Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Promote Adventure Tourism

In the present situation, the ideal Tourism activity to be promoted is high-end Adventure Tourism


The recent declaration of the Chief Minister that the Agriculture and Horticulture are more important for Kashmir’s economy than Tourism has started a debate among the various Tourism players. The idea is not to belittle Tourism but to put it in the correct perspective.There are no two opinions that all types of Tourism have unlimited potential and possibilities in Kashmir. It is really and truly, the “Heaven on Earth” in all respects. However, at the moment because of uncertain political conditions, the full realization of the Tourism potential is very difficult. Once there is peace and Kashmir is connected with International Air Routes, the Tourism could be one of the most important economic activities round the year. The uncertainty pertains to leisure and pleasure tourism. But, the one variety of Tourism which is presently a big revenue earner is the “Active” or “Adventure” Tourism which is not so much connected to the political situation. Adventure Tourism involves physical activity in remote areas like mountains, wild rivers and so on. In this regard Kashmir is the ultimate destination.
Some years back, a six member team of the Mountain Access and Conservation Commission of the International Union of Alpine Associations (UIAA)completed a week-long tour of Kashmir Valley including a short trek to Mount Kolahoi in Pahalgam. The team was led by the Commission President Robert Pettigrew and included members from Britain, France, Spain, Italy, and Belgium. The Commission is engaged in ensuring access to mountaineers to different mountain ranges throughout the world. The mandate of the Access Commission also involves conservation of mountains and preservation of the ecology of the area.
This is for the first time that such a foreign team involved in adventure activities has visited remote mountain areas of Kashmir in last few decades. It is significant in view of the adverse travel advisories on Kashmir issued by various foreign offices in Europe. When asked in a media interaction about these adverse travel advisories, Robert jokingly remarked that the mountaineers do not listen to their foreign offices and are great risk takers. Incidentally, the famous Swiss Skier Sylvain Saudan continued Heli-Skiing in Kashmir during nineties when the situation was at its worst! He got some of the riches clients from Europe and America!
Winter climbing is another possibility in Kashmir. During Winer, some of the peaks may become as difficult as the highest Himalayan peaks in summer! Cross country skiing has unlimited possibilities in entire Kashmir valley. Most of these activities do not need elaborate infrastructure and if planned properly, these are environment friendly. The requirements are easy availability of standard equipment, good maps, some trained guides, arrangements for search and rescue in case of accidents. There is no need to construct ugly concrete structures in the form of hotels and huts. At the most one may need mountain shelters which can be in the form of Gujar huts with requisite facilities for food, medicine, and heating etc. Most of our untapped remote areas are ideally suited for the development of adventure tourism.
There are also some new areas like Gurais, Tulel, Wadwan, and Bangus, which are being thrown open for tourism. It would be most useful as well as advisable to develop these areas for eco-friendly adventure tourism. Apart from mountaineering there are many other adventure related activities which have a vast untapped potential in Kashmir. These include white water rafting, kayaking, paragliding, mountain biking, and caving. The Tourism Department has already promoted organisation of short duration rafting trips by private agencies in Lidder and Sindh rivers.
An International Rafting Competition called “Kashmir Challenge”has been organised on River Sindh. Similar world class competitions are possible in other adventure sports also. In fact, with the revival of tourism which is at present restricted to leisure tourism, there is urgent need for the State Tourism Department to make development of adventure tourism as their main thrust area for future. Kashmir has the possibility of becoming the future hub for adventure tourism both in summer and winter. Adventure activities are not only an excellent possibility for boosting tourism but can play an important part in personality development of our youth. All adventure sports and especially mountaineering are supposed to be an ideal means of building character, the absence of which is our perennial problem in the valley.
Unfortunately our sports authorities are paying least attention for the development of these activities among the youth at all levels. Normally development of sports should be in relation to the environment. Austria, France, and Switzerland have produced world’s best mountaineers and skiers. Kashmir could have done the same had our sports authorities paid attention to this aspect. The only institution which has pioneered these activities in Kashmir is the Tyndale Biscoe School. Not only was the School responsible for introducing modern education in Kashmir but also imparted leadership qualities among its students through various adventure activities. The State authorities should have followed the example of the school for introducing these activities throughout the state. On the contrary they are reported to have wound up the adventure sports wing in their Sports Directorate! There is urgent need for including mountaineering and other adventure activities in the School Curriculum. Let us hope someone pays attention as there is still time to initiate the adventure movement. This will also give a boost to Adventure Tourism.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The Leper Colony

Finally, the outcasts are getting a liveable place but it needs finishing touches to make it presentable!

In the famous Hollywood movie Ben-Hur, Jesus Christ visits a Leper Colony on the outskirts of the city. The lepers lived in the shabbiest conditions totally outcast from the society. Jesus touches them and they are cured. It is a fact that Leprosy was once thought to be the most horrifying and deadly disease and these people were totally outcast from the normal society and lived in isolated colonies.
Leprosy is a chronic disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium leprae and Mycobacterium lepromatosis. It is also known as Hansen’s disease named after physician Gerhard Armauer Hansen. It is a disease of the peripheral nerves and mucosa of upper respiratory tract. Skin lesions are its primary external sign. Untreated Leprosy can cause permanent damage to the skin, nerves, limbs and eyes. Earlier it was believed that the disease causes body parts to fall off. However, that is not true. The secondary infections can result in tissue loss causing fingers and toes to become shortened and deformed as the cartilage is absorbed into the body.
Leprosy is now totally curable by multi-drug therapy and is not contagious as was thought earlier. According to medical findings in 95% cases there is no chance of another person getting it from one suffering from the disease. In most of the places in advanced countries the Leper colonies have been abolished. However, these still persist in some of the Eastern countries and Africa. India still has almost a thousand colonies spread all over. In Kashmir, the British set up the colony on the banks of Nageen Lake in a place which was known as Baharhaar. A Leper Hospital was housed in a Victorian style building. In the vicinity of the hospital a colony of single storey mud huts housed the lepers and their families.
Over a period of time, the colony as well as the hospital deteriorated. No one bothered about these outcasts from the society who has coming from places as far off as Kargil and Gurez. A couple of years back, one visited the colony in winter accompanied by some journalist friends. The poor wretches were living in miserable conditions. Most of the mud houses were leaking. The snow all around with the cold air flowing over the Nageen Lake had made the place like a mini Siberia. Few years back the government had initiated construction of quarters for the inhabitants of the colony. However, these were left incomplete due to some dispute with the contractor.
To highlight the misery of these people and the inaction of the government, a column titled, “The Leper Government” appeared in the newspaper. Also the reporters of the paper carried some stories about the plight of these people. As the State Assembly was in session, it created some movement. A few days back, one again visited the colony. There has been appreciable progress. Most of the quarters have been completed and only ten to twelve people are still in mud houses. They too are expected to shift soon as the work is going on. It seems the government has overcome its own leprosy and has been moving. However, as usual, some of the works remain half-done. Completion would normally entail giving finishing touches to the area by removing debris and all the wastage etc. The basic facilities need to be improved and the whole area needs to be landscaped to make it presentable. First and foremost, the hospital building has to be renovated and kept as a heritage of the British times. The approach to the area needs to be improved. A large portion of the land has been encroached upon. This needs to be looked into. Fortunately, the Tourism Department has fenced a large part of the land and turned it into garden on the banks of Nageen Lake.
Incidentally, the approach to the area is through a maze of lanes and by lanes. It takes quite some time to reach the area. However, the easiest way is to cross in a motor boat from the Nageen Club. It hardly takes five minutes or so! The Chief Minister has been quite well known for her “healing touch” and it is time she gives the final “healing touch” to these lepers by visiting them. Even though such colonies have been abolished in most parts of the world, if we continue to have one, let it be a really presentable and a model colony.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The “Truth” about Tourism!

Chief Minister''s assertion that Horticulture and Handicrafts have more potential than Tourism is a very bold statement based on reality which needs an honest follow-up

The “Truth” about Tourism! 

It is for the first time in recent years that a top politician has admitted on the floor of the house that Horticulture and Handicrafts have more potential in the State than Tourism. Till now every politician would climb a pulpit to declare that the Tourism is the backbone of Kashmir’s economy. This was in spite of the fact that the Tourism does not constitute more than 7% of the GDP of the State. Kashmir has always had an agriculture based economy and in recent years, horticulture has grown up considerably. There are umpteen other areas like floriculture, fisheries, forest based products and so on which could be the mainstay of the economy. Tourism can always be an additional activity.

There are no two opinions that with the possession of extensive potential, Tourism has tremendous possibilities of development in Kashmir. However, apart from the basic requirements of potential, physical accessibility, and infrastructure prescribed under the concepts of area development and physical planning for tourism, there is the most fundamental requirement of the political stability of the area. No one wants to go to an area which is proclaimed all over the world as the most dangerous place, Asia’s nuclear hot spot and so on. Every second day there is news all over the world about blasts, encounters, and other incidents regarding Kashmir. The most important primary consideration for a popular tourist spot is “Peace”! In view of this uncertain situation, the tourist arrivals show a swing effect. These keep on rising and falling from time to time. Sometimes there is a boon and supposedly a million tourists arrive while as other times there is a complete drought with hardly any arrivals. In view of this it is not advisable to make Tourism as the so called “backbone” of the economy. Such an economy can collapse with every upheaval. Tourism for the present can at best be an additional economic activity and not the main base. Once Kashmir enjoys the real and settled peace, Tourism can become one of the key activities for its economy. Till such time putting all eggs in Tourism Basket is suicidal.
Historically, Kashmir has an agriculture based economy. More than 70% people are involved in agriculture and horticulture. Handicrafts come next and the main income even from this sector is from the exports and not from retail sales to the tourists visiting the valley. According to Export Promotion Council of India, the handicraft export, especially of the carpets grew manifold during the upheaval of nineties. Carpet looms spread into the rural areas and some of the local export houses started operating from Delhi. Same was the situation with horticulture especially the export of apples from the state. Hundreds of crores worth apples and some other fruit are exported from Kashmir to rest of India. Even some factories are exporting apple juice concentrate to Germany and some other European countries.
The possibilities in Agriculture, Horticulture and some other related fields are immense. If the rulers give up the Tourism “obsession”, they can really work wonders. The basic requirement is the will to undertake modernization of these fields with active private sector participation from within as well as outside state. Let us take Floriculture. There are immense possibilities for cut flowers. A project had been started some years back but it has not taken off in full swing. The main hurdle had been an organization for marketing. Some time back some negotiations were held with some private agencies for cut flower marketing but these remained inconclusive. Incidentally, Bangalore in 2011 exported 3 million roses on Valentine’s Day that accounts for 40% of the World Flower Trade pegged at $ 100 billion! It may be worthwhile to explore these fields rather than spend crores on a 15 day so called Tulip Festival!

Similarly, Kashmir Trout has immense possibilities. One needs to take lessons from the Chilean farmers. Chile exports Salmon worth more than $ 1.3 billion. Kashmir’s trout was brought from Scotland. We have both Rainbow and Brown varieties. One could have dozens of farms like the one in Kokernag established with European Union assistance. Once the production is enough, the same can be exported to most of the five star hotels in India or even abroad. The requirement is degutting machine, deep freezers and dry ice machine. Again everything will depend upon marketing for which tie ups can be arranged with outside buyers.

Fruit has no limits. Apart from Apples which have been Kashmir’s specialty from ages, there are some unique fruit which the Agriculture University has introduced. These include the Kiwi Fruit which was introduced few years back. India imports Kiwi fruit from Italy and New Zealand. Again the trade involves billions of dollars. There could be a dozen Apple Juice concentrate plants exporting the same to Europe and other places including Middle East which imports the same from Europe.

In fact, Kashmir has no limit in agriculture, horticulture, and forest based products. One could easily set up a few perfumeries keeping in view the lavender which grows in the wild! There are so many other areas. Just burning walnut shells in a controlled way produces finest Carbon which is used to make Carbon Rods for Nuclear Reactors! Now that the Chief Minister has spoken about it, she needs to follow it up on the ground by personal supervision and monitoring. The immediate requirement is to restore the dignity of manual labour among the youth and make them forget the slavish mentality of government jobs at the lowest level! The way things are going, “Self-rule” seems a distant dream! It can wait but not “Self-sufficiency”! That is the need of the hour. In the alternative, Kashmiris may become virtual slaves dependent on outsiders for generations!


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Gathering Storm!

The most worrisome aspect of the Indo-Pak estrangement is the ominous signs of a gathering storm in the sub-continent

The Gathering Storm!

In a recent column, the natural disaster predicted by some American Scientists for Kashmir was discussed. One would not like to appear as a doomsayer but unfortunately, apart from many natural calamities predicted by various people, one sees the possibility of a manmade disaster being brought upon us by ourselves! There have been a number of predictions about a possible nuclear holocaust in the sub-continent because of the race going on between the two neighbouring countries to acquire more and more nuclear and thermo-nuclear warheads. Pakistan is supposed to have 110 to 130 warheads while as India is stated to have 90 to 110! The most worrying aspect is the attempt by Pakistan to acquire tactical warheads capable of stalling the India’s cold start thrusts. They are also concentrating on getting submarines with nuclear missiles for acquiring a second strike capability. 
About a couple of months back, Atul Singh wrote a detailed article in Fair Observer, titled, “Yes, Nuclear Terrorism is a Real Threat”! According to him, “Paul Ashley, a retired professional from the British Armed Forces, has mused that 2016 could be the year of nuclear terrorism. Many worry about a “dirty bomb” that might combine conventional explosives with radioactive material. Two of the bombers involved in the Brussels attacks appear to have monitored a senior researcher who worked at a Belgian nuclear center”. “A 2014 report by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) estimated that “nearly 2,000 metric tons of weapons-usable nuclear materials remain spread across hundreds of sites around the globe.” The NTI report points out that some of these sites are poorly secured and that terrorists might have acquired the ability to build a bomb”.

Nuclear Terrorism may be the immediate concern of the western powers but our main apprehension is a sub-continental Armageddon! This has been highlighted by Dilip Hiro in his article “The most dangerous place on Earth” in Caravan Daily. The first para of the article sums up the situation, “Undoubtedly, for nearly two decades, the most dangerous place on Earth has been the Indian-Pakistani border in Kashmir. It’s possible that a small spark from artillery and rocket exchanges across that border might — given the known military doctrines of the two nuclear-armed neighbors — lead inexorably to an all-out nuclear conflagration.  In that case the result would be catastrophic. Besides causing the deaths of millions of Indians and Pakistanis, such a war might bring on “nuclear winter” on a planetary scale, leading to levels of suffering and death that would be beyond our comprehension”.

According to Dilip Kashmir is the root cause of enduring enmity between India and Pakistan. Three wars have been fought by the rivals on this, “toxic bone of contention”. He quotes President Bill Clinton who called the India Pakistan border in Kashmir as the most dangerous place on Earth! The most worrisome aspect is the Indian Cold Start doctrine involving massive tank thrusts and Pakistan’s response with the tactical nuclear weapons at the disposal of the field commanders. A limited encounter can rapidly escalate and result in a total nuclear exchange. It is a more worrisome scenario than Richter Scale 8 earthquake! 

Within the sub-continent, it has been repeatedly asserted by all concerned that the core issue is Kashmir. India has been off and on deviating from its initial commitment of solving the problem in reference to the wishes of the people. In the beginning, Indian leaders including Pandit Nehru had declared that the final status of the State would be determined by reference to the people. Slowly, they reneged from this commitment and came to declare that Kashmir is an inseparable and integral part of India and the only dispute is the recovering of the part under Pakistani control. They not only made a total about turn in their stand but started measures for physical and cultural integration of the State into the mainland India. 

Earlier, these measures were taken in a clandestine way but after the installation of the BJP government at the centre, these measures have not only been accelerated but are being taken in a brazen way. The recent events involving certain steps being taken by the Central Government with the active participation of the State Government have been alleged to be a part of a diabolical plan to change the demography of the only Muslim majority state in India. The Sainik Colonies, the Composite Townships for Pandits, the permanent settlement of Pakistani refugees and so on are being viewed with suspicion in spite of clarifications by the State Government. Incidentally, State Government’s explanations are negatived by BJP leaders time and again.

The result has been extreme alienation of the people in general and the youth, being harassed from all sides, in particular. The recent militant attacks show that the youth getting squeezed in from all sides are reacting violently. According to some top security and defence officials, the most worrying aspect is the open support of common people to these new militants, mostly locals and even some deserters from the Kashmir Police. The new Hindutva slanted measures have started uniting the various groups in the “Azadi” camp which had been earlier drifting apart. This attempted Hinduisation of Muslim Kashmir is a fuse not only locally but an invitation for outsiders to join in the “Jihad”! BJP’s failure to bring in Ache Din and the looming elections in some States need a new round of opium for the poor voters. As always, rising Indo-Pak tension posing a threat to “National Security” has been the best bet. However, the authors of this strategy need to think over the ultimate consequences of this dangerous game which, as predicted by many, may end in a South Asian Armageddon!

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Waiting for Hakeem Suyya!

Jammu & Kashmir Government seems to be still waiting for someone like Hakeem Suyya of Avanti Varman’s time to expedite measures for prevention of future floods!
Waiting for Hakeem Suyya!

The most important task after rehabilitation of the people affected by the worst flood in a century was to take measures for prevention of such floods in future. In spite of a lapse of almost 20 months the process is awfully slow especially regarding dredging and strengthening of the embankments. The massive flood had resulted from a unique combination of the monsoons and a very strong western disturbance which poured tons of water on our mountains and the plains. There was also a quick melt of the glaciers. The amount of water running down our mountains was beyond the capacity of the river and it came down virtually as a sheet of water. However, one other important factor for spilling over the embankments and for dozens of breaches was the silting of the river bed and its spill over channel. These had not been dredged for decades. In addition no efforts had been made to strengthen the embankments along the route of the river through the city. In fact, the negligence on this part resulting in the disaster amounts to criminal negligence. There are no two opinions that the most urgent need for future action to prevent the repetition of the disaster is to expedite dredging and strengthening of embankments.
While the politicians were grappling with the formation of the government, the Governor had initiated the process under his personal supervision. A Kolkata based firm had been given contract. They were supposed to employ three dredgers. There were repeated reports that the dredger had broken down and the company was unable to repair it. There were suggestions from some experts that instead of floating dredgers need was for using few dozen JCBs and a couple of hundred dumpers as these could do a better job of taking out silt quickly. In the meantime, news about various amounts of dredged material taken out from different places was given out by the concerned department from time to time. There were also reports alleging that the figures given out regarding the amount of material dredged out were not correct. As regards the stretches of the river and the spill over channel within Srinagar area, there is no visible change! If one moves across the bunds of these, one would see that the water is flowing hardly ten feet below the embankment in case of the river. In case of the flood channel, it is silted up all along. Even a minor flood can spill over the embankments.

There has been all round appreciation in regard to management of traffic which had virtually become a terror. Government has taken a number of measures to remove encroachments and ensure free flow by putting road dividers and employing additional manpower to stop violations. However, there is still need for stricter enforcement by cancelling licenses of the violators especially the minibus drivers need to be reined in strictly. Also, the road dividers may have to be put in permanently and that too of Iron instead of the plastic which the violators break easily. In case of the Iron ones, their own vehicles will get damaged! At present Chandigarh is supposed to have the best traffic management as the violators are required to pay fines in cash on spot otherwise their vehicles are confiscated. 

A similar approach is needed to take flood prevention measures. There is still time as the dangerous floods come usually at the end of the summer when due to the ripening of the crops, the excess water has the only one channel of the river to flow. The process needs not only to be accelerated but monitored on day to day basis. Apart from dredging, the strengthening of the embankments is essential especially at the weak points where the breaches had occurred during the last flood. One is reminded of the legendary person Hakeem Suyya who during the time of King Avanti Varman saved the valley from extreme floods by intensive dredging and creation of a network of irrigation channels. His story used to be in our school books.
 Kashmir is now searching for someone like Hakeem Suyya. There is no guarantee that the tragedy may not recur! One can only implore the concerned not to wait for Hakeem Suyya to be reborn but take immediate steps to initiate and complete the flood prevention measures on an accelerated pace. The Chief Minister has shown that she can exercise her prerogative if she wants to. This is the most important sector in which exercise of such a prerogative is needed. Let us hope she does it?