May 13, 2021

Kashmir InFocus

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#LeaseRow: Gulmarg being leased out to the non-state subjects triggers protests

Normal life in this serene township and other surrounding villages has been paralyzed under a general shutdown coupled with protest demonstrations for the past three days.

The residents of this tourist destination are up in arms against the government. Normal life in this serene township and other surrounding villages has been paralyzed under a general shutdown coupled with protest demonstrations for the past three days.

Hundreds of people on Sunday took out a protest demonstration and staged a sit-in on the road to Gulmarg, blocking all the vehicular movement to the world famous tourist attraction.

The people here are determined to go on with the strike and protest demonstrations indefinitely if the government did not stop what they call the sale of Gulmarg to the non-state subjects (who are not permanent residents of Jammu and Kashmir).

“Gulmarghamari shaan hai, Gulmarg hamari Jaan hai. Hum essay gairon ko baichne ki ijazat nahi denge” (Gulmarg is our pride, and our life. We will not allow it to be sold to outsiders), the residents were shouting.

Former Tourism minister and senior leader of the People’s Democratic Party, Ghulam Hassan Mir, who also represents Gulmarg constituency in the state assembly, had a tiring day to persuade the frenzied residents to lift the blockade and call off the shutdown.

Mir counseled them to submit their reservations in writing to the government. “And I ask the government to take these reservations into consideration before leasing out the land”, he told. But the residents seemed little ready to oblige their representative in the state assembly.

They say that the government move is fraught with serious economic as well as political implications. “If a paise wala of Bombay or Gujarat constructs a 5-star hotel here, how would it benefit us?” questions Mohammad Sultan Bhat. “All the money earned by the hotel would go the owner. Kal agar George Bush bhi vahan rehne aaye ga, paisa tu hotel malik ko jaye ga. Hamien kiya faidah hoga (if George Bush comes to stay in that hotel, the hotel owner would benefit), he adds. “If the outsiders get success in sneaking into our land, they will throw us out”, fears another resident Ghulam Mohammad Dar.

Despite incessant rain and severe cold, the protests continued for several hours. “Our protest, so far, is peaceful. But if the government did not revert its decision, it (protests) can take any direction”, warned an office-bearer of the local traders association.

The state cabinet on October 17 decided to auction 560 kanals of land at Dhobighat meadows to the “”nteresting” investors within and outside the state for the construction of hotels, restaurants and other infrastructure to promote tourism in the valley. The non-state subject investors, who under state subject law, are not permitted to buy land or immovable property in the state, could get the land at Gulmarg on lease (under Land Grants Act, passed in Shaikh Mohammad Abdullah’s government in 1978) up to a period of 99 years.

The present PDP-Congress government, early this year, decided to lease out the land to the non-state subjects for raising tourism-related infrastructure at various tourist resorts to what they claim make Kashmir world’s top tourist destination. The latest decision to lease out the land at Gulmarg was in persuasion of this claim. The government has already formed an auction committee authorized to determine the conditions for the auction of the land.

The issue is hot with the separatist politicians as well. Hizbul Mujahideen has issued a threat to the outsiders against “land grabbing in Kashmir”. Syed Ali Geelani, chairman of hard-line faction of Hurriyat Conference, has said that he was formulating a strategy to launch a public campaign against leasing land to non-state subjects. Shabir Ahmad Shah, chief of Democratic Freedom Party has also opposed the government move and warned that it could have serious consequences.

The oppositional National Conference (NC) too is behind none in taking on the government on the issue. Dr Mahboob Beg, MLA and provincial president of the NC has termed it as a part of Mufti Mohammad Sayed’s “hidden agenda”. The NC leaders dig seems to have worked somewhat as vocal Tangmarg resident shouted “no previous government dared to lease out the land to non-state subjects. It is the present PDP-Congress government, which is out to bring outsiders here”.

Meanwhile, The Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industries-Kashmir (CCIK) has expressed its anguish over the non-extension of lease of hotels in Gulmarg.

The chamber in a statement said, “the members of the Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industries-Kashmir (CCIK) and business community of Kashmir particularly the tourism players are in deep shock over the aggressive and coercive measures taken by authorities against hotels in Gulmarg who have been existing there from more than 40 years. As informed though all the formalities for extension of lease have been completed by the lessees in time their lease has not been extended for reasons best known to the powers that be. It may not be improper to say that they are being penalised for no fault of theirs.”

The statement further quotes CCIK, “We approach the authorities to stop taking such unilateral and un-warranted action against the hoteliers who are already under stress and depression due to failure of tourism since August 2019, actually even before, coupled with the onset of terrible COVID Pandemic throughout the present year.”

The Chamber said that it is a matter of great regret that this action has been taken by the authorities at a time when they are talking high of tourism revival in the valley more particularly in Gulmarg. It questioned how people will visit Gulmarg at the time of “Khelo India Sports Festival” being promoted by the authorities “in view of hoteliers being put in these traumatic circumstances.”