If anything is emblematic of the lack of proper planning for tourism management and disregard for Kashmir’s ecological resources, it is the master plan for infrastructure development in one of the Valley’s stunning mountain resorts, Sonamarg. The plan has been designed after 96% of the built-up area has already been brought under construction without required planning and without meeting even half the infrastructural requirements envisaged by Sonamarg Development Authority, which looks after tourism development at this resort.

Sonamarg, the golden meadow, is about 85 km northeast of Jammu and Kashmir’s summer capital Srinagar. “It is a very precarious and awkward situation that the extent of built-up area for the development of infrastructural facilities envisaged under the master plan to be attained by 2025 has already been attained in 2015,” Kashmir University’s Centre of Research and Development has pointed out in its Environment Impact Assessment of the master plan.

According to the research centre’s report, about 57.5 hectares of land has already been brought under the built-up area when the total area proposed to be under built-up by 2025 is about 60 hectares. “It means that 96% of the built-up area has already been covered, although the accommodation related infrastructure, which was envisaged to get developed in the built-up area, is lagging far behind,” the reports states.

The master plan, the report adds, envisaged the creation of around 9,447 beds in hotels, huts and such (excluding tented accommodation of 2,500 beds and guest house accommodation of 500 beds). But the bed capacity is only 1,412. “Accordingly, there is little scope for further infrastructure development in the area,” the report notes. “If it is allowed to get executed, it would have adverse impact on the scenic beauty of the area and would affect the sustainability of the tourism in the area.”

Besides objecting to other environmentally hazardous proposed measures, the report has objected to the Sonamarg Development Authority’s proposal to create a car parking in the vicinity of Thajwas glacier, a delight for nature lovers and trekkers. It remains to be seen whether these objections will be respected in the long run as this resort has already suffered significant ecological degradation.

Several unplanned concrete buildings have come up in Sonamarg in recent years. Photo Credit: Athar Parvaiz

Still a paradise?

Kashmir has acquired much fame for its natural beauty because of the breath-taking splendor of its mountains, glaciers, meadows, lush valleys and water bodies. When India’s 17th-century Mughal emperor Jahangir first came to Kashmir, he was mesmerised by the beauty of the land to such an extent that he termed it paradise on earth: “If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.”

Ever since, this lyrical outburst has served better to eulogise Kashmir’s ecological wealth. Over the years, Kashmir’s meadows, lush valleys and water bodies have charmed millions of tourists though the armed violence in the region, which started in 1989, meant that Kashmir had hardly any visitors for years together.

It is only over the past few years that armed violence is on the wane and tourism is gradually returning to Kashmir, although it faces frequent setbacks with the Valley often erupting into protest demonstrations as Kashmiris ask New Delhi to address their political demands.

The revival of tourism has generated hope for around half a million people who are directly or indirectly involved in the Valley’s tourism industry. But the haphazard construction that the tourism boom is leading to, especially at the famed mountain resorts of Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg, is threatening to turn Kashmir into a lost paradise.

Plastic waste litters the mountain resorts of Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam. Photo Credit: Athar Parvaiz

Green expanses turn concrete

There has hardly been any planning in the construction process at Kashmir’s tourism destinations. Infrastructure made out of concrete has come up at the most unlikely places and most hotels try to maximise the number of rooms, even if they block the best views of the Himalayan peaks in the process. There is a consensus among experts, government officials and common citizens of Kashmir that the three major resort towns – Sonamarg, Pahalgam and Gulmarg – are being turned into concrete jungles.

Environmental experts maintain that construction should have been prohibited at these resorts. But the government has not only allowed construction of hotels right on the most scenic spots, but has also failed to provide adequate disposal systems for solid and liquid waste.

“Even if some construction was necessary for tourism development, it should have been carried out in harmony with nature,” said Samiullah Bhat, who teaches environmental science at Kashmir University. “What we are seeing is that in the name of mountain tourism, we have ended up turning our mountains into concrete jungles.”

In 2012, the state’s department of ecology, environment and remote sensing had warned that immediate measures needed to be taken to undo the environmental damage caused by unplanned construction at Sonamarg.

“While development of modern infrastructure is of paramount importance for meeting the needs of the tourism industry, it is important to design such development in an ecofriendly fashion to preserve and conserve the fragile ecology and environment of Sonamarg,” the department had warned.

The development that has already taken place at Sonamarg or is in progress has adversely impacted ecology and environment. The waste generated by hundreds of thousands of tourists is thrown around without any treatment or scientific management. All untreated effluents, the department pointed out, find their way into the Indus stream, which straddles Sonamarg. “This causes extensive pollution in the river because no sewage treatment plant is in place,” it said.

Six years down the line, the situation has only worsened. The report of the Centre for Research and Development identifies a number of problems plaguing the tourist resort. For one, about 5.66 tonnes of solid waste is generated per day from multiple sources bu the “Sonamarg Development Authority has not been able to establish any kind of treatment or processing plant for the waste. As a consequence the waste is being dumped at multiple sites”. Sewage from at least 46 hotels is drained directly into the Sindh stream, the report adds.

Similar destruction is visible at other famous tourist resorts, notably Pahalgam and Gulmarg.

In Pahalgam, a local non-profit, Pahalgam Peoples Welfare, petitioned the Jammu and Kashmir High Court against illegal construction. Based on the petition, the court served several notices to the government and the Pahalgam Development Authority. Responding to the notices, the government revealed that 1,500 illegal structures have come up in the forest and wildlife zones of Pahalgam on either side of the Lidder river over the past few years. The resort is also facing serious problems related to waste disposal.

The problems are compounded by the fact that around 6,00,000 pilgrims visit the Amarnath cave shrine, located at an altitude of 3,900 metres in Pahalgam, in July and August every year. Researchers have concluded that the growing number of tourists and pilgrims, along with agricultural run-off, is contributing to growing pollution in an area that serves as an important watershed in the Himalayas.

A May 2015 study on sustainable tourism in Kashmir, published in the journal Elsevier, found that Pahalgam’s tourist flow in July was almost four times the “tourism carrying capacity” of the area.

The environmental implications of ignoring the situation are enormous. According to an assessment report prepared by the Department of Environment, Ecology and Remote Sensing after the September 2014 floods, ecological degradation across the state is a major catalyst for natural disasters.

The study revealed that since 1992, Kashmir has lost 10% of its forest cover as tourism infrastructure has encroached into wooded areas.

Gulmarg, 50 km north of Srinagar, has undergone similar ecological degradation in recent years. The mountain resort has no waste treatment facility although thousands of tourists throng it every summer, leaving behind large amounts of waste. The high-altitude meadow also turns into a golf course every summer and a ski slope every winter.

Doodhpathri is among the recent additions to Kashmir's tourist map. Photo Credit: Athar Parvaiz

Saving the virgin resorts

Citizens and environmentalists are hopeful that the authorities learn from these bitter experiences and save other mountain resorts – Doodpathri, Tosa Maidan, Bangas Valley and Yousmarg – which have thankfully escaped ecological destruction so far. The first three are relatively recent additions to Kashmir’s tourist map while Yousmarg, though known for decades as an idyll, has stayed somewhat away from the limelight.

“I love going to Doodpathri because there are not so many concrete structures like we see in Gulmarg and Sonamarg,” said Bilal Ahmad, a Kashmiri academic at a foreign university who returns home once or twice every year. “I hope it stays the same.”

Jammu and Kashmir’s tourism minister, Tassaduq Mufti, said he is aware of the fact that the tourist places across Kashmir have undergone degradation. “But we are trying our best to stop further degradation,” he added.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.