Wake up call – River Rafting in Pahalgam turns a sour experience

With the authorities squabbling on permits and ecology, etc., the most important aspect of River Rafting in Lidder in Pahalgam – SAFETY has kind of taken a back seat. And it came out glaringly yesterday when a group of tourists could not maintain control of their raft, and while many got injured, one of the rourists actually succumbed to her injuries (see the detailed news item below).
A very expensive lesson learnt? Well, if its even a lesson learnt. Hopefully PDA/Tourism Department would streamline how they select travel agencies and more importantly their personnel. Even more important is designation of certain streches of river from Type 1 to 6 depending upon the difficulty level. Tourists can then cautiously choose where they want to raft, as well as sign on a non-liability paper (which is a norm through out the world).
This incident is a setback, but hopefully it will not reverse the trend and people will continue to enthusiastically enjoy the thrill of rafting in Pahalgam waters. And hats off to the local good samaritans who saved seven of the group in this incident.

Noteworthy is that this is the first casualty since the rafting was introduced in Lidder during the past three years.

Hyderabad tourist drowns while rafting in Kashmir
May 29 Merinews – A woman tourist from Hyderabad lost her life as she, along with her mates, lost control while rafting in a Kashmir river. The seven other injured are being treated at the district hospital, Anantnag.
RECREATION TURNED sour for a bunch of tourists as one of them drowned while rafting in the Lidder River near village Yanner, Pahalgam in Kashmir. The deceased, identified as Sharda, wife of a Nivasan from Hyderabad, lost her life as she could not be rescued. The tourists were from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh.
The tourist were rafting in the river this morning (May 29) when they met with the mishap. Lidder is a swift-flowing river, ideal for rafting.
Battling desperately for their lives, the revellers were severely injured after the boat struck some boulders in the gushing river. Some local people who happened to see them, rescued the trapped tourists and shifted them to a nearby hospital with the assistance of the police.
Out of the group of eight, a woman, identified as Sharda, wife of Nivasan from Hyderabad, however, succumbed to her injuries at the district hospital, Anantnag. The other injured are being treated at the hospital.

Amarnath Yatra Registration 2008

Shri Amarnath Ji Yatra 2008 Registration Form

Shri Amarnath Ji Yatra 2008 Duplicate Receipt Generation 

JK Bank Global Help Desk Contact Numbers

For 2008, a registration fee of Rs 15 has been fixed while Rs 24 is charged by way of an insurance policy to the pilgrims.

Name, Age, Address, Blood Group – undertaking that you are physically fit to undertake trek at 14000 feet altitude
For credit card verification, the billing address as it appears on your credit card statement
Pay By Credit Card [ Diners Club Card/ American Express/ JCB card/ Visa ] [Need verification number]
Pay By ATM-CUM-DEBIT CARD
Pay Using Your Internet Enabled Bank Account
Pay by PayMate(Mobile payment)
Pay by ITZ CASH CARDS

With the annual Amarnath yatra set to commence from June 18, registration of devotees has started across the country.

Devotees can register themselves at 80 different branches of Jammu and Kashmir Bank across the country. Registration would end on July 13.

A total quota of 28,6680 pilgrims would be registered across the country by the bank branches.

While 9000 pilgrims would be registered in Jammu, 1200 will be registered in Srinagar, 720 in Kathua, 480 in Rajouri, 480 in Poonch and 600 in Udhampur.

Here is the list of Jammu and Kashmir Bank branches where yatris can register

Andhra Pradesh – Hyderabad – Pather Ghatti, J.N.Road

Bihar – Patna – Phulwari Sharief

Chandigarh – Sector 17

Delhi – Azadpur; Chandni Chowk; Naraina; Navin Shadara; Okhla; Rohini; South Extenison; Sarita Vihar; Vasant Vihar

Goa – Panaji

Gujarat – Ahmedabad; Baroda (Lal Bagh); Surat

Haryana – Ambala Cantt; Gurgaon; Hissar; Karnal; Panipat;Rohtak

Himachal Pradesh – Dharmshala; Kullu; Shimla

Karnataka – Bangalore – SPJ Road; Infantry Road; Mysore

Kerala – Kochi; Ernakulam; Thriuvananthapuram

Maharashtra – Mumbai; Andheri (East); Kalbadevi, Mira Road, Vashi; Aurangabad; Nagpur; Pune

Madhya Pradesh – Bhopal; Indore

Punjab – Amritsar – Shastri Market; Majith Mandi; Batala; Bathinda; Ferozepur; Jalandhar; Ludhiana; Khanna; Moga; Mohali; Mandi Gobind Garh; Mansa; Pathankot; Phagwara

Rajasthan – Jaipur

Tamil Nadu – Chennai – Mount Road; Parrys

Uttar Pradesh – Agra; Aligarh; Allahabad; Bhadoni; Greater Noida; Kanpur; Lucknow; Meerut; Muradabad; Noida; Varanasi

West Bengal – Kolkata- R.N. Mukherji Road, Mullick Bazar

Jammu and Kashmir – Jammu – TRC Extension Counter; Rajori Jawahar Nagar ; Poonch – Main Branch; Kathua-Main Branch; Udhampur-Shakti Nagar ; Doda-Pul Doda and Srinagar TRC Extension Counter.

For the past few years now, JK Bank is playing a crucial role in ensuring smooth conduct of yatra. No pilgrim is allowed to proceed for the yatra without proper registration. After it was made mandatory for the yatris visiting Amarnath cave to register themselves before entering into the State, JK Bank came forward to bail the State government out of crisis. While upholding its tradition of coming to the aid of the people, the bank, since 2002, has been shouldering the responsibility to register yatris throughout the country at its designated branches. This has won laurels for the bank from the yatris for smooth and satisfactory registration service rendered to them through the bank branches.¼br />  

No Amarnath ‘darshan’ before June 18 – lingam, 14 to 16 feet formed this year

News – The Telegraph, Calcutta: Srinagar, May 22: Planning to take off on a soul-cleansing journey to Amarnath within the next few days? Tarry a while.

The Jammu and Kashmir government has deferred the official date of the yearly pilgrimage as it wants to steer clear of any controversy over early melting of the Shiva lingam.

The two-month yatra will now officially start from June 18, authorities said, adding that the administration has banned any movement of pilgrims to the cave shrine ahead of that date.

“Yes, we have imposed Section 144 to prevent any pilgrim visiting the cave before the said date and we are fully implementing it,” Kashmir divisional commissioner Mehboob Iqbal said.

“We are doing so at the recommendation of the (Amarnath) shrine board.”

Official sources said police teams deployed at both the Baltal and Pahalgam routes to the cave were turning back pilgrims.

Over the years it had become a routine that the unofficial yatra would commence a month ahead of the formal opening, with the full backing of shrine board officials.

Last year, devotees were disappointed to find that the lingam had melted even before the official yatra commenced.

In 2006, the board was mired in another controversy after allegations that an artificial lingam had been placed to keep the pilgrimage going after the original lingam had completely melted.

“The board does not want any controversy this time, the reason the unofficial yatra is not taking place this year,” a source in the board said.

Reasons cited for the early melting have ranged from increase in the cave temperature because of the duration of the pilgrimage, hugging of the lingam by devotees to burning of incense sticks within the cave.

Board chief executive officer Arun Kumar, however, said there was no scientific evidence to prove that the lingam melts because of the long pilgrimage period.

“We have urged the government in the past also to prevent any unofficial yatra. This time we are happy that they are properly implementing it.”

Kumar said there had been reports of pilgrims going too close to the lingam last year and even hugging it. “This will not happen this year as we have erected a 53-foot-long and nine-foot-high iron fence around the lingam.” He added that a perfect lingam, measuring 14 to 16 feet, had formed this year.

Board sources said they were expecting around five lakh pilgrims, around two lakh more than last year.

Amarnath pilgrims can stay in Pahalgam hotels

In a decision of great significance to tourists and locals alike, the authorities agreed to let tourists and Amarnath Yatris stay in Pahalgam area hotels.

News item: Srinagar: The Amarnth pilgrims will be totally free to stay in private hotels at Pahalgam during the two-month-long yatra, starting from June 18, Chief Executive Officer(CEO), Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) Arun Kumar said today.

Announcing the decision at a joint meeting of various departments and representatives of hoteliers, he said the yatris would be free to decide whether they wished to stay in hotels or in the Nunwan camp. The hoteliers and other traders were protesting that their business was affected when the base camp was shifted to Nunwan.
He said it has been decided to regulate tourist and pilgrim movements to Pahalgam and to the base camp of the yatra at Nunwan.

The Serbal security check post would also be relocated near Nunwan and the usual tourist traffic diverted to Pahalgam via a circuit road. Dr Kumar said the new plan of action was revealed under which a booth would be established near the check point to serve as an information counter regarding availability of accommodation in the picturesque valley for desirous pilgrims. The CEO said with this measure, tourists from outside could visit Pahalgam even during the yatra period without any obstacles. The measure, he said, would boost the occupancy of hotels even when schools reopen in the rest of the country after the summer vacations. ”’We want pilgrims to stay anywhere they like. In fact, the Shrine Board is not averse to shifting of the Nunwan base camp to its traditional and ancient location of Sadhu Paraw, ahead of Pahalgam that will be beneficial for all, the hoteliers, craft dealers and local traders,” Dr Kumar said.

River rafting in Pahalgam – status 2008 and the players involved

Sight seeing, pony-rides or do-nothing vacationing aside, what really can Pahalgam offer to visiting tourists? Come to think of it, Pahalgam has its own gold mine in the form of meandering river lidder, and miles and miles of it both from Aru and Chandanwari which offer a great, world class opportunity for river rafting. Thus far, it seems like the officials have failed to realize what they are sitting on. It has been left onto small time entrepreneurs to harness this opportunity. And like the story of rest of India, they are able to pull through, inspite of all the odds. But only till a point. Objections are now being raised from many quarters.
I am optimistic that its only a matter of time when the Pahalgam Development Authority, or Tourism Department or the Fisheries Department will put their act together and lay out a holistic plan which will benefit both the locals and the tousists, and put Pahalgam on the world map of premier river rafting destinations.

At its core, whitewater rafting is simply the act of taking a raft down through turbulent areas of a river. These turbulent areas are known as rapids. Rapids are classified by six categories. Category 1 is a smooth river with no rapids. The categories climb from their too Category 6, which is either impassible or should only be attempted by experts. Most river rafting trips occur on Category 3 and 4 rapids, where the turbulence gives you an exciting ride, but with limited risk. Pahalgam from Chandanwari to Nunwan offers all 6 categories of rapids.

There seem to be three major government agencies involved in the issue. Looks like while Tourism Department would like to encourage the activity, the PDA and Fisheries department hold an opposing view. Or atleast have expressed their cocerns, to make their side of the point. The concerns and issues are genuine, though not insurmountable. Yes, you don’t want to spread garbage, you dont want to effect fauna and fishes, you want to cover the risk via some insurance cover, or at least no-liability paperwork. But at the end of it, this all is doable with proper guidelines and implementation.

Rafting provides a big economic opportunity for locals. One way to handle this is to make co-operatives of local low income people, including ponywallahs, and have them operate the rafting agencies in collaboration with experienced tour operators. This will ensure that tourist’s share of disposable budget doesn’t only go to tour operators from outside. There should only be a handful of agencies allowed, and the bigger thing is that the annual contracts should be openly auctioned off. The generated revenue should be shared amongst PDA, Tourism Department and Fisheries or Forest department to provide for facilities. Forest department can get parking fees for vehicles, Fisheries department can get to sell fishing licences. PDA can get its share to keep the area clean and tourim department can promote the facilities internationally. So on and so on…

From a news coverage in GreaterKashmir dated 5/24/2008, this is how the players/interested parties stack up:

Pahalgam Development Authority
Chief Executive Officer, Pahalgam Development Authority, (PDA), Abdul Rasheed Parray said: “While the pollution caused by the rafting affects the flora and fauna of the region, the garbage damages the shores of the Lidder river as it is not being disposed off properly.”

Fisheries Department
Fisheries Department that has raised objections to the rafting in famous Lidder Nallah here citing “disturbance of fish habitat.”
Joint Director Fisheries, Kashmir, Showkat Ali said, “The rafting boats definitely affect the flora and fauna and disturb the habitat of the fish. The government should wake up to the call and instead select some other rivers for rafting.” According to Ali the rafting agencies are violating the Fisheries Act and are operating the rafting without getting no-objection from the department.

Ponnywallahs and locals
The ponnywallas and the residents here have also objected the rafting. “Pahalgam has its own charm and people don’t visit here for rafting, so tourism department should never have given the permission to the local agencies for rafting,” said Mohu-din a local.

Tourism Department
Director Tourism Farooq Shah, however disagrees that the rafting will create pollution. “If our youth want to earn their livelihood then why this fuss,” Shah said. He said the department’s job was only to register the agencies and the permission is given after due consultation with the PDA.

Rafting Agencies
However, the owners of the rafting firms said the rafting boats don’t create any pollution. “We fail to understand how the rafting boats can affect the fauna and flora of the place and destroy the fish habitat,” they said. They said it speaks volumes about the wisdom of the authorities when they say that the garbage gets dumped into the water. “There is no connection between garbage and the rafting,” they said.

Location
Earlier (2005-2007) the rafting was conducted in Pahalgam itself. But following objections by the CEO, PDA, the spot was changed to Batakote, 2 kilometers away from here. Even as according to the application received by the PDA CEO only six agencies have been given permission by the tourism department for operation of commercial rafting, there are 13 companies presently operating their boats.  Besides, the agencies are operating more boats than permitted.

Ecological impact
Per PDA, though the agencies are strictly responsible for the disposal of the solid waste material and the cleanliness of the area, the tourism department is not taking any action against the violators.
On complaints about improper disposal of waste material, Tourism Department’s Farooq said, “The PDA has been assigned the job of looking after the proper disposal of waste material and it should create facilities to ensure pollution free environment.”

Insurance
Most of the agencies according to the sources in the PDA do not have a necessary insurance cover for the raft guides and clients against risk/accident.
Shah however asked the PDA not to allow any agency to operate boats that doesn’t have proper insurance documents and violate any of the guidelines laid down by the tourism department.

Tarrif
The agencies are also charging more than the tariff fixed by the tourism department.

Hotel assosiation against construction in Nunwan, Pahalgam

Long duration of Amarnath Yatra is anyways creating tourism related disruptions in Pahalgam as many casual toursits shy away from the place during those weeks. Now come the sudden step of Amarnath Shrine Board constructing pre-fabricated huts at Nunwan, on the outskirts of Pahalgam. Long term this could start effecting the center of gravity of toursist economy of Pahalgam to outside of Pahalgam, towards Nunwan. While constructing lavatories could make sense if SASB persists with keeping Amarnath yatris out of Pahalgam in a secluded (and perhaps secure) Yatri Camp at Nunwan, the whole idea really needs to be abandoned so that people coming to Amarnath Yatra from all over the country can visit the hill station as normal tourists and enjoy the beauty of it. Of course with it would come the issues of ecological degradation of Pahalgam valley by activities of Yatris, but thats a different problem, and SASB or other wise men can surely arrive at solutions to it. Anyhow, this is a release from KHAROF, typically harsh in wordings, but nevertheless in the right direction. Its from the Gk News network.

Srinagar, May 19: The Kashmir Hotel and Restaurant Owners Federation (KHAROF) on Monday said the construction activities carried out by the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) at Pahalgam are bound to damage the environment and ecology of the resort besides hurt the public sentiments.
 Acting on the news reports carried by this newspaper about Pahalgam, a KHAROF spokesman said the Federation members unanimously condemned “this anti-environmental, anti-ecological and anti-Pahalgam activities like construction of public lavatories, pre-fabricated huts on concrete plinths at Nunwan” by the SASB.
 “The tourism fraternity of Kashmir appeals to the government not to allow such activities which are bound to wipe out Pahalgam from the tourist map of the world,” a spokesman said in a statement. “And if the government fails to act immediately then the notion that the SASB is by itself a power centre—a state within itself—stand confirmed.”
 The spokesman said the tourism in Kashmir was bread and butter to a large populace, and Pahalgam being a famed tourist destination needs be preserved at any cost. “If such actions are not stopped, it would force us to go to any extent to save the place from human-inflicted injuries like massive constructions,” he said.
 The Federation also demanded that the Yatra period be restricted to 10 days as per the past practice. “Stretching the Yatra to two and a half months is degrading Pahalgam and its neighborhood environmentally and vandalizing it ecologically,” the spokesman added. “We humbly ask the powers that be to get up and save Pahalgam.”
 “It is ironical that few days back the Pahalgam Development Authority declared usage of rubber boats for rafting as an environmental hazard but at the same time it allows vandalism of Pahalgam.”

Making of movie Tahaan, in Pahalgam

Pre-militancy days, the event list of Pahalgam used to be lined up with which bollywood crew was coming for shooting of which movie, and when. For tourists, getting to see in real the actors and the crew was an added incentive. Well, the spirit seems to be coming back to the valley of shephards. Read about this narrative on shooting of Tahaan in Pahalgam penned by Muzamil Jaleel for the Sunday Express recently:

Last winter, when Bollywood returned to Kashmir, Santosh Sivan turned his famed lens to its “wounded beauty”. In the six weeks he spent with his crew, he found humour, courage and donkeys. We bring you the making of Tahaan, a story of a boy and his beloved pet.

Snowflakes lay scattered on the pine branches. A thick blanket of clouds hid the mountain peaks. It was early winter and in the chill, Pahalgam valley looked grim. On the banks of Lidder stream, a short man with a bushy goatee and sleepy eyes sat alone, watching. He was satisfied with what he saw. The landscape had just the blend of beauty and ache he needed for his story.
The story, which he shot in the Valley last December, is not the usual concoction of violence and politics. Tahaan, a film about an eight-year-old and his donkey, is a fable that only obliquely deals with Kashmir’s conflict. It is slated for an international release soon.

Sivan was one of many filmmakers who came to the Valley last year lured by the thaw in violence. “Kashmir is a treat for your eyes,’’ said the filmmaker known for his magical camerawork. “But I wanted to retain the emotion in the images—this penetrating beauty and the heart-rending gloom.”
Tahaan: A boy with a grenade does not dwell only on the gloom. It is a life-affirming tale of eight-year-old Tahaan, played by Mumbai lad Purav Bhandare, and his journey across the mountains with a grenade—a task he takes up only to reclaim his donkey, Birbal.

Finding Birbal was a story in itself. Sivan wanted two donkeys and that, too, look-alikes. There was a small problem. Kashmir has mules and not donkeys. But Sivan was adamant and even threatened to import donkeys from outside. He had done something similar while shooting Malli (1998) in Mudhumalai (Tamil Nadu), when he got a deer from a hundred miles away for his film based on a wildlife cause.
The task of casting the right donkey fell on Faisal Burza, owner of Hotel Senator Pine and Peak in Pahalgam. A young Kashmiri hotelier, Burza played both host and local logistic guide to Sivan’s crew. His friend, the film’s producer and lifeline of its operations, Mubina Rattonsey, accompanied Burza as he ploughed through the villages surrounding Pahalgam town looking for a donkey. Finally, a villager told Burza about Sirhama, a village high up in the mountains. Donkeys had been spotted there. The crew was ecstatic and Sivan decided to go along with executive producer Kamal Mohammad for the casting coup. “When we told the villagers why we were here, they were delighted. The memories of Bollywood crews in Pahalgam were still alive here,” said Burza. So they lined up their donkeys for what turned out to be a full “audition”. “The problem was not just to choose any donkey. We wanted donkeys that would match Sivan’s imagination. The first few looked a bit arrogant,’’ Kamal said wryly. “Then we saw this calm and composed donkey. He looked a bit melancholic as well. And we knew we had found our star. But we took a few of them along. We wanted to see which one among them would bond with Tahaan.’’
Sivan, Kamal and Burza then began a search for his look-alike. “We were very lucky. We found a donkey, who was not only his double but energetic as well,’’ said Kamal. When the donkeys shuffled on to the lawns of the Pahalgam hotel, the crew was amazed to see Purav bond with the chosen donkeys.

In many ways, Sivan’s film also steers clear of cinematic stereotypes of the Valley. Kashmir’s beauty was not always a metaphor for despair. In the 1960s, films like Junglee (1961), Kashmir Ki Kali (1964), Jaanwar (1965), Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965), Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon (1963), and Aarzoo (1965) made it the romance country—tall mountains and Shammi Kapoor, freshwater streams and dimply Sharmila Tagore. After 1989, the year militancy began, it vanished from the movies only to return in the late ’90s as a backdrop for nationalistic films like Mission Kashmir and LOC which provided a skewed Bollywood view of Kashmir and its conflict. Tahaan, however, turns the focus to the individual. It is neither propaganda nor an opinion. “The boy is looking for the purpose of his life. After his father goes missing and his grandfather dies, he is the only ‘man’ at home. His struggle also explains the tragic story of this beautiful land,’’ said Sivan.

The film has a big star cast. For Anupam Kher, it was an emotional homecoming of sorts and Sivan had convinced him that it was safe to come to Kashmir. Rahul Bose, Victor Banerjee and Rahul Khanna, too, had doubts about security but once they were in Pahalgam, their fears were allayed. Several characters were played by local inhabitants. Burza’s sister-in-law Sana Sheikh has a role as do two employees of Hotel Pine and Peak Sajad and Abdul Majeed Shah. CRPF commandant in Pahalgam, Sandeep Gokul, plays the part of a civilian while two television artists from Srinagar are also part of the film.

There were also ordinary people who acted themselves into the script. In one of the film’s sequences, Kher, who plays Kashmiri shepherd Subhan Kakh, gets into a conversation with a few village elders in a barber’s shop. “We requested a few villagers to pose for us. One of them had assisted as a labourer in a Bollywood film in 1970s. But they had never watched a movie,’’ Kamal said. “When Kher sahib delivered his dialogue, the villagers started a conversation, oblivious that a script had to be followed. Kher tried to stop them but they didn’t understand. We continued shooting and it came out very nicely’’.

Not just the local people, the moody landscape and its surprises added to the film. In a scene, Tahaan was to be idling by a pond when another character would throw a stone into the water to attract his attention. “We found the pond completely frozen. We didn’t know what to do but Santosh (Sivan) asked us to carry on. And once the stone fell on the frozen surface of the pond, it made a different sound,’’ Kamal remembered. “Nature was playing magic with our script.’’
There were a few scares for the crew—Kher’s car skidded off a snow-laden stretch in Chandanwari where the road to Amarnath cave ends—but in all, they had a good time and predictably fell in love with the beauty around.

Sivan, though, said he found the grandeur of Kashmir’s landscape predictable. He wanted to look beyond. “When I looked through my camera, it was strange, unsettling. There was no violence while we were shooting but I could feel that strange mist of conflict. Kashmir’s beauty looked wounded,’’ he said. “The most amazing aspect was the people, ordinary people. Little kids would flock around whenever we were shooting. I have never seen so many children. And I saw a lot of hope in their eyes.’’
This film, Sivan emphasised, is a simple human story. “It is about the life of a boy, his family and a Kashmiri village,’’ he said. “It is also a prayer. A prayer that this beautiful land comes out of its tragedy and one day when the Tahaans of Kashmir grow up, they live with dignity, honour and peace.”

KASHMIR CLOSE-UP
The last film shot in Kashmir before militancy began was Elan-e-Jung starring Dharmendra in 1988-89
May 1998: Mere Apnay, starring Amrish Puri, Mukul Dev and Mayuri Kango  and written, directed and produced by Rattan Irani was shot in Gulmarg
March, 1999: Boney Kapoor shot several scenes of his film Pukaar, starring Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit under tight security
April 9, 1999: Ashok Thakeria’s Mann, starring Aamir Khan and Manisha Koirala, had a song and few sequences shot on the snowy slopes of Kongdori in the upper reaches of Gulmarg. The security provided by the J-K government was unprecedented
Nov, 1999: Mani Ratnam shot several song sequences for his Tamil film Allipadi (Breaking The Waves) at the Dachigam National Park
2000: Mission Kashmir by Vidhu Vinod Chopra
2005: Yahaan by director Shoojit  Sircar
2008: Director Raj Kanwar’s film Sadiyaan is based on the return of peace in Kashmir and was recently shot in the Valley especially in the colourful tulip garden. The film has a glittering star-cast of veterans including Rekha, Hema Malini, Rishi Kapoor and newcomer Shatrugun Sinha’s son Luv. Director Rahul Dholakia is currently in Srinagar, working on a Sanjay Dutt-starrer based in Kashmir

Managing lavatories for Amarnath pilgrims

One of the bigger deals with undertaking any pilgrimage with thousands of other people is to be able be reasonably manage needs arounds bathrooms and  lavatories. If you are in the basecamp at Nunwan in Pahalgam, or camp in Panchtarni or Sheshnag, no other problem is more exacerbated than this. The scene at 6:00 has to be seen to be believed. People sit out there in open, and feces are littered all over – without many reservations, people sit anywhere – simply because there is no choice.  Help is on way…

FAHEEM ASLAM / MUDDASIR ALI of GreaterKashmir  

Pahalgam, May 16: The Shri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) has constructed hundreds of lavatories and many huts at Nunwan base camp in this famous hill resort where
illegal constructions already pose a serious threat to its ‘fragile’ environment.

The land on which the lavatories and huts have come up is the state land acquired by the Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA) where construction of
any kind is strictly forbidden.

           “We have constructed 250 lavatories and 22 prefab huts for Yatris. The SASB has asked us to erect 100 more lavatories and 50 bathrooms in the base
camp,” said an SASB employee.

           The huts, and lavatories made of angular iron have been erected on concrete plinths in the green zone with a land area of 226 Kanals.

           Adjacent to the lavatories, small pits have been dug for disposal of human excreta. Many of these pits have been connected to a two feet wide drain
leading to nowhere. The green zone area has another drain which empties into a wide pit, few meters outside the camp. The pit, which has been dug on one side of
the main road leading to Pahalgam, ultimately leads into river Lidder, one of the main attractions of the resort.

           “The drain has been dug last year for flow of residual wastes from Langers which are established every year for yatris. It (drain) will ultimately
carry the wastes to the pit outside for safe decomposition,” said another SASB employee.

           The SASB, according to the employee, has planned to concretize the drain. “The plan was formulated last year, but the board may implement it this
year,” he said. The board is also shifting the prefab huts to other side in the camp due to the high-tension power line passing above them.  Environmentalists and officials in the PDA say environment of Pahalgam is very fragile and any interference with it would be detrimental to its
ecosystem. “Even a minor activity undertaken in this green zone can prove disastrous,” said Dr Mubashir Rufai, a noted environmentalist.

           He said the establishments of lavatories in the zone will affect the environment as well as human health. “The human excreta from these lavatories
will ultimately seep into bottom layers of earth and reach the underground water layer and contaminate it.  It will also pollute the Lidder stream besides
increase the bacterial count of water, which will affect the humans who will consume this water in the lower regions,” Dr Rufai said.

           The PDA authorities, however, claim the excreta would be treated chemically and it will not affect the Nunwan environment. But environmentalists refute the claim. “To what extent can the excreta be treated chemically when you have a massive rush of people?” questioned Dr
Rufai.

           He said the “best solution” would have been to erect environment-friendly lavatories with an attached soakage pit. “The pit could be transported for
proper decomposition at proper locations,” Dr Rufai said.

           The pre-fabricated huts were set up last year by the SASB without seeking permission of the authorities concerned.

           Since then, there has been a strong correspondence between the PDA and SASB about their shifting to some other location. But nothing has been done so
far, even though the construction in this zone is drawing flak from PDA.

Trekking routes around Pahalgam to reopen

Pahalgam is the starting point of some of the best that trekking can offer in the Himalayas. Trekking to Kolahai Glacier is a dream come true – and their are potential treks to across the ranges to Sonamarg and even Ladakh for the brave. Besides, there are many day treks originating in Pahalgam for the novices, like hiking to Basisaran or to Chunasar and Mansar lakes, or not to forget to Sheshnag or all the way to Amarnath Cave.

These trekking routes have been for all practical purposes closed to tourists and serious trekkers due to the security situation. Basically no one would venture. Well, all that seems to on verge of a massive change, going by this news item covered by Arif Shafi Vani of GreaterKashmir:

Srinagar, May 13: The breathtaking snow-clad mountains of Kashmir that were closed for the past 18 years for ‘security reasons’ would soon be thronged by foreign mountaineers and trekkers, if all goes well.   
 To attract tourists and promote adventure sports, the government has given green signal to the Tourism department to market the traditional trekking and mountaineering routes, including troops-dominated peaks of Sonamarg and Pahalgam.
 The routes were unofficially closed with the onset of militancy in early 90s. The mountaineers, mostly foreigners, could not freely undertake trekking on routes like Kolahai, Tattakuti and Gangabal due to heavy presence of troops.  
 “The traditional mountaineering and trekking routes of the Valley will be opened for promoting the adventure sports, which is gaining popularity among the tourists. We have to keep on experimenting and offer something new to the tourists to attract them to Kashmir. Some famous peaks have the potential to make the Valley one of the best mountaineering destinations,” joint director Tourism, Sarmad Hafeez told Greater Kashmir.
 Hafeez said a team from International Mountaineering Federation (IMF) recently made on the spot assessment of the Valley’s trekking and mountaineering destinations. Another team, Access and Conservation Commission visited trekking spots in famous tourist resort of Aru in Pahalgam.
 “The team was highly impressed and promised to go for massive promotion of the routes. As a first step, the IMF has decided to celebrate its golden jubilee year in the Valley and 90 mountaineers from various countries are scheduled to participate in the event,” Hafeez said.
 Officials said high-profile mountaineers and trekkers are scheduled to participate in the IMF celebrations, which includes trekking, here from May 15.
 The Tourism department has set up tourist trekking hire shops on various peaks. “We are receiving inquiries from various countries about out preparedness to host their mountaineers. We are geared up to host any mountaineering event. The mountaineers, trekkers or tourists intending to trek the peaks will get all facilities, including the gear and equipments at nominal charges,” Hafeez said.
 Rauf Tramboo, general secretary of the JK Ski and Mountaineering Association, said, “Heavy domination of peaks by troops scares trekkers and mountaineers. We have to seek permission from the Army to undertake trekking. Ironically, in most of the cases the request is rejected on trivial grounds and it discourages the trekkers. Government needs to look at this aspect.”
 Tramboo said the travel advisories from different countries during past decade had also forced the trekkers to remain away from the Valley. “As Jammu and Ladakh were exempted from the advisories, it remained a hub for global trekkers. I hope that the magnificent mountains of the Valley would soon get its share of trekkers,” Tramboo said. 
 Carin Fisher, a consultant on tourism to the state government said the restoration of trekking routes would boost inflow of tourists to the Valley.
 “Kashmir has been projected as a trekking paradise. The initiative of the state Tourism department to restore trekking is timely in view of the similar facilities in neighboring states. But there is dire need to market it,” Fisher said.

Amarnath Yatris may be allowed to stay in Pahalgam Hotels

Amarnath Yatris normally stay in Nunwan camp just outside of Pahalgam, and they have to hike all the way up to Pahalgam to just visit the beautiful Place (which is enroute to Amarnath yatra anyways). Because they don’t stay in Pahalgam proper, its a loss for the locals as well so they cannot reap much economic benefits. And of course its Yatris’ loss as they so close to Pahalgam, yet not in Pahalgam. The situation might change this year…..IT SHOULD.

Read what came out in News today: merinews.com – TRADERS IN Pahalgam, the traditional base for the annual Amranath Yatra, have decided to offer huge discounts to pilgrims making the yatra this year through the traditional route. They also sought the support of Shri Amarnathji Shrine Board (SASB) in carving out a bigger role for the local business community.

In a meeting with the chief executive officer, SASB, Dr Arun Kumar, the Pahalgam Hotel Association said that it was ready to slash down tariff drastically, bringing it at par with the rates of tent accommodation. It also appealed that no one should be stopped from staying in their hotels during the yatra period.
The chairman of the association, Javed Burzza said that the hoteliers have all along extended hospitality to the pilgrims as this pilgrimage has been the only silver lining during the peak of militancy when tourist influx to the valley was almost zero. “It will not be an exaggeration to say that our sustenance during that period was due to Amarnathji pilgrimage,” he added.
The association said that it was not averse to having Nunwan as base camp but it should not be at the cost of hoteliers, whose business has suffered immensely during the past few years. They complained that the security exercise had created various obstacles in carrying out their vocation and called for its streamlining.
On his part, Kumar reiterated that the board wants massive local participation in the yatra and it will continue to remove obstacles in its way. He said that the law and order and security did not come under the ambit of the shrine board. However, it said that it will take up issues projected by the association at appropriate levels to enable maximum utilisation of the already available hotel accommodation in Pahalgam during the yatra period.
He appreciated the gesture of various trading association that have been meeting him for the past few days and gave an overview of measures being taken to elicit the local participation in yatra management like house keeping, distribution of prasad made of local ingredients, watch and ward, road and track maintenance and provision of various utility services.
Kumar suggested setting up of a tourist reception centre in Nunwan base camp with representatives of hoteliers and other associations for taking care of their interests during the yatra.

Reliance to launch mobile phone services in Pahalgam and other places

Reliance Communications is planning to launch its mobile phone services in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, including Pahalgam in next couple of months.
A top company source told Business Standard that Reliance would emerge as the most favourite cellular service provider in the state, with its extensive network not only in the Jammu and Kashmir region but in entire Ladakh, bordering China. With its 700 towers, the company has managed to cover even the remote areas of Kishtwar, Doda, Ramban, Rajouri, Uri, Kupwara, Baramulla and Leh-Ladakh.

Reliance has covered the entire national highway right from Lakhanpur at Punjab border to Srinagar and Uri. It has also laid reliance network chord (R-chord) to provide quality internet services to its customers in J&K. This chord has already been laid from Punjab border to Jammu, Srinagar and up to Sonamarg which is on the Srinagar-Leh highway.

All the major tourist destinations including Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Patnitop and Yusmarg have been covered besides important pilgrimage sites including Katra Mata Vaishnodevi, Chara-e-Sharief, Khir Bhawani. Those visiting Shri Amarnath ji pilgrimage would also benefit from the service to larger extent.

The broad band facility to the customers will be available shortly after the launch of cellular service. It has started the process of erecting 144 towers in the Ladakh region where no other private player could reach so far. A special team of experts in the Reliance Group are in Kashmir to supervise work on this most difficult mountainous region of Ladakh.