“ There is nothing new in world except the history you do not know.” – Harry Truman

Shiban raises a valid point, and goes beyond issues raised by Rauf Tramboo about why Kashmir has failed to attract foreign tourists

(Mr. Shiban Dudha, 51, was born in Srinagar. He went to government schools in Chandilora (Tangmarg) and Srinagar, and matriculated from the D.A.V. High School in Srinagar. He attended the S.P. College, Srinagar (1980 batch), and completed the Chartered Accountancy course from the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India. He runs his own Chartered Accountancy firm with offices in Srinagar and New Delhi, and divides his professional and personal time between the two cities. He is a well known social activist and a community volunteer. He is also a strong proponent of Kashmir’s pluralistic culture.)

Do We Deserve to be Visited?

One reads a lot about failed African States, causes and effects of their failures and the phases those countries went through prior to their downfall. On two fronts there appears a striking similarity of pre perishing phase of those States with situation in Jammu and Kashmir over the last near decade or so. These are i) inability to handle the plummeting economy of Jammu and Kashmir and ii) inability of Chief executive of our Government to govern with full independence, authority and strong fist. As a natural consequence of aforesaid two glaring and perceptible facts, we hide the realities.

Normally, manifestos of political parties determine the roadmap they will follow in period of their governance, if elected by electorate. When we holistically study the manifestoes of political parties in 2008 elections, the economic development had taken a back seat to “sadak, bijlee and paani for aam admi”. The economic development of State was not the primary agenda of manifestos as the aim was to somehow regain the political space that political system of our state had lost to civil society and separatists on account of Amarnath land row.

Generally, the council of ministers and respective portfolios are the sole discretion of the Chief Minister. But second week of January 2009 presented altogether a reverse situation when we noticed state President of Congress assigning four plum portfolios and departments to its four Cabinet ministers only to much embarrassing situation of Chief Minister. One hardly knew that New Delhi would follow suit on this practice five months down the line when allies of UPA like DMK and TMC not only chose but dictated the portfolios for their cabinet ministers.

We have so far not moved effectively towards economic self reliance measures for our State for which the State offers reasonable potential. Tourism Industry, the backbone of our State’s economy has not got the priority and attention it deserves. We are not ready with a long term and short term tourism policy, which could serve as a bible for whosoever governs the state. We need to move fast on implementation of Master Plan of Srinagar city, which has today become a dump yard of garbage. Commercial establishments are mushrooming in entire city without fear of authorities, pavements and footpaths are occupied by small time traders selling the substandard stuff to tourists thereby killing the mainline shopkeeper who watches helplessly duplicate stuff being sold outside his shop on pavement. Traffic congestions and illegal parking of vehicles in entire Srinagar city especially on entire Boulevard is a nightmare for an average Srinagarite and tourists who wish to take a stroll of city. The footpath of entire Boulevard from beginning of Dal Gate on both sides till culmination of Nageen lake needs Johnson type athlete to do hurdles.
As a tourist you come out of Srinagar “International Airport”, you need to be lucky if you can maneuver the first circle of airport complex which has normally three lanes of illegally parked vehicles with full permission of traffic constables. Then you reach Hyderpora crossing where you are welcomed by half a kilometere of stone age track for which we need to possibly have a Global tender issued as we have been unable to mend this half a kilometere track since last four years now. The construction of Hyderpora Bye pass bridge, gateway to Srinagar city has taken eight years so far and yet it may require a decade more. Is this our Tourism Policy? As a tourist, you take the courage of taking a stroll of twin lakes of Dal and Nageen. You are confronted by heaps of weeds which have not been lifted and allowed to decay causing stink all around. As a tourist you see huge boulders and Teh Bazari stall on Charpoys on footpaths for two kms from Dalgate and ahead the entire stretch has potholes and mounds making it difficult for tourists to walk. If tourist visits grand Lal Chowk there he faces yet another dejection of traffic congestion, unauthorized traders on roadside and if he wishes to walk down the Amirakadal bridge to Harisingh high street, he says Srinagar city is an apology in the name of a tourist city. My question is- What is my USP as Srinagar city for a tourist to visit me? Should not I as Srinagar city say after introspection that I don’t deserve to be visited by tourist and that I have been failed by the governance.

Let us make no mistake. Development and cleanliness of Srinagar is an integral part of Long Term tourism policy. Still most of the tourists keep a day or two for visiting Srinagar city. SDA (Srinagar Development Authority) needs to be given more teeth and SMC & SDA need to operate conjointly for development of Srinagar city along with lakes And Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA).

Paradoxically, Tourism Department has recently issued advertisements in publications of Singapore, Malaysia, middle east countries soliciting the tourists to visit Kashmir and enjoy in Srinagar, Gulmarg and Pahalgam. A good move and effort to boost tourism but is it backed by the infrastructure required for the purpose? Have we done our home work and are we prepared to receive our guests whom we are inviting? Have we bothered to develop a third five star or a four star hotel besides Grand and Taj Vivanta where an International or a high networth national guest will stay? Srinagar city does not have more than 200 excellent rooms and they too do not meet International standards in the truest sense. We have not developed a second SKICC which that versatile visionary gave us in seventies. All subsequent CMs of the state have been much more travelled and thereby educated than him but are no match to his vision.

We need to have an overall strong monitoring body of State that will have enforcement powers and which will oversee the existing and developing infrastructure relating to tourism. One feels ashamed to see present Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Till the suggested monitoring body is set up, the senior officers of Department must camp at these and other tourist destinations. One fails to understand how gradually Gulmarg has over the last few years got converted into a slum type area with no town planning and architectural concepts. Consequently, low budget hotels have mushroomed unabatedly and forest land has been encroached shamelessly. You see a primitive style of dumping garbage at Gulmarg. Open trolleys on wheels remain stationed outside hotels and hoteliers dump the garbage and entire solid waste including polythene bags in the trolleys.

Street dogs climb the trolleys and spread garbage on entire road which goes for a further toss by moving vehicles. You find tourists covering their nose with handkerchiefs. A painful and pathetic sight to watch. Most of the lettable Government huts are in shambles with very poor outside ambience. Walls are broken, roof is dingy and perimeter wooden fencing is missing in most of the cases. Tons of accumulated garbage is adjoining well known hotels which used to be landmark destinations of yesteryears. Is this the Gulmarg to which advertisements by tourism department in overseas publications invite the tourists? In Gulmarg till the under construction property of Khybers comes up, we don’t have a single room of International standards in Gulmarg. Tourism department should very well understand that today’s tourist is conscious of a) the value of his time and b) entertainment opportunities that this sub continent and far east countries offer him for same money.

Skiing is a tourism product that we sell to tourists but are we aware what infrastructure the International skiing rules prescribe to be in place at skiing destinations? Do we have a full fledged specialty hospital in Gulmarg very near to skiing course for bones and joints? Answer is No. Do we have properties for guests which meet international standards at Gulmarg? Answer is again No. Do we have International standard public transport connectivity to destination by both surface and air? Answer is again No. Can we explain why the earlier hospital at Gulmarg has been closed? Can we explain why there are unauthorized people at Tangmarg forcing the tourists to avail the facilities of unhygienic long Boots against sums not accounted for anywhere? Who are these people and at whose behest do they indulge in monetary collections? Net work of High Tension electric wires and communication lines can easily be made underground that will beautify entire Gulmarg.

The hotel and houseboat industry can be the harbinger of eradication of unemployment. To the contrary, in absence of any monitoring body, the staff hoteliers employ are underpaid even much below the minimum wages who feel cheated and exploited. Nowadays, the tourist season in Kashmir has extended to 7-8 months and most of the properties are sold above break even point on average. The overall contribution permits the hoteliers and houseboat owners to pay at least the minimum prescribed wages to staff. They have also to be partners in this great challenge.