DISAPPEARING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Baltal - the land of contention

In September 1968, I happened to spend a few hours in Baltal. I was heading towards Ladakh for annual inspection of our departmental units along with a Major of the Army Signals in his jeep. I was then in charge of postal operations in Kashmir and Ladakh. Ahead of Sonmarg, instead of pushing on and up towards the Zoji-la, we got off the highway and gently descended for a few kilometres into a valley that, I was told, was Baltal. Luxuriously dressed in several shades of green, it was a valley of incredible beauty. The green carpet of grass, tall mountains all around clothed in thick tall conifers in a shade of dark-green, with white patches of snow at the very top below a lapis-lazuli sky in the balmy September sun of Kashmir took one’s breath away.

With no habitation, except a very small Army Signals tented unit, the place was nature’s own preserve. A small green hillock around the middle of the valley had what looked like an abandoned bungalow. The Signals men passed on to us the local folklore about it. It seems, Indira and Feroz Gandhi had honeymooned in the bungalow – an ideal place, in the lap of nature’s extravagant bounty with hardly a soul around.

While lunching on their substantial fare we were told the Amarnath Cave was only eight miles away, high above across the mountains. Only a few adventurous tough jawans had been able to make it to the shrine. The climb, though very picturesque, was stiff, and the going treacherous on ice-sheets that, at places, were thin enough to crumble, often into what could be deep crevices. The round trip of 16 miles had to be completed during daylight hours.
I could hear army trucks a few thousand feet above groaning while laboriously working their way up the tortuous road to Zoji-la at around 11,000 ft. To get to the Cave one had to go across mountains of the same, if not greater, elevation on the south-easterly side. According to some, this route to the Amarnath shrine has been used for centuries. If that was so, the Army men would have known. Maybe, some adventurers would occasionally take the route. The regular route has, however, always been via Pahalgam and that, in fact, is also the route of pilgrimage. The valley was in its pristine state as it had not till then become the alternate route to the Shrine.
Forty years ago the Yatra was managed by the J&K government. The Chief Minister used to be personally involved in the arrangements. A few thousand pilgrims would accompany the Chhari Mubarak, the Holy Mace, taking the well-trodden route via Pahalgam. The pilgrimage would be over in a fortnight or so. Of course, there were stragglers who would make it to the Shrine on their own. But they wouldn’t get the same facilities as those who accompanied the Chhari.

Tourism – whether wildlife, beach, religious or whatever – strives for unrestricted growth. In the process, it creates vested interests that treat the activity as mere commerce and try to make a killing. Even governments and public bodies succumb to the temptations, seldom displaying any concern for such niceties as ecology – whether fragile or otherwise.

Apparently, to accommodate the fast growing traffic – now in lakhs – for the Shrine the authorities, instead of regulating and restricting the numbers, opened the alternate route from Baltal. Worse, the Yatra was later made a two-month long affair. And the result is there for all to see. The pictures that come across through the electronic and print media are those of a once-beautiful valley utterly ravaged, with the green of the meadows stripped, trees felled, structures erected, huge gatherings of people, numerous buses and helicopters in flight.
Shorn of all religiosity and the politics over the transfer of the contentious land, one cannot but pity the loss of the once-idyllic valley that was a gift of nature for us to cherish and nurture. Alas, it was sacrificed at the altar of (religious) tourism that, from all evidences, appears to be increasingly becoming environmentally unsustainable.
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