Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Promoting Gulmarg Ski Resort

(The excellent snow conditions on world class slopes with maximum sunny days make Gulmarg the most attractive ski resort urgently needing intensive marketing among ski enthusiasts world over!)
Promoting Gulmarg Ski Resort

Not many people may know that skiing in Gulmarg was started almost at the same time when it had become a popular sport in Europe. In fact, the Ski Club of India was established by Major Metcarp and Major Headow, two British Army Officers, in 1927 at Gulmarg. Mr.B.N.Pestonji was its first Secretary. Ski races had been introduced as a sport in Gulmarg area almost at the same time as these were introduced in the Alps. Those days all ski competitions were held at Khilanmarg and the pony track was kept open throughout the winter. There were two major events, the Christmas and Easter Competitions. The famous British Sports Equipment Firm, the “Lilywhites” had introduced some trophies for various ski competitions. In fact one of the ski slopes above Khilanmarg is still called the “Lilywhite Slope”. The attendance in the open competition held at Christmas in 1938 was over 500. Gulmarg had two 100 room hotels and hundreds of chalets. There was a Cinema and a Golf Club House with two eighteen hole courses. One could get everything aristocratic and fashionable in the “Bazaar” of Gulmarg directly imported from all parts of Europe. Families of some of the British Army Officers would come to Gulmarg simply to buy these goodies. Marion Doughty in her travelogue, “Afoot through Kashmir Valley” makes a special mention of the “Gulmarg Tea Dance” and the preparations she had to undergo at the British Residency in Srinagar for participating in the event. Gulmarg was discovered by Yusuf Shah Chak, the last Kashmiri ruler who used to camp here for days with his poetess Queen Habba Khatoon. The Mughal Emperor Jehangir and his Queen Noor Jehan too were very fond of Gulmarg.
The departure of British in 1947 threw the resort into total oblivion. Skiing completely vanished from Gulmarg. The establishment of the High Altitude Warfare School of Indian Army revived the activities of winter sports again. However, it was only after 1965 that the Government of India, Ministry of Tourism, made out a plan for converting Gulmarg into a Ski Resort of International Standards. A National Ski School was set up and “Gulmarg Winter Sports Project” was launched. Even UNDP had got interested and had donated ski lifts, equipment and assigned an Austrian Expert, Otto Santner, to render advice in the setting up of the resort. Dr.Jens Krause, an Austrian ski teacher was appointed the first Principal of the Ski School who trained the first batch of National Instructors in Gulmarg. The first batch of National Ski Instructors graduated from the School in early seventies. Some of these were absorbed in the Central winter Sports Project and School while the trainees from the State became part of the Adventure Tourism Wing of the State Department which was set up in 1973. Thus restarted the Skiing in Gulmarg and a large number of foreigners were attracted in addition to domestic ski lovers.
The main foreign clientele was of the British expatriates working in South East Asia. Both at Christmas and Easter, Gulmarg used to be full of British families enjoying ski holidays. Sometimes, the locals, especially in hotels and on the slopes would appear to be the “foreigners”! The State Tourism Department also invited the top French Ski Professors from their National Ski School at Chamonix for imparting training to local instructors. The level of skiing rose and the first National Ski Championship was held here in March, 1986. Same year some top skiers from Gulmarg participated in the Asian Ski Championship at Sapporo, Japan and won some top positions in Slalom. One of the instructors also participated in Winter Olympics in Canada.
Apart from foreign skiers, Gulmarg became an ideal outdoor location for Bollywood producers. Almost entire winter used to see team after team of Bollywood film producers coming to Gulmarg for shooting on snow. However, all these activities got a severe set back by the upheaval of 1990. In spite of turbulent conditions, skiing continued at Gulmarg. The famous French Skier Sylvain Saudan also known as the “Impossible Skier” for his most difficult descents, continued heli-skiing at Gulmarg. If skiing could continue in such turbulent times there should be no problem in continuing it during the current situation. However, it needs marketing in most well-known ski areas of Europe and Australia. These people had been coming to Gulmarg regularly. In fact, some Russian skiers too have been visiting Gulmarg in recent times. Last year the Chinese Ski Team had shown desire for training in Gulmarg. It could be an ideal place for many national teams to train their skiers for various championships. The State Tourism Department needs to market Gulmarg and also provide facilities on these lines. The Government should back all these efforts to keep Kashmir in circulation in the International Tourism Market.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Kishtwar, a forgotten adventure!

(The valleys of Kishtwar have been proclaimed in many travelogues as mysterious and adventurous but these days the adventure tourism potential of the area has gone totally into background!)
Image result for sicklemoon peak
In 1918, Otto Rothfeld, an Indian Civil Service Officer wrote a book titled, “With Pen and Rifle in Kishtwar”. In the preface, the author describes Kishtwar as, “…the province of Kishtwar, situated between Kashmir and Chamba on the way to Simla, and ruled by H. H. the Maharaja of Kashmir and Jammu, is not only very little known, but is in itself extremely interesting. Its scenery is almost unique; its inhabitants are peculiar; its remains are undeciphered; and its sport is exceptional”. Even though the area is now developed and modernised yet some of the valleys there retain the mystery and adventure. The book can be downloaded free at this link:
Before 1990 Kishtwar was the most sought after destination for adventure lovers especially mountaineers and trekkers from U.K. Almost a dozen expeditions would come for climbing various mountain peaks in the area. The attraction of these mountains apart from being high and difficult was the trek involved in reaching the base camp. In Ladakh especially in Suru and Zanskar Valleys where there are dozens of mountain peaks, there is hardly any trekking involved in reaching the base camps. These are almost all approachable by road with hardly a day’s trekking. This does not give sufficient time for acclimatisation.
The most frequented valleys in Kishtwar area include the Wadhwan and Paddar Valleys. Most of the mountain peaks are in the range of 6000 to 7000 meters and are very challenging. These include Brahma, Brahma’s Wife, Ekfeiler, Dreikent, Sickle Moon, Barnaj-I, II and III and so on. These have been climbed many times. Even Chris Bonnington, the famous British climber has been on Brahma! There is a very famous trek through Paddar Valley to Zanskar Valley over the Umasi La pass. This trek too has been very popular with foreign trekkers. On the way is the famous Cedar forest of Machail. In fact, this trek has historical significance. The Dogra General who conquered Ladakh and annexed it to Dogra Kingdom, General Zorawar Singh went into Zanskar valley through this pass and then conquered entire Ladakh. Another interesting episode relating to the pass is the carriage of huge cedar logs across from Machail to Zanskar by the lamas of Karsha monastery! The monastery has huge wooden columns made from these Cedar trees.
The Wadhwan valley itself is a fascinating trek. It is the most beautiful valley in the entire state. At an average altitude of 8,500 feet above sea level, there are many villages on the two sides of Wadhwan River which flows through the middle of the valley. On two sides are long forested slopes. The River itself has many islands on which there are Pine trees giving a fascinating view. From Kashmir side the valley can be approached through Margan pass across into Inshan village. There are many villages like Tsodraman, Wurwan, Sokhniz on the two sides of Wadhwan River. The valley also lies on the trek to Suru valley of Kargil through Botkol pass. Some treks lead to Lidder valley and one track comes straight over Shesh Nag through Golule Gali. The area has equally good potential during winter for skiing, cross-country skiing and ski mountaineering. It can be an excellent area for different winter sports. Wadhwan valley in winter would be a paradise for cross-country skiing.
The Department of Tourism in eighties of last century after the popularity of Kishtwar as a take off point for multiple adventure trails had set up an equipment store here. Imported trekking and climbing equipment was kept available for trekkers and climbers. However, after the outbreak of militancy in 1990, the store was taken over by the Border Security Force.
Kishtwar also has a landing strip where small aircraft have landed sometimes. Apart from developing adventure tourism, there is urgent requirement of providing an air connection to this area which sometimes remains cut off for days on end due to landslides. Even a regular helicopter service can be of good use both for the tourists and the local population. Earlier Pawan Hans had started a helicopter service which was subsequently discontinued. In view of the set back to leisure tourism due to unusual conditions in Kashmir valley, it is advisable to promote adventure tourism and Kishtwar approachable by road through Simthan pass or by helicopter from Srinagar could be a good alternative in addition to Ladakh. The adventure tourist who goes for all types of hazardous activities is not easily put off by unusual local conditions. Additionally, most of the adventure areas are away from population centres in wild valleys and on high mountains and remain undisturbed by local problems. Let us hope, Kishtwar gets re-activated as an Adventure Tourism destination and the spirit of adventure in Otto Rothfeld’s book gets rejuvenated

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Integration or assimilation?

(Mohan Bhagwat’s declaration of integrating Kashmir fully into India may, on the contrary, begin the process of disintegration of India itself!)
Get your word right
The Oxford dictionary defines “Integration” as an action to bring together different countries, blocks, units and so on for political or economic integration. The best example of the process is the European Union. The integrated countries or states retain their individual characteristics but become part of a whole. On the other hand, the “Assimilation” is the absorption and integration of people, ideas, or culture into a wider society or culture. The best example is the absorption of various races, nationalities into what we now call the American Nation which basically is an artificial creation.
RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat has declared that Kashmir will be fully integrated into India after amending the Constitution. He seems to have confused the words “Integration” and “Assimilation”! In fact, he appears to be saying that Kashmiris would be fully assimilated into the Hindu Nation of the Indian mainland which he intends to turn into Golwalkar’s dream of a Hindu Rashtra. Incidentally, he does not mention Kashmiris who have inhabited the territory for thousands of years but talks about Kashmir, the land. He probably considers Kashmir only as a territorial unit of Hindu origin. Unfortunately, right from the start, both India and Pakistan have been laying claim to the territory of Kashmir and none is really interested or bothered about its inhabitants, the Kashmiris!
In ancient times, Kashmir was known as a separate independent kingdom at the same time when India was known to be a country inhabited by Hindus. No doubt at that time the religion professed by Kashmiris was Shaivism, a school of philosophy of Hinduism practiced only in Kashmir and most of South India. However, even at that time, Kashmir was not associated with the Indian mainland in any way but remained as an independent sovereign kingdom. No doubt, that was a glorious Hindu past of Kashmir but that past has gone by and we are now living in a totally new and a different present. Kashmir is now a Muslim majority state with the most tolerant and accommodative religious practices. History always moves forward and pinning about the past glory is not going to serve any purpose or change the ground situation. That can be done by physically changing the demography with outside settlers and displacing the original inhabitants. That seems easier to say than to do practically on ground. This is especially so because of the restive youth fighting bullets with stones! They have been alienated beyond redemption. Even BJP leader Yashwant Sinha says that India has lost Kashmir emotionally!
Regarding integration, well, Kashmir is already integrated with India. This had happened right after the signing of the accession document and the Delhi Agreement in forties and fifties of the last century. Had the Indian authorities honoured these documents and implemented the same in letter and spirit, there would have been no problem. In fact, Kashmir would have been another Bhutan! Had India honoured its commitment of full autonomy, the other side would have been in trouble. There one central minister of Kashmir Affairs in Islamabad controls everything in supposedly “Azad” Kashmir! The other part earlier known as Northern Areas and now called Giligit-Baltistan is now totally merged into Pakistan for all practical purposes. The setting up of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which passes through Gilgit-Baltistan forming part of the disputed state of Jammu & Kashmir, has made this part unnegotiable both for Pakistan and China! They cannot afford to change its status at any cost for their own survival!
Thus, if Mohan Bhagwat really wants to integrate honestly and genuinely Kashmir and the Kashmiris living there into the Indian Republic, he has to restore the integrity of the agreements which India had signed with Kashmiris rather than amend the constitution to assimilate the state and its people into his utopian Hindu Rashtra! Kashmir can become part of Hindu Rashtra only if all Kashmiris are either converted back into Shaivite Hinduism or they are forcibly displaced from there by new Hindu settlers. This, as already stated, is an impossible task! On the contrary Mohan Bhagwat should advise Prime Minister Modi to start a dialogue in Kashmir if he really wants “Emotional Integration” of Kashmiris!
Incidentally, in view of the above realities, one needs to go deeper into this tirade of Hindu Rashtra and full integration of Kashmir into it generated by BJP and RSS. There is only one plausible explanation. All the BJP and RSS statements and declarations are intended to create a wave of religious euphoria for the next Parliament election which may even be preponed from 2019 to 2018. The declaration of the Election Commission that they are fully geared for holding both the State Assembly Elections and Parliament Election simultaneously in 2018 itself seems an uneasy indication of the real cause for such emotionally charged religious waves. However, such drastic declarations, instead of fully integrating Kashmir into India, may, on the contrary, disintegrate India itself!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Criminal Negligence in Flood Prevention!

(The disastrous flood of 2014 seems to have been forgotten both by the people and the rulers and a worse disaster may be looming around!)
Criminal Negligence in Flood Prevention!
One had sincerely expected that the people and the rulers would learn a lesson from the worst flood of the century which occurred in September, 2014. Even though it did not result in a major loss of life yet it caused extensive economic losses in terms of property and goods. The material loss was in thousands of crores and the poshest areas of the capital city of Srinagar were savagely ravaged. No doubt the flood was a backlash from the River Jhelum and all its associated water bodies which had been vandalised by the people and the rulers. Encroachments on the River’s banks and usurpation of the flood basin by the government in terms of new colonies and establishments had annoyed the River so much that it stuck with a vengeance.
Most of the experts who analysed the disaster had observed that the flood was due to extreme vandalisation of the environment in the catchment areas and usurpation of the flood basin.  The River which gave life to Kashmir has been vandalised and desecrated by us. The muck and filth of almost entire Kashmir is made to flow into the River. Its banks have been encroached in most places especially in the city of Srinagar. For last half a century or so no one has bothered to dredge it and take away the silt. Over and above everything else its flood basin has been snatched and converted into colonies. Where else will it go except overflow its banks and sometimes may even change course. Most of the wetlands and water bodies have either been filled up or encroached upon. The historical channel Nala-i-Mar has been filled up and converted into a road. We have hardly left any space for the extra water to flow in anywhere. In the catchment areas, most of the rain water would get absorbed but now it runs down straight as we have totally denuded the catchment area of the River. One cannot rule out sudden disastrous floods in future especially because of the universal climate change. Reclaiming all the earlier back-ups to prevent floods may take time. We needed to go for immediate preventive and protective measures.
After the devastation and displacement caused by the flood, one would have expected people to remain under shock for a long time. Not only did they restart massive constructions in the flood affected areas of the city but violated all building bye laws and norms with the connivance of the authorities. There has been no chastisement as one would have expected from such a natural disaster attributed by many to be the “Divine Retribution” for our misdeeds! The government has been brooding over many schemes for prevention of floods and protection for the city areas. However, the progress on ground has been abnormally slow. The most important aspect is the dredging of the River and its flood spill over channel and strengthening of its embankments especially in the city of Srinagar a major portion of which was submerged in the last flood. During the short spell of Governor’s rule, the dredging operation had been started through some Kolkata based firm. However, there were some mechanical problems and the progress has been extremely slow as admitted by the Chief Engineer in charge of Flood Control.  If one travels along the Bund in the city or along the embankments of the flood spill-over channel, nothing substantial seems to have been done. Instead, the dug up soil is in huge mounds all along the channel. Just 10 feet of water will spill over the embankments. The worst is the fate of the flood spill over channel. With the deposition of huge amounts of silt and wild growth, it is almost on level with the banks especially in Mehjoor Nagar-Ram Bagh areas. In addition, there has been a spate of bridge construction creating massive hurdles for free flow of water.
Sometime back, the State Chief Minister had constituted a committee for initiating immediate flood prevention measures. She is herself the chairperson of the committee. It is not known whether the concerned engineers are briefing her regularly of any progress on ground? It will be worthwhile for her to just take a round of the flood spill over channel just from Mehjoor Nagar to Ram Bagh Bridge to know the actual ground situation. Given the will and determination, it is not difficult to execute most of the flood prevention measures like dredging, strengthening of embankments and clearing of filled up water bodies on a continuous basis. Usually, in such important projects there is a special monitoring team of consultants or experts who monitor the work on a day to day basis. God Almighty has given us again a grace period till next season. The sooner the government moves at the top, the better. In the alternative, one has to keep fingers crossed for another calamity which will, unfortunately be, of our own making! However, it needs to be emphasised that any dereliction in undertaking these most urgent measures without wasting any further time amounts to criminal negligence!