Why Pir Panchal Deserves Protection And Not Exploitation?

by Dr Junaid Jazib

Fresh air, clean water and fertile soil, and of course the basic amenities of life define and improve the quality of life

This is the Poonch side of the breathtaking Mughal Road as captured from Pir Ki Gali. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

Pir Panchal region of Jammu and Kashmir has, recently, received a good deal of attention, from the public as well as administration, for its, hitherto unexplored and ignored tourism potential. Having aroused a wave of hope and optimism in the region, this over-hyped ado in the name of tourism development offered enough reasons for the denizens to celebrate. They, the deprived lot, are purposely made to believe that it is tourism that can end their age-old socioeconomic wretchedness and usher them to an era of prosperity and progress.

The largest mountain range in the middle Himalayas, Pir Panchal geographically extends for over 300km from Murree (near Islamabad) to Manali (in Himachal) and comprises of a number of mesmerizing vales and peaks. However, Rajouri and Poonch, the twin hilly districts, along with parts of Udhampur, Reasi and Ramban in Jammu and Kashmir are generally referred to as the Pir Panchal region. It separates the plains of Jammu from the Kashmir valley and, of course, exhibits a natural and distinct physiographic individuality within the state.

Unique Geography

The region is characterized by its unique geographic, climatic, ecological and anthropogenic attributes, which collectively shape its distinguishable physical personality. It is peopled by different religious, ethnic and linguistic groups and houses a great deal of biodiversity and important wetlands. Lush green valleys, rocky ravines, peaks, hillocks, glaciers, streams and snowbound plateaus are what broadly comprise the area’s physiography. Widespread broadleaved and conifer forests of the region have, besides their immense ecological significance, played a pivotal role in the local socio-economy that principally revolves around the agri-silvopastoral system. High altitude meadows and grassy ridges interspersed with dozens of big and small lakes make the mountainous expanse equally fascinating for local shepherds, transhumant nomads, explorers, tourists and researchers.

Jamia Masjid Surankote Poonch Pic: Social Media

Tourism, An Option

There is no denying the fact that tourism is one of the most productive and ever-growing industries in the contemporary world. Creating and providing innovative livelihood prospects, it opens up a world of opportunities for the locals, the hosts, who otherwise have little or no scope for any entrepreneurial activities in their area. The innovative and entrepreneurial behaviour it induces among the local populace can extensively boost and diversify the local economy.

The opportunities a tourist destination offers for cultural exchange and exposure can help foster communal harmony, tolerance, understanding and mutual respect and thus contributes to promoting world peace. However, tourism, like any other industry, also brings with it certain serious implications which are, often, too grave to ignore.

The multifaceted impacts it can inflict on social and ecological realms of a region range and permeate across economic, cultural, ethical and environmental domains. Cultural invasion, erosion of traditional values, loss of indigenous wisdom and disruption in the social fabric are some of the detrimental social impacts always associated with the tourism industry. Its environmental implications are, rather, more precarious, intricate and far-reaching. Pollution, natural resource depletion, biodiversity loss and ecological disturbances that the growth of tourism gifts us pose terrible threats for the present and future generations.

No Planning

The recent hustle-and-bustle for the promotion of tourism in the Pir Panchal seems more like a set of random, ephemeral sort of, activities devoid of substantial planning in the background. It is obviously far from something actually envisioned and employed for the promotion of tourism in the region. Neither the administration nor the public representatives in the area look genuinely concerned about it. Certain circumstances, including the presence of a shabby but motorable road passing through one of the highest passes of the range, Covid19-induced impasse in routine life, availability of local help, seasonal settlements of Gujjars and Bakarwals, have actually tempted a good number of local and non-local traveller to undertake trekking expeditions, leisure tours and holidaying in the upper reaches of the Pir Panchal Himalayas.

A Bakerwal woman takes rest upon her arrival in Pir Ki Gali after a long a tiring journey from Rajouri. KL Image: Bilal Bahadur

It, of course, sufficiently demonstrates, firstly, the huge tourism potential of the area and, secondly, the environmental state of affairs if tourism is allowed to expand inconsiderately and unmindful of its ecological repercussions. The rich but fragile ecosystem has already started witnessing deterioration even before a full-scale tourism startup embarks on. Piles of polythene, wrappers, bottles and other plastic products have found their way to the meadows. Clandestine removal of certain medicinal plants, pollution in lakes, harassment to wildlife, traffic jams on Mughal road is some of the initial indicators of environmental degradation in the up-till-now a serene ecosystem.

Fragile Ecology

Promoting conventional tourism in an area, especially in a hilly region, essentially involves the development of additional infrastructure (like roads, buildings, artificial recreational facilities, healthcare, electricity, water supply, etc.), augmentation of basic amenities, the addition of superfluous services and changes in land-use pattern.

And this all is attained at the cost of the natural environment manifested in soil erosion, waste generation, pollution, natural resource depletion, threats to wildlife and unwarranted anthropogenic interferences in the natural world. A golf course, for example, can be brought up as an additional attraction for tourists but it uses as much of water as 60,000 rural villagers, and 1500 kilos of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides per year.

A Beautiful Region

No doubt, there exists huge space for tourism development throughout the lengths and breadths of the Pir Panchal range. High altitude lakes and pastures, particularly those above 13000 feet altitude (including those visited more often like Nandansar, Katorisar, Chandansar, Sukhsar, etc. and scores of others still unexplored) constitute a wonderful landscape waiting to be toured and adored by the explorers, researchers, trekkers, vacationers and aestheticians to tour and adore its splendour. Dozens of religious, historical and heritage sites (like Chingus fort, Shahdra Shareef, Banda Bahadur Gurudwara, Dhanidhar Fort, Nangali sahib, Budha Amarnath, Budh Khanariya, Ghora Gali, etc. to name a few) scattered almost all-across the region call for their proper mapping and conservation as also offer large avenues for the tourism sector.

Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University, Rajouri

There is every possibility of and a hundred reasons for boosting tourism in the Pir Panchal mountains for the benefit of lakhs of its inhabitants; there also lie a hundred other factors pleading against such a move. The Himalayan ecosystem is too complex and fragile in its structure and functional dynamics.

An Understanding Needed

The presence of diverse habitat systems, huge biodiversity, geological peculiarities, geographic complexity, anthropogenic pressure and a multifarious socio-economic edifice makes it ecologically fragile and calls for a meticulous understanding of its various aspects before furthering our interferences in it. The conventional format of the tourism industry is not compatible with the Pir Panchal Himalayas.

Ecotourism is the only appropriate choice for the hilly region but it demands painstaking preparative work and infallible commitment on the part of the governmental and non-governmental stakeholders. A clear and far-sighted vision, well-defined strategy and sound planning is indispensable for promoting tourism that is aimed at benefitting the local populace in a sustainable manner. Every decision, action and conclusion in this regard must also be supported by relevant field studies and ground realities. Analysis and consideration of various environmental aspects and socio-cultural attributes of the area become imperative if safe and sustainable tourism is to be encouraged.

Instead of focusing on economic gains, the design and the strategy employed must be, unfailingly, nature-oriented.Thanks to the global awakening about environmental concerns, the majority of the world’s tourist industry is now made to follow ecofriendly contours. The environment consciousness has, thus, given origin to a new term and concept called ecotourism that encompasses sustainable practices and respect for local ethos and ecology. It, in its correct effectuation, presents a practical example of sustainable development wherein economic goals are achieved without compromising, and rather promoting environmental causes.

An aerial view of Rajouri town, a major trade centre in Pir Panchal valley. Pic: Internet

A Clear Thought

Tourism in hilly and ecologically fragile regions, such as Pir Panchal, must not only avoid causing pollution, land degradation and natural resource depletion but contribute towards environmental causes. It can be used to educate people, enhance environmental consciousness and raise funds for conservation endeavours.

Studies confirm that ecotourism grows faster than conventional tourism as people prefer the former for its nature-oriented mechanism. If conceived and employed properly everything in the mountains can be an attraction for tourists. Agricultural farms, local artefacts, cultural items, traditional cuisine, customs, practices, indigenous knowledge, natural landscapes, waterfalls, shrines, peaks, etc. can fascinate tourists. It is Ecotourism, if well managed, that can reverse environmental degradation already triggered in the Pir Panchal mountains whereas growing tourism as an industry ignoring local ethos and environmental aspects is bound to play havoc with the region’s cultural and ecological equilibrium.

Construction of hotels, resorts and residential complexes would transform the region into a polluted zone facing recurrent traffic jams, shortage of water and other civic amenities, waste disposal issues, drug addiction, etc. The local value system, which represents centuries-old traditional wisdom, would get eroded as a consequence of locals start espousing alien cultural elements brought by the tourists. The majority of the flora and fauna in the area is threatened and some of the endemic species are on the verge of extinction.

Evolve A Model

There exists no harm in harnessing the tourism potential of the Pir Panchal region provided an ecologically correct model is adopted for it in letter and spirit. Economic development and environmental protection should go hand in hand to ensure the welfare of people in a true sense.

It should be ensured that there is no destruction to the natural and cultural environment. Required infrastructure should be developed in harmony with nature, small enterprises should be encouraged and the local communities should be involved in planning, execution and management. Emphasis should be on tapping solar and wind energy, conserving local flora and fauna and proper disposal of waste and carbon credit.

Junaid Jazib

A part of the revenue generated should be allocated for conservation and educational purposes. Empowering the local community, enhancing environmental consciousness and making people connect with nature should remain at the core of planning and execution. Sprawls of concrete structures, skyscrapers, pollution, noise and waste generation should not be considered a measure of progress.

Remember, it is the fresh air, clean water and fertile soil, and of course, the basic amenities of life, that define and improve the quality of life and should be focused on to attain sustainable development.

(Author heads the Environmental Sciences department at the Government Post-Graduate College, Rajouri. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of Kashmir Life.)

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