Hold them accountable

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Other day Srinagar saw a protest demonstration by a group of people who were up in arms against the continued neglect of picturesque Gulmarg. Among other things they alleged that nothing is being done to deliver the resort from the greedy clutches of land-grabbers who have encroached on huge swathes of state and forest land there. Indeed this is not something unique to Gulmarg but other resorts are also facing similar problems of encroachment. But it is true that when it comes to the official action against the encroachers, there is not much to the government’s report card.

When Tourism Development Authorities were created for promotion of tourism in picturesque areas of the state with immense tourism potential, people were told that these agencies would do wonders. At least on paper, the basic aim of such nodal agencies is not only the speedy development of basic infrastructure at a particular tourist spot — road connectivity, creating facilities for comfortable stay of tourists as well as recreation avenues for them — but also to avoid duplication and over-lap between different government departments for proper prospective planning.

But on ground, the reality is not always as attractive as it seems on paper. Take any Tourism Development Authority (say one for Gulmarg or Pahalgam or for that matter any other area) as an example. Without doubt the GDA or PDA gives one a sufficient feel of messed-up priorities and lack of seriousness. Since the time of their inception, GDA or PDA have not done much. No doubt GDA or PDA should not be expected to have done much in terms of infrastructure development on their own, but one could genuinely expect that by now they should have come up with a well thought-out road-map with a time-frame with clearly defined milestones for tourism development in their respective areas. But even this minimum has not happened so far. Not only have they not been able to free any encroached land, instead fresh encroachments have taken places under their proverbial noses!

Each and every area has its uniqueness and certainly one cannot have ‘one size fits all’ kind of strategy for every tourist spot. Some places might be suited for leisure and others for winter sports, mountaineering or something else. Not every place can be built as a replica of the Gulmarg or Phalgam and this is to be borne in mind while planning tourism development of a particular area. But this vital factor is clearly missing in the planning here. The planners at each spot seem to be obsessed with copying everything that is there at other tourist destinations.

This is not to say that there is something wrong in creating Tourism Development Authorities and vesting them with the responsibilities of tourism development at each location. Indeed this is a very good idea and could go a long way in promoting tourism on modern and economically viable lines by coordinating the activities of different government agencies under a single roof and under single window. But the initiative could yield dividends only when it is backed up with proper, modern and scientific know-how about tourism development and promotion, infrastructure building and hosting culture. And more than anything else, there must be proper checks and balances on the working of these Tourism Development Authorities – they cannot be allowed to evolve into islands of unaccountability. Instead, they should be held accountable for every single penny that goes into their organizational and working costs, and they should be made answerable for every single brick that is added to any building at each tourist resort.

Mind it, most of Kashmir’s tourist places are faced with a grave danger of encroachments and illegal constructions. We still have some of state’s top bureaucrats and businessmen facing criminal charges for their alleged complicity in corrupt practices in the name of tourism development. There are already countless cases of encroachments of government (forest) land, and illegal constructions at Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg and other resorts. While the government talks of attracting private investment for tourism development by promising various perks like single window clearance system to investors, it must at the same time make sure that everything is kept under proper scrutiny to minimize the chances of further damage to the fragile ecology at various resorts.

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