By Wajahat Habibullah
On a cold, rainy day, a contrast to Delhi’s heat and dust, I drove from Srinagar around the Wular, once Asia’s largest fresh water lake, now little more than a vast marshland, to the picturesque Bandipore across slushy potholed roads. Then up over the 11,500 feet icy Rajdhani-or Razdan-pass from where, on a clear day, one can view the world’s second highest peak K2, into the spectacular valley of Gurez. My purpose at all three destinations was to hold discussions with the local administration, especially public information officers (PIOs), and the use of RTI by government and citizenry in assuring public participation in governance. But my inspiration was Gurez, a bulge of Indian territory sticking out like a thumb into the face of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), straddling the Kishanganga river which wriggles between Indian and Pakistani-occupied territory to finally debouch into the Jhelum in PoK.
I had paid a fleeting visit by helicopter to Gurez when I was divisional commissioner of a troubled Kashmir in 1991. But this was my first leisurely visit since my tenure as SDM Sopore in 1970-71 when I often visited Gurez, then a mere Niabat. At the time, a barely motorable access to the valley, with multiple security checks, ended at Chak Nallah, at the foot of the mountain of Habba Khatoon, where myth has it the poetess and singer had retreated after her beloved Sultan Yusuf Shah Chak, the last ruler of Kashmir, was betrayed by India’s emperor, Akbar, and his kingdom was annexed. The road through the adjoining valley of Tillel, traditionally the highway to Gilgit and Skardu, Kashmir’s link to the legendary silk route, had not yet been built. This was a mere pathway along which I rode, led by the lambardar, a dramatic figure reminiscent of a feudal lord with flowing beard and dressed in turban and shalwar, an expert horseman, on agile mountain ponies able skilfully to find footing on a steep slope or mountain crag.
Gurez is home to the 37 metre-high dam of the Rs 5,882 crore Kishanganga Hydro Electric Project (KHEP), inaugurated by remote from Srinagar’s Sher-i-Kashmir International Conference Centre by the Prime Minister on May 19. The Prime Minister visited Ladakh to lay the foundation stone for a proposed tunnel bypassing the Zoji La and both Srinagar and Jammu, promising ‘every citizen of Kashmir’ stability with development.
The peaceable Kashmiris of Gurez merited not a mention. The 330 MW 3 unit project will generate 1,713 million units of electricity annually. Of this, the citizens of Gurez will get not a sliver. The dam over the river in Gurez is itself a prodigious feat of Indian engineering, which involved transporting the state-of-the- art tunnel boring machine (TBM) upto Bandipore in parts, which was transported in 160 containers, as explained by A.I Benny, Hindustan Construction Company’s (HCC) project manager for the KHEP to Nirupama Subramanian. The article describes how, working like a giant earthworm, the Italian TBM burrowed 14.5 km of tunnel through the rocks towards Gurez from Bandipore, even as it fixed concrete segments on the walls. “From the Gurez end, the traditional drill blast method was used to bore 9 km of the tunnel. Starting May 2011, it took more than 30 months for the entire 23.24 km tunnel to be completed.” Citing the engineers at the site, Subramanian avers that this was also the first time a TBM was used successfully in the Himalayas. But although this feat was accomplished for project use, once completed, the tunnel will channel water with no use by civilians.
Subramanian also writes of how the temporary offices of HCC at Mantrigam, 5 km from the Bandipore site of the power plant, have grills to protect the windows from stoning, which happens with such regularity that the staff are used to it, ascribing this to the Hurriyat’s calls for protest. Gurez is in sharp contrast. Here peace prevails with an enviable civil-military relationship. Military presence is hardly manifest, except check-posts on access and the occasional passage of military vehicles over the bumpy road. Unlike the Southern boundaries of the Line of Control (LoC), there has been no cross-border shelling along the LoC on which Gurez lies since 2016. And the executives of the NHPC (KHEP is an NHPC project) who hosted me to lunch at the company’s guest house in Bandipore were effusive in lauding the hospitality that they received from the local residents, contrasting this with the hostility they had encountered working in Arunachal. They, in fact, sought advice on how they might return the favour and have already provided a number of solar-powered street lights in Bandipore in consort with the district administration. The KHEP is, in fact, a demonstration of the effective use of the state’s amended Land Acquisition Act whereby all five families in Mantrigam and 143 villagers in three villages of Gurez have been compensated with plots, cash or alternative land, depending on their choice.
Yet the original road, the only access to Dawar, the principal township and sub-divisional headquarters of Gurez crossing the river at Budwan was, in a major breach of prescribed procedure, submerged well before the completion of the alternative access road on which I travelled, which is still under construction. The road is often closed because of its muddy, landslide-prone surface. The villages affected are Budwan that has disappeared altogether, Khopri and Wanagam that have partially sunk with the loss of 4,218 kanals (527.25 acres) of cultivable land. This is more than 10% of the total cultivable area of Gurez. Eighteen residents of Budwan were provided plots adjacent to Dawar on which they have built elegant Kashmiri style homes, as have residents of the other two villages, with the cash compensation received.
Despite being home to the post-modern technology of the KHEP, Gurez and Tillel have little pretension of being even a part of the modern world. There is no electricity, no piped water, no drainage, no public sanitation, no tarred road and no hospital, and people depend on potato cultivation for a living. Sheena is the native language, which is the ancient Dardic tongue still spoken in parts of Gilgit and Baltistan. This is probably the mother of Kashmiri, the latter a language with an infusion of Sanskrit, which makes the civilisation of Gurez forbear to Kashmiriyat.
Yet, apart from the compensation received and other peripheral benefits, no launch into the 21st century is planned for Gurez. This despite the huge potential that KHEP could have helped unleash. I have mentioned some of the fast flowing mountain torrents in the Valley. There are a host of others around every nook and cranny. Sandeep Singh, a strapping young Sikh from Baramulla who is the SDM, Gurez, explained how the state government has had before this, a number of schemes for mini-hydel projects. This was confirmed by Shah Feisal, the state’s power secretary, who said financial viability was in question. Yet this was an ideal investment for Kashmir’s young entrepreneurs, many of whom have returned with hi-tech degrees from abroad and are anxious to invest, thus regenerating the stagnating economy and providing employment to a large number of youth, some of whom I saw all along the road from and to Srinagar lingering with companions for want of anything better to do.
In Gurez, I retraced my own steps of 1971, this time by car, when I had ridden to Hassangram on the edge of the Tillel valley, which had been incinerated in devastating fire. I drove beyond the small town of Budugam, now an administrative unit, where I had spent the night. The tehsildar, who was then a patwari, showed me the rocky crag at Chak Nallah, now housing a cliff faced temple, where I had been obliged to dismount. Here at the foot of Habba Khatoon, the Barzun Nallah joins the Chak, which rises in Indian territory, separated from Dras in Ladakh by a mountain ridge, and forms the Kishanganga flowing through Kanzalwan, which is described as Zero Point as it falls on the LoC. It flows into PoK where Pakistan is constructing the Neelum-Jhelum Hydropower Plant downstream, perhaps a reason for keeping the peace in upstream Gurez. Thence it flows through Tragbal into Tithwal again in Indian territory. All along the river are spectacular snow-capped peaks, clad heavily with fir and pine trees and in the higher reaches with silver birch, with grassy glades, vertical granite cliffs and mountain pathways, sloping or level, an ideal destination for rock climbers, trekkers, campers, river rafters or simply picnickers seeking escape in the clean mountain air. Yet, although there is a spanking new tourist reception centre in Dawar, inaugurated by former chief minister Omar Abdullah, there are no tourists, although there are some Sumo taxis driven by adventurous youth servicing the locals. But surely the elegant homes that I have referred to can be an attractive allure to visitors for guest stays with families of the gentle folk of Gurez where
The people in Gurez, Subramanian says have “just one wish” — for a road tunnel between Bandipore and their valley, just like the one bored into the mountain for the dam. This was a demand of the senior citizens of Dawar, many of them ex-servicemen, who participated in my RTI workshop.
Educated Gurezis despite their love for their idyllic home are scattered around the Valley in search of a living, primarily in bloated Srinagar. The Prime Minister waxed eloquent on his visit to Srinagar on the advantages of government’s ceasefire; there was no mention of the needs of peaceful Gurez. Yet, there is a huge opportunity here for young Kashmiri enterprise, if only their government, which has a J&K Bank of its own, opened that dimension for them.Read More