In a move that is bound to raise eyebrows, out of total 300 crore budget; a whooping amount of Rs 164.25 crore is being spent alone on the eco-tourism project in Poonch. The development has attracted criticism in Kashmir, with tourism traders questioning the government policy. Interestingly, the money will be used to develop the forests of Poonch town in Jammu and Kashmir, as eco-tourism hub. “The eco-tourism project for the hill top overlooking the Poonch Township with dense forest cover envisages construction of eco-friendly tourist huts, walking path and viewpoints,” Minister for Environment and Forests, Mian Altaf, recently said.
The Minister has asked the forest functionaries to prepare detailed project report within three months, so that the creation of infrastructure could be started without disturbing the ecological system as necessary under eco-tourism promotion. He said, the project would be executed under Society mode, which also involves local populace as main stakeholders.
However, valley stakeholders have criticized this move and termed the development as ‘sheer discrimination’ against Kashmir and accused the government of step- motherly treatment, which according to them can have negative impact on the bumper tourist season of Kashmir. “It is surprising to see that a time when the valley is grappling with lack of infrastructure for sustainable tourism; government is not able to prioritize the areas for distributing the funds. Kashmir should be given top-priority as far as the eco-tourism is concerned but spending huge amount of money in a place like Poonch smells fishy and unjustified,” said a tourism expert.
Recently, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah had himself admitted that every year government has to put carpet of macadam on the Tangmarg- Gulmarg road and when one comes in summers, the road is in shambles.
Meanwhile, Rauf Tramboo, President Travel Agents Association of Kashmir (TAAK) while expressing disappointment over the allocation of funds in Poonch said that the viability of the areas should be identified first before investing huge amount of money. “It is unfortunate to hear that the government is going to pump in crores of rupees in Poonch which doesn’t have that much potential and is not justified. Instead, they could have identified areas in the entire state which were feasible for eco- tourism as mountains and forests are the essence of our tourism as well but it seems the authorities had different parameters while disbursing the funds,” Tramboo said.
The TAAK president said that in order to maintain the resources, there should be sustainable development and for that every possible effort should be made for protection of ecology and then only tourism can be promoted. “The disproportionate utilization of funds by the government for eco-tourism can be very unhealthy for the overall growth of the tourism. It should be prioritized on the basis of potential tourist spots. Kashmir has much more potential than Poonch and record tourism this year is a glaring example but still the priority has been given to Jammu over Kashmir which is sheer discrimination and unjustified,” Tramboo added.
On the other hand, Nadeem Qadri, Executive Director of Centre for Environment and Law said that the sole purpose of eco- friendly measures is that the community should get benefited from sustainable tourism, based on priority. “Instead of releasing huge funds for Poonch, the government should have utilized all the funds in eco-sensitive areas like Bandipora, around Wular Lake, Khrew, Aru and other areas. But unfortunately the authorities are hell-bent in spending money in the areas where there is less accountability. This is sheer discrimination and government should think in parallel lines in disbursing the funds for Kashmir as well,” Qadri said.
It is worth to mention that the J&K Government has brought about 15,806.75 sq kms under the Protected Area Network, which comprises of five National Parks, 14 Wildlife Sanctuaries and 37 Conservation Reserves.
However, Deputy Director Tourism, Azmat Ali said, “The central government has allocated Rs 250 crore rupees for reviving eco-tourism in J&K and we are doing it in 4 circuits, which cover 2 tourist places in Jammu region, 2 in Kashmir and 1 in Ladakh region”.
He further added that government has allocated 164 crore rupees for reviving eco-tourism in Poonch because the region has the potential to attract large number of tourists and there is no discrimination, as we have allocated equal number of funds for Kashmir region too.