The louder the state and central governments speak about Kashmir’s tourist boom to score political points, the farther the Valley recedes from the prospect of living up to its reputation as Paradise on Earth. Tourist inflows have undoubtedly picked up over the past few years – despite obvious hiccups – but it is not difficult to gauge what memories visitors carry back home. The little that remains of the verdure and virginity of Kashmir’s mountains, forests, lakes and streams, particularly in so-called “tourist spots” may appeal, and appear novel, to teeming crowds hailing from dusty, arid and crowded plains, but the discerning can only mourn at the vandalization wrought by the indiscriminate and grotesque commercialization of the region’s natural bounties.
No European tourist – not that many come here any longer – who has seen the immaculate and inviolable serenity and discipline maintained around Stonehenge, for example, will ever again write an ode to Kashmir after visiting the urban squalor and ugliness replicated in Gulmarg, Pahalgam, or other such sites, in the name of facilities. Gulmarg, the touted round-the-year tourist spot, and probably the Kashmir government’s answer to the Swiss Alps (!) is usually in the news for the gigantic mountains of garbage coming up in its periphery and in the heart of what should have been pristine forests. As if wholesale takeover of land by the army was not enough, the retreat is being destroyed by the very quarters that profit from it.
One need not go so far as Gulmarg or Sonamarg to judge the prospects of Kashmir’s tourism “industry” – a walk past the gates of the allegedly famed Nishat, Shalimar and what-have-you gardens in Srinagar itself is sure to convince anyone of the heights it is going to scale. Chai Wallahs, chole bature wallahs, samosa wallahs, enveloped in oily fumes, and yes, ice cream ‘parlours,’ cola kiosks, plastic chairs and tables, backed by huge billboards of multinational cola manufacturers, ply a roaring trade amid raucous cries of bus-conductors right outside Emperor Jahangir’s dream. The Mogul potentiate must be turning over in his grave with torment at a scene surpassing even the shabbiest, noisiest, and most unkempt railway platform anywhere in the overpopulated and misruled subcontinent.
Turning nature’s gifts and bounty into an economic asset, and a source of livelihood for natives, requires deep thought, scrupulous attention to detail, creativity, and originality, and above all, respect for nature and extreme circumspection about what impact mindless “facilities,” “development” and “infrastructure” for the tourism industry can have. Obviously, Kashmir lacks on every single front. Had it been otherwise, it would not have been only a decade or so since its public woke up to the fact that the hundreds of ‘dream houseboats” of the Dal Lake discharge the entire contents of their latrines directly into its waters. No one in the government is prepared to say, and no one in the public is inclined to ask, whether the floating or submerged septic tanks that were much talked about later as a solution, have been ensured by all houseboat owners who mint millions out of the lake’s reputation – which now lies in tatters.