Saturday, December 6, 2008

Hidden paradise

The beautiful valley of Gurez, which was recently brought on the tourism map, is yet to catch the fancy of tourists because of its harsh climate and proximity to the LoC, reports Ehsan Fazili after a visit to Bandipore

The Gurez valley in Bandipore district remains cut off from the world during the seven months of winter
The Gurez valley in Bandipore district remains cut off from the world during the seven months of winter Photos by the writer

There is no space to build more houses. Therefore, the clusters of wooden houses are closely packed
There is no space to build more houses. Therefore, the clusters of wooden houses are closely packed

THE beauty of the picturesque valley of Gurez in north Kashmir can rival even the Swiss Alps. But the valley’s harsh climatic conditions, with many parts being avalanche-prone, coupled with continued cross-border firing till about five years back have made life here difficult. Situated at over 8,000 feet above the sea level, this unique valley remains cut off from the world for more than seven months every winter as the only road connecting it to the state remains closed.

Despite these problems, this Himalayan valley has a lot of tourism potential. Prior to the Partition, it had been a popular destination for foreign tourists, including F D Roosevelt, who is known to have visited the valley, much before he became the US president. Moreover, the development of tourism may be helpful in the overall prosperity of this landlocked valley.

Even though the valley is only a four-hour drive from its district headquarters town of Bandipore, 57 km north of Srinagar, it seems far from civilisation. The Razdhan pass, which connects the Gurez region with the rest of Kashmir, also divides the two regions on geographical, socio-cultural and linguistic lines.

The region, a part of the Bandipore district, has its borders touching Kupwara district on the one side and parts of the Ladakh region on the other, with its peripheries touching the LoC. Its central township is Dawar.

The 86-km-long Bandipore-Dawar road is the only road link that connects the valley with the rest of the state. This road passes through 11,672 ft high Razdhan Pass also known as Sanga Top.

"Kashmir gets cut off from here," says my driver, Imtiyaz Ahmad, as he drives on the fair-weather road to Gurez, the land of barren fields and hard rocks.

A huge mountain in the heart of the valley that looks like a massive pyramid is called Habba Khatoon Mountain. Gurez falls along a section of the ancient Silk Route that connected Kashmir valley to Gilgit and the rest of Central Asia.

Rare tribe

The valley is home to a unique Shina-speaking tribe of Dards, numbering more than 30,000 and living in the Gurez and the Tuleil areas. This tribe has been cut off from its mainland Astore, Gilgit and Chilas across the LoC.

But over the past six decades, the natives of the valley have been influenced much by the Kashmiri culture, though the region still enjoys its distinct socio-cultural and linguistic identity.

"It is like living in wilderness in winter here," says Ghulam Ahmad Khan, a local Forest Officer. The only road remains closed for six to seven months, there are no air services and helicopters make sorties only in case of an emergency during winters as they mostly cater to the troops guarding the borders."

Khan adds that even the internal roads remain closed due to snow. It even becomes difficult to take emergency cases to the lone sub-district hospital at Dawar.

Though the main food is rice, it is not grown in the area, which is known for potato, wheat and other cereal cultivation. Storage of all food items, kerosene, and other fuel products is completed by mid-October every year. Nothing is left to chance, as there can be untimely road blockades even in the autumn.

Driving downhill, the barren landscape reveals rocky slopes with leafless burza trees (batula utillis), the scaly skin of which is known for its traditional use for rooftops in Kashmir as well. But its use in the Kashmir valley, which had been in vogue till about four to five decades ago, has almost become extinct. The layers of burza leaves covered with about one foot of soil on the sloping rooftops make it a thick and strong enough covering to provide insulation against the summer heat and harsh winter snow.

The road slopes from Sanga Top, winding through Koragbal, to reach the last resort of Kanzalwan, 15 km short of Dawar. The 140-km-long stretch of Gurez valley, with a width of less than one-km from Kanzalwan to Chakwali between steep hills, falls in an avalanche-prone area.

"About 80 per cent of the people are bilingual and speak the mother tongue, Shina and have the adopted Kashmiri language as well," said Masood Samoon, IAS, Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir, who belongs to the area.

Many people attribute the spread of education in the area to Samoon’s family, whose father was a teacher, devoted to the cause of imparting education to his people. Over the years, the literacy rate has gone up to touch 60 per cent.

The Shina tribe of Dards is also living in the Drass sector of Kargil district in Ladakh region. Over the past 18 years, since the ST status was granted to the residents of Gurez, the educated youth have benefited immensely from reservation in government jobs. But since they have been largely posted outside the landlocked Gurez valley, the area is yet to benefit by their progress.

When the local high school was upgraded to the level of higher secondary, it took five to 10 years to make it fully functional because of the lack of requisite teaching staff. Earlier this year, the coalition government had announced the setting up of a degree college in the area, which, according to the locals may not be realised in the next two decades. That is because of the lack of the local staff and inability of the teachers from the mainland to cater to the needs of the people here.

A grant of scholarships to the local students at the undergraduate and the post-graduate levels can raise the status of educated class, asserts Masood Samoon.

Migration triggers

The rising literacy rate, coupled with harsh geographical conditions, has divided the locals into three main groups, says the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, Mohammad Rafi. These include those below the poverty line, who cannot afford to move out of the valley, those shifting out of the area temporarily during winter and those having permanently migrated after getting good government jobs.

But poverty is rare here as almost every household in this area has at least one person having a government job. "My eldest brother is a girdawar, two others are teachers, while another is a patwari. I am only a Class IV employee because I could not complete Class XII," comments a youth.

"There are many people like me, who cannot return to their roots after serving in a government job," says Samoon. Most of his family members and relatives have government jobs elsewhere in the state.

There have been three major factors for migration from the area — employment, harsh geographical conditions with most parts of the valley being avalanche-prone, and the continued cross-border firing, which, however, has stopped over the past five years. About 40 per cent of migration from the area had taken place due to the cross-border firing.

For those who stayed back, there is hardly any safe space to move out of the firing range, because the area is avalanche-prone. "One cannot move house even four metres away as one can become the victim of avalanches," says Masood Samoon, who belongs to Budwan village, near Dawar. "No expansion is possible and therefore, the clusters of houses, made of wooden logs, are closely packed," adds Samoon.

Bane or boon?

About 144,680.70 hectares of demarcated forest land suffers damage every year due to snow and avalanches. But this provides huge quantity of firewood to the lower areas through the flowing waters of Kishenganga. "It is a natural phenomenon and every family consumes around 200 quintals of this wood for cooking and heating purposes annually," says Mohammad Shafi Dar, Forest Range Officer. There is minimal use of LPG, which has been introduced recently, for cooking. Piped-water supply is non-existent during winter as the water gets frozen. When the road connectivity snaps, the availability of food is restricted only to rice, potato and cereals.

There is not much land for cultivation. The holding capacity is very little, which, too, contributes to the migration of the people from the area.

"There is no cottage industry and as a result people have no work throughout the winter months," says Samoon.

Most of these issues are on the agenda of the political parties whose candidates are contesting the Assembly elections in the area.

There are four major issues concerning the populace in the Gurez constituency. Apart from tourism development, these include road connectivity through a tunnel between Bandipore and Gurez, hydel-power projects, and jobs for the youth in the police and the security forces who have been not benefited by the government services due to the lack of requisite qualifications.

State officials say that the state government cannot afford funding the massive tunnel project connecting the Gurez valley with Bandipore. Though potential for hydel projects is there which can generate nearly 10 MWs of power, says Nazir Ahmad Khan. At present the area gets six hours’ power supply daily that provided by diesel generators.

The constituency was carved out of Bandipore in 1995. It had so far elected two members to the state Legislative Assembly. Faqir Mohammad Khan, an Independent, was elected as the first MLA in 1996, while National Conference member Nazir Ahmad Khan, was elected in 2002. These two were among the six contestants during the recent elections. Faqir Mohammad Khan this time was contested on the Congress ticket, while Nazir Ahmad Khan remained the NC candidate. Other candidates included Nazir Ahmad Bhat (PDP), Riyaz Ahmad Wani (BSP), Mohammad Iqbal Lone (All India Forward Bloc), and Abdul Azziz Wani, an Independent candidate, fielded by the expelled PDP leader and former minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, heading the Democratic Party (Nationalists).