Rural Tourism in Jammu

Rajan Gandhi
A visit to Nagrota and Dansal block on Surinsar-Mansar road ,villages of Bain Bajalta ,Chilla, Aithem-the mesmerizing beauty of the area leaves one thinking why even after 70 years plus since independence and with one crore plus Shri Mata Vaishno Devi pilgrims visiting this area every year , tourism potential of the rural areas adjoining Jammu has been systematically and deliberately ignored.
Bain Bajalta is a small village situated in a beautiful valley at the east bank of river Tawi. The village was initially known as Bajalta but when the Dogra rulers came they made 101 (stepwells) in the village which is commonly known as ‘bain’ in Dogri that’s how the village got its name “Bain Bajalta”. It falls on Jammu to Surinsar road just 8 kms away from Jammu , then come villages of Chilla off the road 5 kms downwards towards Tawi and then Aithem.
To understand this mess of urbanization and neglect of rural areas of Jammu, one must get into background of urban population of Jammu and Kashmir which is distributed among 80 towns in the state but a large chunk of population is concentrated in the cities of Jammu and Srinagar as these two cities account for 63 percent of the total urban population. Jammu enjoys location advantage because of the presence of National Highway-1A which passes through it and this has helped Jammu to gain importance as a link corridor to Poonch, Rajouri, Chenab Valley, it also serves as the gateway to pilgrim places of Shri Mata Vaishno Devi and Shri Amarnath Shrine and tourist spots like Kashmir and Ladakh. Also with rapid urbanization, industrialization, mass migration from Kashmir Valley and seasonal migration from other parts of the state all have contributed to tremendous explosion in population of Jammu which is 10 lakh plus representing more than 300 percent increase over 1981 population. Now Jammu is one of the fastest growing cities in India in terms of population as well as area. There are 1192 villages in the Jammu district itself and more than one fourth of the villages lie within the radius of 15-20 km from the city area. This urban expansion of the city has absorbed many more rural areas greatly affecting the village life. Impact of urbanization is clearly reflected upon changing land use patterns of peri-urban villages. Urban sprawl among these villages have altered the traditional agriculture which is being converted into horticulture, cash crop farming and other non-agricultural land uses like establishment of brick kilns or residential colonies etc. The major reason behind it is the well-established base of highly influential people from all parts of state who have settled in the nearby places like Sidhra, Bathindi, Sunjwan, Sainik colony etc which has attracted land sharks in the area . A huge shift from agricultural to non-agricultural occupation and services has been observed. The rapid change in the economic aspects of peri-urban villages has greatly influenced the social and cultural structure of the villages.
Jammu Master Plan talks about the development of Peri-urban areas but the master plan has not described any plan of action in this context as such it is quite superficial which is limited to paper work only which leads to haphazard development of these areas. Non-Agricultural conversions are taking place at a very high rate for residential as well as commercial purposes without taking any permission from the concerned authorities. This in turn is adversely affecting the productive agricultural land. Large chunks of lands are being sold but left undeveloped that means the land of these areas are under land speculators who are working in the market. As such no dedicated planning is being followed by the Government agencies to look after the development of peri-urban areas these areas are still deprived of urban amenities like sewerage and storm water drainage, solid waste management, water supply, health care facilities. Fact is now famous Muslim only advertisement of residential colony was for Bajalta only.
With all these factors working against rural population along with almost zero industrial activity in the area resulting in meager and low salary job prospects, tourism is one unexplored area which can turn around the rural Jammu to gold mine. Tourism worldwide is one industry with continuous more than 10 percent growth rate; in fact travel and tourism industry is one of the world’s largest industries with a global economic contribution (direct, indirect and induced) of over 8 trillion U.S. dollars in 2017. Being oversaturated and congested, people are looking for quieter places which provide them the right escape from the maddening city life. However, these remote rural places can be developed only if the locals are trained to offer the visitors professional services in their own houses. The local villagers can be imparted training to set up their home stay units after they are given lessons in home keeping, cooking, adventure training, cultural guide training, handicraft production, solid waste management and tourist guide activities. Banks on their part can provide easy, lower rate of interest loans to the youth to establish the hotels, huts, residential guest houses , restaurants as well as for taxis , rafts etc wherever water sports is possible. Government on their part can go for infrastructure development on war footing providing good road connectivity along with PHC (Primary Health Centres) , highway ambulances at strategic locations for immediate medical emergencies like at Siar Baba, police pickets to name a few. A world class cricket stadium was sanctioned at Bajalta more than a decade back but like other projects it has not seen the day light till now. Villages Chilla and Keran are located on two opposite sides of river Tawi which takes a turn at this place resulting in deep still water ideal for rafting , boating . Government should also explore possibility of artificial lake along with Gandola ride which only experts can guide on this. Just adjacent is Phed Devta (Sheep God Mandir) on one side and village Aithem on the other side. There are number of open spots which can be turned into joy rides or amusement parks and numbers of natural ponds are also there which if properly developed can be eye soothing experience for tourists. Then there is train passing through Chilla village with a railway tunnel of more than two kilometers which can also be an experience for tourists. Tourism Department on their part can empanel all willing rural residents with residential area to be used as Guest Houses for tourists with proper background and quality assurance checks by department persons. Today’s world is the world of smart phones and as such Tourism Department shall immediately get an App developed for online availability of rural homes , facilities , rent , services for tourists along with online booking option. Department can deduct its own facilitation charges and transfer rest of the money online to the villagers. If OLA and UBER can become largest taxi operators without even a single taxi of their own, success is guaranteed if all agencies plan seriously on the project.
For tourists, a herd of buffalo wandering back from the fields followed by local women, water gourds balanced on their heads, birds chirping with smoke rising from the cooking fires and aromas filling the air is worth experience. A reclining cow chewing, the village children playing on the path between the crooked houses while several village elders, pulling lazily on their smoking beedis, sitting across chowgan to discuss the day’s events are few other beauties of rural life. It’s a magical time of day when dusk settles in a thousand villages across the region and the night creeps in far away from city chaos. On these trips one can spend the morning with farmer milking his buffalo, help him turn the milk into lassi and join his family for a local sumptuous meal.
One can sit in the shade of a Banyan tree beside a Shiva temple and listen to a sadhu preach or listen to Azaan from a local mosque. Traditional arts and crafts of many villages along with local folklore; performing artists – story tellers, singers and dancers, what else one can ask for. One can walk through the foothills of the Trikuta hills, stopping to talk to locals that pass one’s path or drift slowly down the holy River Tawi, camping by small settlements at night. For a truly authentic experience home stays with local families is a must, giving tourists the opportunity to interact directly, to learn about their life and culture and they about ours. In this way it will not only be their money that will benefit these communities but the cultural exchange as well. A tree planting programme during peak tourist season for tourists can be planned by Forest Department to make it an experience of life time for them.
Bajalta, Chilla, Aithem are not isolated villages as same is the story of all villages enroute Katra, Reasi and adjoining Jammu , with BJP Government at Centre and Governor’s rule in State one can expect immediate plan put in place for development of long neglected Rural Jammu. It’s just question of meticulous planning, will power and ability to deliver on ground. It’s time for BJP to pay back to their vote bank of Rural Jammu. As we usually say ‘Mithee a Dogri tae khand Mithae Log Dograe,’ tourists will get introduced to a very different aspect of Jammu that they have heard about, but never experienced…!