Dozens of huge hotels are coming up on the green meadow of Sonamarg after the Jammu and Kashmir government gave nod to the controversial Sonmarg Master Plan, resulting in violations and illegal constructions. Different government wings are blaming each other for the delay in demolishing these illegal structures even as these concrete structures are sprouting within the meadow.
Despite environmentalists and nature watchers raisng an alarm, even the nearby Thajiwas glacier and Thajiwas Wildlife Sanctuary are under grave threat due to the heavy footfall of tourists and pilgrims. Oblivious to this, the State Wildlife Department continues to allow entry to vehicles, collecting toll tax at the sanctuary gates. In Sonamarg, heavy machinery drills into the earth to construct hotels, playing havoc with the environment in this health resort, which is also one of the routes to the Amarnath cave.
The Sonamarg Development Authority (SDA) responsible for regulating the constructions in this meadow admitted that there were illegal structures here in violation of the Master Plan drafted by them. “We need support from all government agencies including police to act against these violators. But the big hotels come under the Master Plan approved by the state Cabinet,” said a senior SDA official. He disclosed that the basic violation by the big hoteliers is exceeding the number of rooms approved by the SDA. “We have given permission for seven rooms, but the hotelier has built 40. We tried to act against him and many like him, but could not as they wield heavy influence on politicians, police and media,” he said.
Meanwhile, officials are passing the buck. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) SDA said, “I have no role in permissions. All the Tourism Development Authorities have Chief Minister as Chairman, Tourism Minister as Vice-Chairman. I have nothing to do with the constructions going on”. Similarly, District Development Commissioner (DDC) of Ganderbal Tariq Ahmad Ganai said, “It is the duty of SDA to stop illegal constructions and I am ready to help them to demolish these, but they have to approach me”.
According to SDA officials, J&K government has approved the Master Plan for the construction of hotels in the green bowl of Sonamarg which is basically a part of Thajiwas Wildlife Sanctuary and its glacier. “They could have used the fringes of Sonamarg for the construction, they could have only created tented accommodation at this ecologically fragile place,” said former Deputy Commissioner of Ganderbal Showkat Ahmad Mir.
According to documents available with this newspaper, in the Master Plan of Sonamarg 44 hectares of land were earmarked for the constructions and the permission so far has been given for the entire land. All government wings have finally blamed the town planners for giving permission for the constructions. “A high level team inspected the constructions in the Sonamarg meadow and wrote to the government for demolition after identifying the violators. The file could not move for several years and it has encouraged more people to violate the Master Plan,” said an official in SDA.
DDC Ganderbal Tariq Ahmad Ganai while expressing concern over the creation of a mini-market at the base of Thajiwas glacier said that he will talk to CEO SDA and other officials to ban tourist movement up to the the base of the glacier.
“Thajiwas glacier is melting due to the heat and pollution caused by vehicles driving up to its base”, said Mir Hafizullah Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) of Sindh Division.
According to a Wildlife official who collects toll taxes at the sanctuary gates, it was the previous Omar Abdullah government which allowed vehicle movement to the glacier due to public pressure.
Apart from daily visitors in thousands, more than 350,000 Amarnath pilgrims will also pass via Sonamarg, where Baltal is a base camp. Recently, a film crew was permitted to shoot within the Sonamarg Club constructed inside Thajiwas sanctuary. Such human interference is not feasible for the health of Sonamarg, feel many environmentalists and experts.