The ‘Tricorne’ Hat of LoCs
Gurezi people and the army’s inter-dependence
After-war, Road to Paradise: It took a war, to bring a road to Gurez! Before that Gurezis walked to and from Gurez to Bandipore via the Athwatu Nallah. Then the patch was roughly motor-able for a few tough jeeps on this axis. Ponies were the chief transporters of goods. Things changed with the visit of Indian PM Indira Gandhi post-Indo-Pak war of 1971 when Gurez was promised a road. The main axis, along the Kishanganga River, joining Kanzalwan came via Razdan pass at more than 11,000 feet, lifted Gurezi spirits; but snowbound and snow blizzard prone area of Razdan remains closed for half the year bringing with it hardships of being cut off from the mainland for most of the year.
Medical facilities: Hugely cut off in winters Gurez lacks basic medical infrastructure, doctors, and medicines. Army’s Op Sadbhavna, facilitates more than 100 medical camps, half of them multi-specialty, alongside foot patrols to remote villages, imparting medical services, and distributing medicine. Sometimes collaborating with NGOs like ‘Borderless World Foundation’ and ‘Being Heart Foundations’ for medical health of border countrymen, but locals feel that critical medical emergencies like childbirth complications, cannot be handled despite army facilities. Although air ambulance choppers are provided by the army, moving a patient in extreme conditions is likely to be paid with lives. The locals alternately are richly bestowed with ancient wisdom about the healing power of flora extracts, which helped an injured with fundamentals, till the army brought in help and equipment for a medical emergency.
Gurez’s own Doctors: Incidentally, Gurez has produced some doctors, it’s sad, that none opted for a rural internship in their villages for their own village folks. “I think it should be made mandatory for all rural children in medical fields to compulsorily complete their rural internship at home grounds. That way homesteads feel a part of the success story, it inspires and encourages more children to walk the tough road to the medical profession. The intern could also become its village’s guide in medical studies, moreover, the village doctor is familiar with his environment to immediately think out of box solutions and ascertain a prevalent concern of the area and its probable causes”, felt Abdul Rehman, an ex-serviceman. Meantime army undertakes vital civil and civic duties, assisting in medical help at its headquarters besides arranging for air ambulance in cases of emergency.
Sports and games: It’s to the credit of the armed force to develop a spirit of adventure and competition among Gurezi students, from the entire area; much like the reformer Tyndale Biscoe in Srinagar, a Christian missionary of 1890. Here competitive matches of cricket, volleyball, Kabaddi, badminton, chess, carom, and pony race, constructively engage the youth. This has succeeded in keeping the youth of the valley away from lethal pass-times of drug addiction and radicalization leading to violent acts, a senior army officer expressed. The youth here is full of life, enthusiasm, and energy besides adventure, cricket is truly their God. The army arranges matches with locals and this competitive spirit binds the locals with the forces.
Goodwill school: An Army goodwill school in Gurez provides quality education to locals at affordable prices. Established in 2007, 160 students presently study here from classes LKG to class X. The school has taken significant strides with state-of-the-art, computer labs, science labs, playground, and infrastructure. Admission is coveted as the school provides the best facilities and curriculum to prepare rural children for entrepreneurship, self-help, assisting others, adventure, First Aid, and many such skills. Education does not end here; the army undertakes outreach programs to educate ex-servicemen, nomads, Bakarwals, and marginalized populations and helps to mitigate their hardships. Similarly, children are taught martial arts including women. The students respond with great enthusiasm to learn new things and tips and tricks of everything. “Their enthusiasm is infectious”, an army guy smiles infectiously.
Skilling: Numerous initiatives to skill youth and people of Gurez to explore avenues of self-employment and training to become employable in relevant sectors are undertaken regularly. Stitching, crewelling classes, a culinary workshop for hoteliers, vocational courses in computers, carpentry, electrical repairs, providing on-job training to youth along with trekking companies such as ‘Boots and Crampons’. The avenues of earning in the coming years would be substantial. Alternate professions like trek guides are emerging among Gurezi youth. Alternately the youth of Gurezi is strong, agile, and eager to learn which takes care of the first step of motivating the youth including women to participate in honing earning capabilities for their families.
Log Hut Café – Army built the log hut Café as a gift to the Gurezi people, whose youth is looking out towards the internet and feeling to spread their wings in the wide wide world. The café serves as a business model for the youth of the area. Alongside it has become a coveted platform for the display of performing arts and culture of Gurez with many local artists performing here. This interdependence and cooperative ventures are becoming a big hit in the border areas, where employment opportunities are created. Soon the café may have a gift shop selling items prepared or sourced from Gurez for an eager tourist who wants to take back a piece of the place as a memory.
Ex-servicemen roam as watchful shepherds and serve as eyes and ears of defense forces. I met one, who knew Gurez like the back of his hand. He told me, that two Gurezi boys had eloped to Pakistan from here. The army spoke to the parents and understood that the parents were in the dark about any planning. ‘Now parents want the army to get back their boys!’ ‘How is it possible? These things have to be taken up at diplomatic level’. “Or if the army decides to do a ‘surgical strike’ to whisk back the boys whose whereabouts are unknown” and adds- “It is rarest of the rare incident here – No one can do anything if the boys wished to go or now didn’t wish to stay in Pakistan. They are missing, period”. It made me think about how youngsters in border regions can be lured to become turncoats for their own people and the country, the danger is tangible.
- “With 20 feet of snow between us and the other villages, we don’t know anything about our neighboring villages,” Ahmad said. “We live and die within these snow-covered mountains with no link to the outside world,” said Riyaz, a porter from Kaspot village.
- Tulail is also connected with the main Kashmir valley through hiking trails that lead to Naranag over Satsar Pass and to Sonmarg through Gadsar lake
- Shoes are left outdoors scattered or neatly on a rack. Home’s kitchen hearth is the warmest place both in temperatures and in shared emotions. Entire families sit together every single night sharing meals, and details of their day. It is also a time for entertainment with jokes, mimicry, dances, and the exhibition of new skills. That is one reason, I noticed why families in Kashmir are so close-knit
Employment and income generation opportunities in Gurez
- Despite fair education standards & reservation/quotas in government jobs, unemployment is rampant. While army is their biggest employer, as year-round porters and others, it is Tourism that spurs entrepreneurship, adventure, and unique start-ups. Gurez Valley is bestowed with such blessings that a number of income-generating initiatives are more than possible.
- Undoubtedly, adventure and outdoor activities would earn the bulk of the income in Gurez, Adventures possibilities along with Hiking, trekking, and camping are -mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, paragliding, mountaineering, caving, skiing, abseiling, bungee jumping, canyoning, climbing, zipline, parachuting, Parasailing, snowboarding via ferrate split board, fly board, hot air ballooning, sledging, tyre-sledging , horse trekking, rafting.
- A son-et-Lumiere – a French phrase meaning ‘light and sound show’, is wholly possible in Gurez! And the obvious choice is at the base of the Habba Khatoon peak. The storyline naturally is of the love story of poetess Queen Habba Khatoon and Yusuf Shah Chak – The King of Kashmir. The show could be monetized and could be a big draw for every single soul that lands in Gurez, just like the Beating Retreat Ceremony at Wagah Indo Pak border in Amritsar, which of course is free.
- Government-supported special gift shops and short demo courses, coordinated with a year-round calendar of events could mean a formidable income generation especially as winter sports and snowfall views are picking up in Gurez. This would mean substantially sourcing local raw materials and locally skilled people to prepare the items. For instance, a “Fishing Fest” could include a customized “Package” of name engraving on spot, “Angling Fest – The year 2029” on pieces of Gurezi wood. Spot printing of the Gurez Festival could be offered on anyone’s Fishing hats, socks, and gloves to make it memorable. Tea-shirts with Angling /Fishing map of Gurez. Alongside this, local youth could give demos on fishing in Gurezi waters; trout cooking demos; tent pitching; survival workshop demonstrations, as part of the package or as an individual offers.
- Gurez could open up as a destination for the annual National painting and Photography festival inviting big names.
- Gurez could be promoted for filming musical scores, songs, dances, and film shooting destinations.
- J&K Tourism could conduct workshops for locals to create, manage and earn from homestays with innovative ideas and collective events. Short courses for Tourism management and hospitability training for homestay could be started on a wafer-thin budget here.
- Café culture is a part of any world tourist destination. Hence local boys and girls could be garnered for Café Business.
- Dawar and Izmarg are selected to produce high-quality seeds of vegetables including lentils, Rajma, and potatoes tubers and seeds, thus uplifting income generation avenues for locals as a cross-country export item.
- Besides walnut as a cash crop, agriculture experts plant apricots, apples, and cherries and could work out additional contractual schemes for locals.
- Talks are also on for government-sponsored community providing skill training to locals to produce traditional Kashmiri curtains, pillow covers, coverlets, table and bed runners, sofa backs, sling bags, shopping bags, Namda or floor covers, and like -‘An embroidered piece, roughly framed in local birch wood could create a piece uniquely Gurezi!’, adding impetus to employment and marketing skills, I add.
Closing take: The need, however, is for hand-holding by responsible market forces informed about the ecological sensitivity of the land to help generate income by least disturbance to the beautiful mountain-scape- an example could be internet services, online and white-collar net based jobs. In fact, enhanced internet connectivity could easily attract droves of the ‘work from home’ sector from here. This brings me to the conclusion that Gurez cannot just be wearing a – the triangular shape ‘The Tricorne Hat’. It can also don the Regal Turban, an apt headcover for its Royal stature, with the layers and folds of the turban symbolically unfolding Gurez’s countless unique dimensions, aspects, and layers that make up the heavenly locale. (To be concluded)
Rashmi Talwar, can be contacted at: [email protected]