Residents of Pahalgam, in Indian Kashmir, have fought and won a court case alleging that a development plan deprived them of their rights, while benefiting influential builders.
Nestled among gushing brooks in the Himalayas with spectacular mountain views, it is no wonder that Pahalgam has become one of Kashmir's most popular tourist resorts. There is, however, a catch: Attracted by the region's natural beauty, tourism has now spawned an infrastructure development boom, which is encroaching on the very landscape it is supposed to benefit.
Reyaz Ahmad Lone, a local resident of Manzgam, a village in the Pahalgam valley, worked long and hard to rally residents of Pahlagam to fight for their rights and, against all odds, ultimately managed to reverse the plan.
When this master plan was drafted, the local people had no idea about it. The people who designed it were government officials, but they were also part of the land mafia," Lone said.
A few years ago, Lone was just another resident of Pahalgam, running a small guest house. Today, he is a local hero, having successfully fought off the plan which had threatened to dispossess the residents of Pahalgam, like him, forever.
A threat to residents
Pahalgam, which means "village of the shepherds," is a base camp for an annual Hindu pilgrimage to a Himalayan shrine, and according to the Town Planning Organization of Kashmir, the master plan would expand Pahalgam's tourist economy, while balancing the ecological and infrastructure requirements of the valley. But, as Lone explained, things were not as they seemed.
"The chief town planner, Mir Naseem, had bought land in many places in Pahalgam. Sometimes he bought through his brother; sometimes through his employees. These properties and the lands belonging to other influential people were kept in 'construction permissible' zones, while the existing villages were classed as green zones," noted Lone.
In other words, the government official in charge of town planning in the area had drawn up a master plan that would benefit influential hotel owners, builders and the planners themselves. In the meantime, most villagers found that their homes were now in designated green zones, making them technically illegal and preventing even the most minor repairs.
Discrepancies made public
Lone had been visiting town offices since the year 2000 to seek permission to build a small hotel in his village. In 2005, Reyaz managed to get hold of a copy of the final plan. He found that in the previous master plan, his village had been in a zone where construction was permitted. Even the draft master plan was like that, but in the final plan, that had been changed.
Lone noticed a variety of discrepancies in the plan. For example, forest tracks procured by influential businessmen or bureaucrats, had been designated as construction sites slated for expansion, while local villages which had existed for generations were now designated green zones and off-limits to any construction. Plots, bought by influential outsiders had been designated as commercial sites, regardless of where they were located.
Lone began rallying people together to oppose the plan. In 2008, local residents went to court. On their lawyer's advice, they first sought to halt unbridled commercial construction in the area, rather than challenge the plan as a whole. Meanwhile, complaints of malpractice in drafting the plan began to surface in a state oversight organization, a body meant to monitor potential corruption.
"In Chanhanji, an area of untouched forest with no access road, Mir Naseem had bought land through proxies and sold it to a hotel group. It had been designated a hotel site. Down the hill, the villages were designated as green zones," said Lone.
Struggle pays off
Encouraged by this and other proof of malfeasance, Lone and his friends turned their attention to the master plan itself. By 2011, evidence against the town planners had begun to pour in and in summer 2012 it was scrapped altogether.
The fight, however, was not an easy one for Lone. In 2010, when the court put a moratorium on any kind of constructions in Pahalgam, he became the center of attention, earning hostility even among residents for whom he was fighting.
"The moratorium made things difficult for everyone. No one was allowed to even make minor home repairs. Officials and the land mafia instigated people against me," he said. Lone even briefly had to run away from home to escape hostile residents.
Lone's struggle has finally paid off. The government has had to draft a new master plan. This time, Lone is hopeful that his concerns will be addressed. Meanwhile, he and his neighbors still have to wait before they can build new homes, but most of them are content in the knowledge that the future of their community has been secured - at least for the time being.