Crowds at Dal Lake in the summer of '97

Srinagar: snapshots of serenity

Who says normalcy has not returned to Kashmir? This summer was the first in many years we took our families out to Dilshad and Nishat baghs. Dal Lake looked different, almost like it was in the old days. The militants say they fight for our people but why didn't people come out in all these years? Were the security forces shooting families taking a walk by Dal Lake?

Execrpts from an Associated Press Report dated 11 October 1997:

"...a year after the restoration of a locally elected government, and with the worst of the violence over, officials and business leaders hope tourism can be revived.

In the first seven months of the year 8,000 foreign tourists visited Kashmir, according to the state minister of tourism. During the summer, Gulmarg's hills were again filled with picknickers, and repairs were begun on a few of its hotels.

In Srinagar, Thais on package tours spend days in the state capital's 400-year-old Mughal gardens and nights on Dal Lake houseboats, the floating inns famous for their faded Victorian elegance and warm hospitality. Americans in shorts and hiking boots venture into shops to buy embroidered woolen shawls, hand carved walnut furniture and fancifully painted papier-mache curios.

Abdul Aziz, overseeing repairs at Gulmarg's Hilltop Hotel, said this winter will be the real test of whether tourism can be revived.

After four months of work the hotel's 35 rooms were nearly ready for skiers. Aziz said the reopening would mean 125 desperately needed jobs.

"Because of the violence, people hid at home and there was no work," he said. "People are coming out of their homes now. People now want calm in Kashmir."

-- By DONNA BRYSON, The Associated Press

Nishat BaghThere are many people who continue to claim that nothing has changed in Kashmir. The elections and the installation of the National Conference government is belittled, especially in international fora. We would like to know who maintains and repeats such statements? The majority people of Kashmir or the stooges of Pakistan who know that soon they will have no source of income left and will be eventually killed by the very boys who they fed (and starved when it was necessary to do so). These people have a stake in ensuring that all pictures and reports coming out of Kashmir are consistently gloomy. But for the people of Srinagar at least and the thousands of foreign and Indian tourists who thronged the city this summer, the reality was a little different. Here we present some recent snapshots of Srinagar. Those who disbelieve these pictures should visit Srinagar themselves..

There are visible signs of return to normalcy almost everywhere. About 80,000 have been thronging Gulmarg, especially during weekends. Work at HMT, ITI and other factories have resumed. Kashmir should have its first railway line soon. The 115 km valley railway line between Garigund and Baramulla is being sought to be completed in 30 months. Locals are to be employed. Uri power would light up the valley by the end of the year. The Border Roads organization is being entrusted with a crash programme of reconstructing bridges to restore connectivity in the valley before the onset of winter. Schools are being rebuilt and other action taken to repair damaged social and physical infrastructure. Crowds in Parks

This year valley saw a rather heavy inflow of tourist both domestic and international, especially between July and August when people from all over the country were pouring in for the annual Amarnath pilgrimage. " People came in large groups from different parts of the country and it gave us good business" points out Abdul Gaffar, a houseboat owner in Dal Lake. As a result, the rent for overnight stay in a house boat went up to Rs. 1,000 per night this year with enough scope for bargaining when almost all house boats remained vacant. Pilgrims going to the holy Amarnath cave invariably extend their stay by a day or two to go around Srinagar. This year, the tourists came mostly from Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Maharashtra. The international tourists have mainly been from Taiwan, China, Japan and the Philippines. Tourism has given a boost to the local small scale handicraft industry also.

Dal LakeEven the BSF decided it must do something to change with the times. It took the initiative to clean up the Dal Lake. It is now co-ordinating with the civil administration to make the project a success and is carrying out a tree plantation drive. Containers have been placed along the Boulevard Road to prevent the people from spreading garbage all around. Hoardings put up to create an awareness among the citizens towards the burning environmental issues On many occasions, the local people have actually called the BSF for help. This is mostly the case in blackmail attempts by unprincipled militant groups or criminals posing as militants. The BSF has rescued people and public property in case of a fire even before the fire tenders could arrive. In fact, in such incidents at Magdoom sahib, Jawahar Nagar and Hasan Nagar the victims approached the BSF to provide them security from local trouble makers. Senior officers of the force are visiting public places and attending to the grievances of the people.

Crowds Returning to the ParksThe Army in Kashmir valley has also been ordered to witdraw from Srinagar and other towns. They have also been asked to make themselves useful by establishing a communication link to the population. To achieve this, they have been constructing vital bridges which were destroyed during the last eight years. Besides routine floods in the valley which damage frail wooden bridges and wash away scores of culverts, militants too having been burning many bridges in order to disrupt communications. So far, Army engineers are reported to have constructed 78 steel bridges in the valley. The major roads opened by the engineers include Nagam - Malapura, Srinagar- Mirgund, Srinagar Shariefabad, Badgam - Bleswah and Bijbehara - Kulur - Pahalgam. Apart from bridges, the Army has constructed 43 play grounds, 20 anti-flood embankments and 28 tracks in different part of Kashmir valley . All these works are being carried out under the `Civic Action Programme' of Army.

There is a perceptible change in the psyche of the people and also the manner in which they react to `issues/occasions' considered to be of utmost importance once upon a time. The lack of enthusiasm in observing Pakistan's Independence Day (Aug 14) and the death anniversary of Zia-ul-Haq(Aug17) marked a qualitative shift in public sentiment against Pakistan. In contrast the official functions in the state on Aug 15, were well attended as compared to the lackluster celebrations in previous years. Moreover, the Hurriyat conference was satisfied with a call to observe a `Black Day' this year and abstained from any statement relating to Pakistan Independence Day altogether.

There can be no doubt that militancy is on the decline and local support is also waning. Pakistan is now depending solely on the foreign mercenaries to carry out its nefarious designs. It has promised Rs. 1 lakh for one violent act in the valley and a huge amount is being paid to the criminals in Pakistan who are promised amnesty if they cross over to Kashmir to fight the Jihad. One can only hope Pakistan does not succeed again and people can continue to enjoy the breeze of normalcy which has started blowing across the state after seven years of turmoil.

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