Bandipora: An influential businessman has successfully grabbed a vast portion of forest land at a tourist spot in Athwatoo, Bandipora. Besides constructing a concrete structure for hotel and fish units, he has even managed to cut a road to it under the MGNREGA, with the Forest Department making sure he stays in the clear with the authorities by allegedly altering the boundaries of demarcated forest land.
Athwatoo has witnessed an unprecedented rush of tourists in the recent past, with arriving crowds drawn by the prospect of the area’s scintillating landscape and gushing waters, set amid dense mountainous forests. The administration too is planning to bring this tourist spot on the map for its breathtaking beauty. Affordable government accommodation has been constructed to facilitate tourist stay; despite its being complete, it is still to be inaugurated, for reasons unknown.
Though the place is gaining in popularity, the ‘big fish’, according to locals, has allegedly managed to grab personal benefits in collusion with the authorities, thus altering the tourism capability of the hill station by ruining its landscape.
Both locals and tourists alike are concerned at the rising land grab at the tourist spot. “It’s apparent from the demarcation stones. How is it possible that only his patch of land, hotel and fish farm doesn’t come under forest while everything around it is government property?” asked a local tourist on a picnic.
The vast patch of land which the influential man has managed to grab after constructing a hotel on it also has a fish farm, constructed with the help of the administration. It is fenced with chain wire and trampoline and blocks a huge portion of the green landscape, said locals.
On the upper side, the locals alleged, very close to uprooted demarcation stones, are pine trees that have been felled to make way for a road through the property.
Not least to mention, the locals also said that the influential private hotelier has even managed to develop such a relationship with a former Bandipora deputy commissioner that permission for a road with a budget of around Rs 20 lakh has been issued to him under MGNEREGA, with clearance from the Forest Department despite the fact that the road leads to no habitation and culminates near the hotel.
The locals said the influential hotelier had started construction years ago, while forest officials say the land demarcation was done “only a year back”, thus again raising apprehensions of forest land grab.
A forest range officer said, “The demarcation says it was a property land after a small population at Brannaar vacated it in the 90s due to militancy and sold it to Athwatoo locals at a meagre rate. Work [on the road] was closed after locals protested that a mosque came in its way.” However, the road culminates only at the hotel, showing an official nexus to help the hotelier.
However, the officer accepted that the complaint was received that the demarcation official who hired field helpers had received a bribe from the locals. After verification, “we restricted them, but now it has come to our notice that some demarcation stones have been uprooted. So this being the case, we have written to the Demarcation Department to do it afresh.”
Divisional forest officer, Demarcation Division, Mehraj Ahmad, said he has assumed office only a few months back. He also said that if encroachment has been done, “we will send teams and verify it from the records”.
He, however, said that the checking “is done vigorously and after proper verification of records, and the department has to justify it later. Nobody can just get away with it if he has done wrong.”
Ahmad also said, “If there are allegations, it’s our job to verify from the records if the hotelier has encroached on forest land”
Assistant Commissioner Development Bandipora, Jehangir Ahmad expressed ignorance about any road built on the spot.
He, however, said that somebody was demanding money for the work done at the spot.