Where was the Government, where was the Tourism department, where were Revenue officials and where were the police when politically connected and financially powerful persons went on a spree of illegally grabbing Government land at prestigious tourist destinations of Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg in Kashmir. It is a long time that these illegal possessions have taken place and the authorities one and all remained lip sealed just because they either had vested interest or were not summoning courage to expose the bigwigs. To flout the law of the land, to throw nationalist spirit to winds, to undermine the interests of the people in general are the gifts of a popular rule in which favouritism, nepotism and immediate political interests supervene larger and lasting interests of society. This is the culture which our democratic dispensation has given rise to. And again, we are taking refuge in democratic dispensation to deal legally with illegal land grabbing, a process which takes life time to come to logical conclusion. It is decades that encroachments and illegal occupation of adjoining lands in these tourist destinations have happened and the law moving at snail’s pace will take decades to evict them, if at all that day comes.
The question of illegal land grabbing at these prestigious spots was raised by a PDP member in the Assembly. His question focused on Government not disclosing the names of the persons involved because as he said, they were powerful and influential persons and the Government had hesitations in disclosing their names. His contention was that not only powerful politician but also some among the retired top bureaucrats were the shareholders in the spoils. The Government came out with two sets of replies. In the first response the Government claimed that nearly 180 kanals of land had been retrieved from encroachers at famous tourist destination Gulmarg while nobody, whosoever is influential, would be spared while launching special drives for retrieval of illegally encroached lands. Trying to sidetrack the core question, Revenue Minister intervened in the debate and said that the High Court was also seized of the issue of illegal encroachment at these destinations and was monitoring the progress in retrieving the occupied lands. It is strange that a task which the Revenue Department should have done long back and without second thought is now undertaken by the High Court when a PIL has been filed in the connection. The Revenue Minister said that home guest system had been introduced in Pahalgam and later on the homes were converted into restaurants. Perhaps he wanted to argue that the homes taken to be the restaurants had been allowed to keep the land they occupied of course, perhaps illegally. Hard pressed by the coalition members, ultimately Minister of State for Tourism, Priya Sethi came out with a few details in which she did mention some names and the quantities of land they had illegally occupied. It is learnt that in all at least 111 kanals of Government land are under the illegal occupation of influential persons and as per the statement of the Minister action has been taken in some cases and other cases the process of investigation is going on. She has given even the measurement of land and the destination along with names.
The position of this issue is as this. Politically influential and financially powerful persons who have business inters at these popular tourists destinations of Kashmir have, long back, illegally grabbed or encroached Government land. Using their political influence, they have been enabled to retain the illegal possession since long. In the process it appears they have kept the concerned authorities in good mood in the hope that the issue is not raked up;however, for some unknown reasons, the question came up in the Assembly and the Minister was obliged to provide some clues which appear to be only the tip of the iceberg. Not more than six cases have been fully or partially addressed out of 111 cases and this shows that the Government is deliberately soft paddling on the issue. By no means can the reply of the Minister in charge Tourism be called satisfying. The land claimed to be retrieved by the Government is a minute fraction of the total encroached area and does not speak for the seriousness of the Government in protecting the tourist destinations. There has to be a massive drive and exemplary punitive measures against the encroachers so that others take a lesson and do not have the spine to indulge in such broad day burglaries