The real winners news
02 September 2008

The settlement of the Amarnath land issue frustrates the commercial interests of those who wanted to grab land for investing in hotels and other commercial enterprises. By Prem Shankar Jha

The agreement reached with the Shri Amarnath Yatra Sangharsh Samiti has been treated as a victory in Jammu, and a defeat in Kashmir. It is neither. In reality it is  a defeat, crafted by governor Vohra and his advisors, of the economic interests that have been conniving with officials of the  Shrine Board, to secure the  land for setting up hotels, restaurants and other 'modern' permanent  facilities along the pilgrim route.

Contrary to what a number of people have been saying in Kashmir, those behind the effort are not non-Kashmiris. Nor are they Hindu fanatics. Most, if not all, of them are hard-headed Kashmiri businessmen. What has brought  the state to the brink of a fratricidal war and inflicted more than 50 deaths upon innocent Kashmiris  is  simply an attempted  land grab. Today Jammu and Kashmir are at each others' throats because a bunch of unscrupulous people  are trying  to get rich. If there is a God in Heaven above, then this is his exercise in black humour.

The SASB is not a corporation. It is a  board of management , whose purpose is to manage a specific, important, activity of the state government. It cannot, and indeed does not  own any land. It does not even perform the major functions required by the yatra, such as the clearance and improvement of the track, the  supply of  essential utilities such as water,  sanitation, fuel and health care. These are all the responsibility of  the state government, as is the provision of security to the yatris.

The Farouq Abdullah government took the decision to create the SASB after a freak blizzard killed hundreds of pilgrims in 1996. Since 2001 the SASB has been using vast tracts of land on both the routes to the cave, via Pahalgam and via Sonamarg, to set up tents, temporary shelters, langars, health and sanitation facilities for the duration of the yatra.

These facilities were  more than sufficient  when the yatris were ordinary,  pious hindus from traditional India. But in the last decade, their character has changed radically. The  majority are now urban traders, shopkeepers and small manufacturers and salaried professionals. A significant proportion are rich, for they come to Srinagar by air. They want creature comforts that the pilgrims of earlier days would have considered anathema -- a gondola lift, a helicopter at Rs20,000 a seat to take them on an instant pilgrimage, amusement facilities and above all, comfortable hotels, not tents.

.As a result the  land on the pilgrim route has become a gold mine waiting to be exploited. Inevitably, the SASB began to attract the attention of  investors who were not content with setting up tented camps but had set their eyes on erecting  hotels and gondola lifts. None of this was possible if the land had to revert to the forest department every year after the two or three months of the Yatra. Since 2004, therefore, the SASB has been engaged in an unrelenting, but so far unsuccessful, attempt to get the land it has been using transferred to it permanently, to confer on whomsoever it chooses. 

The SASB made its first move on 15 October 2004 when  it submitted a detailed project report for the construction of seven permanent camps on the two routes to the cave.  In March 2005 Sonali Kumar, then the secretary of the forest department transferred 3,642 kanals (almost 200 hectares) to the SASB for the purpose. Kumar apparently secured the approval of the forest minister, Sofi Ghulam Mohi-uddin. But to issue this order she bypassed an elaborate and detailed set of procedures for such transfers laid down in the  2000 Act. In particular she did not refer this very large transfer to the forest advisory committee and the  10 government agencies that sit on it. Sonali Kumar is the wife of  Arun Kumar, till recently the secretary of the SASB.

 On being informed of the transfer, Mufti Sayeed immediately  revoked the order, and charge-sheeted Sonali Kumar. A notification revoking the order was issued on 20 May 2005 but within days of Mufti's order, and  well before its notification, the powerful interests behind the SASB  had lodged  a public interest litigation in not the Kashmir but the Jammu division of the J&K high court. There a  one-judge bench ruled on 15 April that "since the board intends to upgrade the infrastructure across the track and at the different places, the state shall immediately permit the use of the land by the board. The lone judge was a former standing counsel of the SASB. Coincidence?
 
The state government appealed against the ruling  of the High Court on 2 June 2005, but in sharp contrast to the speed with which the PIL had been adjudicated, this appeal has still not been decided. The Mufti government's appeal did, however, frustrate the  SASB's attempt to obtain a clear title to the land. As a result it failed to obtain the legal right to transfer it. The facilities on the two routes therefore remained 'temporary'.

The SASB was not, however,  prepared to accept defeat. on 25 May  2005, the governor of Jammu and Kashmir, Gen S K Sinha, sent a message to the council of ministers asking it to reconsider the revocation of the  29 March transfer of land to the SASB.

Sinha did this as the chairman of the SASB, but the power to send back a decision for reconsideration  was one that he enjoyed under section 44c of the J&K constitution. The cabinet  decided that it would treat the request as coming from the board and not the governor and took no decision.
 
This uneasy status  quo was broken in 2008. A three-fold increase in yatris between 2004 and 2007  and a growing preference among them for the route from Sonamarg allowed  the SASB to revive its effort to acquire not only more land near Baltal, which was necessary, but  also a transferable title to it, which was not.

This time the government went strictly by the book. The 800 kanals it chose was forest land only in a historical sense, for it had been denuded of trees 60 years earlier during the first Kashmir war, when it  housed refugees from Dras and  Kargil. A corner of the land was already being used by the SASB. As a result the 10 departments represented on the forest advisory committee, and the chief wild life warden had no problem in clearing its transfer. It was only the PDP, mindful of the existing appeal before the high court,  that resisted the transfer.
 
The proposal was brought before the cabinet during  Mufti's absence from India. Muzaffar Beg, the deputy chief minister and law minister acquiesced with great reluctance, but only after securing an explicit caveat in the order that the lad was to be transferred for only two months a year and could only be used to put up temporary facilities. This met the need of the pilgrims but not of the economic moneybags that were waiting to invest in the goldmine.

Not surprisingly therefore, while the forest minister kept saying all through the first half of June that only 15 hectares had been transferred, the SASB kept insisting through its public relations officer, that 40 hectares had been transferred to it permanently.

The outcry that this was an attempt to change the demography of the state was not raised by the Hurriyat and not even, initially, by Geelani. It was raised cynically by the National Conference as a tool to use against the PDP in the coming election. Despite that, and the mounting unease in the valley, nothing would have happened had Arun Kumar,  the secretary of the SASB not, on 17 June imperiously rejected the state legislature's right to question the governor's decision to extend the period of the yatra and , in the same breath, announced that the transfer of  land was permanent, not temporary.

Was Arun Kumar only being an arrogant bureaucrat, or did he have another reason for making the announcement? In view of the sleight of hand that he and his wife, Sonali Kumar, used to transfer 3,642 kanals  permanently to the SASB; the speed with which  a PIL was filed against Mufti's revocation of the transfer; the choice of the Jammu division high court for filing it and its 'coincidental' listing before a lone judge who had been a standing counsel for the SASB; the subsequent 'disappearance' of the files containing the charge sheet Mufti had filed against Monica Kumar, and the attempt by the outgoing governor to form an Amarnath Development Authority that would have the formal right to own and transfer land,  it cannot be ruled out that Arun Kumar was fully aware of the possible consequences of his statement but made it nonetheless because he was  desperate to reassure investors who had already made substantial  'investments' in the SASB,  that the board really would have the authority to award inalienable titles to the land.

 The agreement governor Vohra has hammered out with the Sangharsha Samiti has not only foiled these plans but has ensured that they will not be revived. It emphasises that the transfer of land is only for the period of the yatra, that only temporary structures can be put up, and that only state subjects of Jammu and Kashmir will be allowed to provide these facilities.

Arun Kumar is gone, the charge sheet against his wife is being revived, and the Shrine Board is being re-structured to contain only state subjects. 

The real victors are therefore the people of Kashmir. Now that the Hurriyat and the co-ordinating committee find themselves at the head of a valley-wide movement,  the time has come for them to abjure agitation,  fight the next election,  and take the destiny of their state  in their hands.


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