Fragile paradise

Published : Aug 10, 2007 00:00 IST

Tourism plans threaten livelihoods and the ecosystem in the Bangus plains, one of the jewels of the Himalayas.


MUNIR AHMED flinches as he recalls the blades of helicopters thrashing in the thin mountain air, their screaming engines sending livestock and his children scattering for cover into the forests.

Back in the summer of 2003, two Lashkar-e-Taiba fidayeen had attacked Bravo Post, a military post on the Bangus, a sprawling high-altitude glacial plain in northern Kashmir that counts among the most spectacular jewels of the Himala yas. Five Indian Army men were killed in the suicide attack and over a dozen were injured. The paradise, perched as it was on a key infiltration route from Pakistan to the Lashkars strongholds in the Rajwar forests of Kashmir, was a dangerous place.

In early July, the helicopters were back on the Bangus plains, now bearing Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. Since Azads visit, Rs.100 million has been committed to turning the Bangus into a major tourist draw. Orders have been issued to speed up work on the road that is being blasted through the 3,000-metre Neel Dori Pass, which guards the entrance to the Bangus. Within four years, the State government hopes the Bangus will be just a short drive from the town of Handwara, allowing thousands of tourists into the now-inaccessible region.

For Jammu and Kashmirs jehad-ravaged tourism industry, the opening of the Bangus is the best news in two decades. But, for the Bangus sole residents, mountain herders who use the short Himalayan summer to graze their livestock on its lush grasslands, it could spell destruction.

Ever since he was a child, Mohammad Beigh has driven livestock to the Bangus plains. Now 72, Beigh is the numberdar, or headman, of the 47 families from Kupwaras Afrada village who spend their summers at Danna Behak, one of the clusters of log huts built by herders around the meadows.

Beighs annual journey to the Bangus survived the disruptions inflicted by three India-Pakistan wars and two decades of Islamist violence. But confronted with plans to transform the Bangus into a tourist attraction, the ageing shepherd is unsure just how many more years he will be able to make the journey into the mountains.

No one has told us about the tourism project, but we have heard that people are going to come from Srinagar to build hotels, he says. Since we dont actually own the land on which our huts are built or the pastures on which our animals feed, we are afraid the government will one day take away our grazing rights. When tourists come here, they will not want their hotels to be surrounded by livestock and dung. People from the plains will profit, but we will lose what little we have.

With no organised markets for the milk and ghee they produce, nor land rights, the Bangus herders so far had little to depend on but the regions extraordinary ecosystem. Nine months out of 12, the 300-square-kilometre Bangus plain is carpeted in up to four metres of snow. From the air, it resembles a giant bowl of powdered sugar. Neither animals nor people bar the troops who cling on to their positions despite the freezing arctic-like temperatures interrupt the stillness of the Bangus winter.

In May, though, the ice gives way to a dense carpet of grass and wild flowers, watered by the melting snow and a profusion of streams running off the glaciers that surround it. Much of the Bangus plains become a matted weave of grass and peat floating on water, which ripples underfoot.

There has been no recent census of the extraordinary migration that begins in the spring, but local residents say that upwards of 50,000 buffaloes, cows, sheep and horses are driven into the Bangus two major plains the Bod, or big, and the Lokat, or small. Some herders bring their own animals; others drive the livestock of better-off villagers in return for 40 kilograms of grain.

The huge herds attract predators such as bears and leopards.

Writing in 1895, the colonial administrator Walter Lawrence recorded that migration was driven by the fact that cultivation has extended greatly, and there is little land for grazing. Each villager, Lawrence wrote, is obliged by custom to entrust his sheep to an appointed chaupan, or shepherd, and for each sheep the chaupan receives an appointed fee, which varies from two to three manwatas [1 kilogram] of shali [rice] or maize.

Herders were and still are responsible for the livestock they take up the mountains. Even now herders must produce the skins of animals that are claimed by predators. Should they fail to do so, they must pay for the loss or swear an oath at the small rock shrine of the Nanga Baba, an ancient mystic whose spiritual powers are reputed to have enabled him to survive the Bangus winter without clothes. I was assured by several persons at Habar, Lawrence wrote, that a dishonest chaupan, some twenty years ago, passed under the elm tree of ordeal and came out blind.

The Jammu and Kashmir government insists that the tourism project is not a new ordeal. Officials say they will help the herders to turn their own homes into tourist lodges part of a larger policy intended to ensure that local residents benefit from tourism.

But Beighs son, Abdul Majid, is dismissive of these plans. Who among us has the money to turn our little huts into hotels? Majid asks. Who among us has the money to buy a taxi or open a restaurant? Who in Danna Behak even knows how to apply for a loan or keep accounts? None of us have studied past the sixth grade!

Gujjar herders in Gulmarg, Majid points out, gained nothing from the pastures transformation into a major tourist resort. People from Srinagar became millionaires because of Gulmarg, he points out, and the Gujjars who depended on it for their living became coolies.

While the State government insists that it has no plans to erode the herders grazing rights, Phalaphati Behak resident Munir Ahmad notes that commitments have been violated before. Before 1947, he says, my family took our livestock to the Tutmari Gali, near Nowgam. But post-1947, we were told that it was too close to the Line of Control, and so we had to move to the Macchitangan Behak. Again, in 1993, we were pushed off the Macchitangan Behak because terrorists used to take shelter there. Do you blame us for being afraid of what the future holds?

Twenty years ago, recalls Danna Behak elder Manga Khan, there used to be a hundred or more mujahideen here. They would take our rations and our animals for their food needs and make us haul their ammunition into the mountains. Sometimes they would harass our women. Still, we would come here every year because we are poor people and the grass is free.

In the wake of the Kargil War, the Indian Army set up permanent positions in the pastures, evicting the militants for whom the Bangus plains had become a training camp and base. Although stringent restrictions on the herders are still in place each Bangus resident must report her or his presence to the troops and the use of weapons to kill predators feeding off the herds is prohibited most see the militarys presence as a blessing. Indian Army payments to porters and horsemen are a valuable source of income for the people here. More important, the soldiers ensure that militants cannot prey on the herders.

If the tourism proposals go through, though, travel agents and hotel owners will be the real beneficiaries of the soldiers sacrifices not the herders whom they were brought in to protect. Now that there is peace, says Manga Khan, the government wants to throw us out.

Officials insist that this is not their intention. But the State governments promises, local residents point out, would be more credible if the authorities had shown some concern for the mountain residents welfare. Last year, officials announced that part-time schoolteachers would accompany the herders into the mountains. Not a single school, though, has yet become operational in the Bangus. I have to leave my children behind in Tanghdar when I come to the mountains, says Phalaphati resident Mohammad Ashraf, which means they are not learning the skills needed to tend the herds.

Nor is a doctor available in case of medical emergencies. The local Army unit helps us as best as it can, says Mohammad Ashraf, who brings his herds up from the village of Dhanni, but if someone is seriously ill, we have to carry them down to the plains. Elderly people and the very sick often do not survive. Even the government veterinarians who accompany the herds to the Bangus in the summer, herders complain, ask for stiff bribes to treat sick livestock.

Environmentalists are also concerned about the tourism plans. Sources in the Jammu and Kashmir Ministry of Forests and Environment said no study had been conducted on the possible impact of tourism on the fragile Bangus ecosystem. In Gulmarg, large-scale tourism has already led to a serious problem of plastic waste while the massive influx of Amarnath pilgrims has ravaged the once-stunning Lidder river valley. Officials say that the construction of the Bangus road may also facilitate timber smuggling out of the valley, which is now next to impossible because of the protective natural wall provided by the steep Neel Dori Pass.

Could the coming of peace end up destroying one of Jammu and Kashmirs most spectacular regions? Experience elsewhere in South Asia has demonstrated that sustainable eco-tourism is indeed possible. With good planning and community participation, tourism can benefit Bangus residents. As things stand, though, there is no reason to believe that this outcome is probable. Peace could pose just as much of a threat to the peoples of the Bangus as the grinding two-decade war they are just starting to emerge from.

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