter house, a Phatak, an alternative road from Shutkudi to Thajiwas and an eco-friendly resort between Nilgrath and Sarbal. “It changed Sonamarg,” admits Hafiz. “Because it gave permissions for construction which helped people invest.”

But the SDA’s inability to manage a fine balance between the commerce and ecology is a tell-all story. There are thousands of plastic bottles and bags and heaps of garbage visible on the trek to Thajiwas and in the main bowl. Right now, part of the garbage is being collected by the SDA and buried as most of the hotels use soakage dumps within to manage their solid waste. The government, Bhat said, has already approved setting up of a sewage treatment plant and it must be ready early next year.

Gradually, points out Hafiz, the situation is improving in the town. “For all these years, we had a single-phased power supply line and this year the government is feeding us with a three-phase line – 24 x 7,” Hafiz said. “But there are two critical issues that the government must take care of immediately. Firstly, it must speed up implementation of a 3-kms bypass that will decongest the town at peak yatra time as the BRO is working slowly. Secondly, they must house the local garrison somewhere in the periphery because they have occupied 100 kanals in the main bowl that impacts nearly 1000 kanals around it.”

As Kashmir and its policy makers are taking the livelihood route to invade the valley’s virgin spots, the fragile nature of the highly sensitive corners is missing from the debate. “We are aware of it,” junior Tourism Minister Nair Aslam Wani said. But he did not offer any idea, if at all the glacier figures anywhere in the government’s priority. Even the civil society seems omitting issues like Thajiwas from the narrative it is keen to develop. Let Thajiwas survive as a key barometer of Kashmir’s health.

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A journalist with seven years of working experience in Kashmir.

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