In Kashmir winters, when the temperature plummets to minus seven degrees and everything freezes to a halt, Gulmarg is the most happening place in the valley. The road to Gulmarg from Tangmarg is frequently jammed by the rush of locals and tourists. All the hotels are packed. When you reach the main Gulmarg bowl, here’s what you are likely to see on any typical day in this season: tourists driving sledges down snow slopes; young children from different schools of the valley learning to ski; pony wallahs in large numbers taking tourists to different spots on their horses and adventurous skiiers leaving for backcountry skiing. A small, serene church at the centre of it all completes the landscape to perfection.
In this merry setting, a grim-looking young hotelier is standing outside his hotel. He refuses to talk, fearing any word from him could jeopardise his hold on the hotel constructed by his grandfather in the 1980s after getting one kanal of land on lease from the government in 1978 for 40 years.
“I fear any sentence from me could offend the government and I will be the first one to be evicted from my hotel,” says the young hotelier, pleading anonymity.
The hoteliers in Gulmarg and Pahalgam who had taken lands on lease in 1978 will soon be hit by an order issued by the Lieutenant Governor’s administration in December last year asking them to “hand over the possession of the land taken on lease, failing which the outgoing lessee shall be evicted.” The government rolled out new rules under the Jammu and Kashmir Land Grant Rules-2022 legislation. For the past four years hoteliers of Gulmarg and Pahalgam have been asking for extensions on their leases.
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Lt Governor Manoj Sinha maintains that new land lease rules notified by the administration will benefit the common people. He dismisses political outrage in Jammu and Kashmir over a government directive to land leaseholders, saying the new laws would hardly affect 400 to 500 people. He is certain that it will not impact the poor.
On January 11, the J&K administration issued another order directing all the Deputy Commissioners to ensure 100 per cent removal of encroachments from state land, including roshni and kahcharai (grazing land) by the end of January 31. The order has created panic all across Jammu and Kashmir, with political parties seeking its withdrawal.
Under the Roshni Act, 2001, the transfer of ownership rights on state land was approved for 33,345.35 kanals (1 kanal= 0.8 acre) in the valley as against 3,14,810.18 kanals in Jammu. The approving committee fixed the total price of these lands at Rs 317.55 crore but only Rs 76.46 crore was deposited.
However, the high court of J&K on 9 October, 2020, made all the transfers of land under the law as illegal, declaring the Roshni Act “unconstitutional.” Though there are review petitions pending before the Supreme Court and Jammu&K high court against the 2020 Roshni judgment of the High Court, the government has started eviction drives leading to protests in Jammu.
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While it remains to be seen whether the government will budge under pressure in the case of the taking over of ‘grazing land’ and ‘state land’, the government is certain about auctioning properties in Gulmarg and Pahalgam whose leases have expired. Hoteliers were not expecting this blow.
Years ago, the late veteran journalist, BG Verghese, was the first to suggest that Gulmarg could become the Davos of South Asia. Later, when tourism started picking up in J&K, former chief minister, Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, reiterated the idea during then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s, visit to Kashmir in 2003. Economist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar on January 29, 2005 in his article “Get Ready for Davos 2035” pictured Gulmarg as apt for the annual economic forum meeting. There was optimism all around.
But then things can change at any moment in the valley. In the days leading up to 5 August, 2019, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government abrogated Article 370, it ensured that all tourists vacated hotels from Kashmir, including those in Gulmarg. At midnight, tourists and all non-locals were forced out of their hotel rooms and asked to leave Kashmir. Soon after the abrogation of Article 370, the only life in Gulmarg was that of stray dogs frantically moving from one hotel to another in search of food.
At present, there is relative peace in Kashmir with no incident of stone-throwing and protests taking place. Tourists are reportedly visiting Gulmarg in hordes.
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A local politician of the Tangmarg area says that between 1990 to 1997, tourists were not visiting Gulmarg. In 1996, when Dr Farooq Abdullah took over as chief minister after a long spell of Presidential rule in J&K, he began encouraging tourism, asking those who had taken a 40-year lease in 1978 to construct hotels. However, real progress in the tourism sector started after 2002, when Mufti Mohammad Sayeed took over as chief minister, says a local politician.
The Jammu and Kashmir Bank was generous in giving loans to Kashmiri businessmen who started constructing hotels. Around 20 hotels have come up in Gulmarg since 2004. Till 2008, the tourism flow continued but after the mass protests of 2008, Kashmir witnessed a dip in tourism once again. In the protest years of 2010 and 2016 and during the lockdown of 2019, tourism was at an all-time low. “Yes, we had a lease for 40 years but we have availed less than 15 years of it in reality due to the turbulent situation. I am telling you with all honesty that since the government came up with an order not extending the leases and putting us on notice, I am taking anti-depressants,” says the hotelier. “I will have to sell my house to repay the loan that I have taken against my hotel in Gulmarg. Like others, I will be on the road,” he adds.
Jammu and Kashmir Apni Party leader and former MLA from the Tangmarg-Gulmarg area, Ghulam Hassan Mir, says the eviction drive in Gulmarg will be the biggest across India. “When the government says they have brought Kashmir at par with the rest of the country after August 5, 2019, the government should also apply the same rules as are in place elsewhere in the country,” says Mir, who was the tourism minister in the PDP-Congress government in the erstwhile state of J&K.
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“In the rest of the country after the expiry of the lease, the leaseholder has the right to freehold. Why is it not being adopted in Kashmir?,” he asks. “I can feel the pain of these hoteliers who have brought tourism to Kashmir after taking loans from banks to raise infrastructure for tourists when no one was visiting Kashmir,” the former tourism minister adds.
Former chief minister, Mehbooba Mufti, was the first to criticise the government order on the grounds that the BJP was snatching land from locals and giving it to outsiders. Mufti went further, arguing that the government was adopting the Israel model in Kashmir—divesting locals from land and giving it to the outsiders, making locals “strangers in their own land.”
Altaf Thakur, spokesperson of the BJP, says that hoteliers obtained land on lease in Gulmarg and Pahalgam and other places of Jammu and Kashmir because they had political affiliations with parties such as National Conference, PDP and Congress. “Now it will be the common Kashmiri who will benefit from the auction. Political parties are creating an impression that Gulmarg will be given to outsiders. It will not,” says Thakur.
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The government argues that under the Jammu Development and Srinagar Development Authorities, around 25,000 people have got land on lease. “Why is there so much fuss over 245 people whose leases have expired?” asks a senior official.
Mir takes a different view. “In the original Land Grants Act, 1960, there is a rule to extend the lease upto 90 years and these hoteliers have invested in the land taking that clause in the law into consideration,” he adds. “Otherwise why should they have invested their money if they knew the government was not going to extend the lease,” he argues.
In Srinagar, businessman and PDP leader, Mohammad Iqbal Tramboo, says the elected government in the 1970s gave the land on lease after a proper auction. “All these hotels are not illegal but have tourism registrations,” he adds.
He concedes that among the hoteliers in Pahalgam or Gulmarg, some might have political connections but not everyone. “Majority of the leaseholders have nothing to do with politics or political parties. They invested in Gulmarg after taking loans from banks,” he adds.
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In 1990, bank-borrowing in J&K was to the tune of Rs 700 crore. “Today it is Rs 60,000 crore in Kashmir and Rs 40,000 crore in Jammu. All these people who have land leases have taken loans against their running business properties. The day the government auctions their hotels, they will have to sell their homes to repay the loans,” Tramboo says.
Gulmarg was once the summer retreat of the British Punjab elite. Its discovery is credited to the last Kashmiri independent king, Yousuf Shah Chak, who gave the place its name, Gul-Marg—the meadow of flowers. Until then, it was just another pasture. During the Raj, there were summer lodges and a civil surgeon stationed there. It has the second oldest golf club after Calcutta, east of the Suez.
This year, as many of the developed properties in Gulmarg will be up for grabs as there lease have expired, it will be seen to whom the Davos of Kashmir goes.
(This appeared in the print edition as "South Asia’s Davos in limbo")