By: Mukhtar Dar/101Reporters
Khag: (101Reporters) Today, a mere shadow remains of what was once the beautiful meadow of Tosamaidan that featured an array of flora and fauna. For 50 years, since the government of Jammu & Kashmir in 1964, leased the land to the Indian Army to conduct artillery drills, Tosamaidan’s ecological condition has deteriorated drastically. Not to mention the civilian and wildlife casualties the villages have witnessed over the years.
Tosamaidan is located in Khag tehsil of Budgam district. For centuries, this high-altitude landscape served as grazing land for the livestock of local villagers. While it has been seven years since the guns fell silent — the government did not renew the lease to the army after it expired in 2014—the repercussions of the army’s drills remain to this day.
“The lease was granted without the consent of local communities,” says Nazir Ahmad, founding member and coordinator of Tosamaidan Bachao Front (TBF). “Its potential dangers, as well as the ecological sensitivity of the area, were ignored. In the subsequent decades, the pastures were bombed continuously, and the consequences were gruesome. There were human, livestock and ecological casualties.”
Degradation of Tosamaidan and resulting casualties
A few local activists established TBF after the region witnessed a number of deaths and massive deforestation. In 2011, these activists collected data through the Right to Information Act, through which they learnt of the lease expiring in 2014. Dr Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, the current chairman of TBF, along with Ahmad and other members mobilised the local community against the renewal of the agreement and discussed ways forward. TBF, which was formed in August 2013, has been active in ensuring that the lease is not renewed. Today, it has members from around 28 nearby villages, including sarpanches of 64 panchayats, activists, environmentalists and other concerned citizens.
In 2014, the army vacated the 11,200-hectare area in Tosamaidan after the Omar Abdullah government decided against extending the lease. But the damage was done. Manzoor Ahmad Rather, sarpanch of Drang village, says the historic pastures of Tosamaidan are contaminated because of the deaths and injuries that local communities faced there and the steep ecological price they had to pay.
Official records state that 67 people were killed and more than 50 were injured due to misfired shells or by coming in contact with unexploded shells that were left behind in the meadows or carried down by streams. Ahmad, however, claims that the figures are higher. The total number of people directly affected by the firing range is believed to be around 50,000 across 18 villages.
There is no record of how much livestock was lost. Ahmad also claims that thousands of trees were engulfed in fires due to army shelling, though the sarpanch says that much of the deforestation was carried out by local timber smugglers.
In 1992, Mohammad Abdullah Sheikh, a 65-year-old resident of the nearby Khanka village, lost two children and their cousin due to the military activities in Tosamaidan. They were killed when they came in contact with unexploded shells in the area where they were grazing their sheep. Sheikh claims that poisonous substances had also contaminated the water due to which thousands of fish had died over the years. “The continuous bangs and deforestation activities forced wild animals to venture out to residential areas here,” he adds.
Tourism development plans
On 23 February this year, the government earmarked a plan to spend Rs 100 crore for the overall development of Tosamaidan, along with the tourist spots of Doodhpathri and Yusmarg, also in Budgam. The beautification plans include setting up of tourist resorts, an official statement reads.
“Apart from the development of these tourist resorts on advanced parameters, development of ecotourism facilities will be given special focus, so tourists visiting these places shall prefer to stay during nights. It’s also to avoid a polluted atmosphere of congested areas/cities,” Tourism Director of Kashmir Dr G.N. Itoo was quoted as having said in the statement.
“We are preparing detailed project reports on eco-friendly tourism. Funding can be made available only after these reports are approved,” Itoo tells 101Reporters. “The minimum requirement can be ascertained through proper consultation with local stakeholders, and infrastructure will be installed in the meadows of Tosamaidan.”
Earlier, TBF had launched an initiative named Community-Driven Adventure Rural Tourism (CDART) to restore Tosamaidan to its earlier state. “We submitted a proposal to the government to promote a kind of tourism in Tosamaidan that was based on conservation and environmental consciousness,” says TBF chairman Rasool, who was also formerly a government medical practitioner.
“The vision of the CDART model was to restore and conserve the meadows of Tosamaidan and also make it a source of sustainable livelihood for locals who could explore the local cuisine,” Rasool adds. “The CDART model of tourism would boost the local economy, and the community would have control over the natural resources to ensure conservation and protection of the environment.”
In 2015, it was on this model that the then Chief Minister of Jammu & Kashmir Mehbooba Mufti inaugurated Tosamaidan as a tourist destination. The town was officially thrown open to the public, with Mufti assuring the people that Tosamaidan would be brought to the tourist map of Jammu & Kashmir without any harm being done to its fragile environment.
However, Rasool claims that two years ago, the government sanctioned Rs 43.5 crore to build infrastructure and tourist facilities in the nearby villages, but the amount is still unspent. “We planted around 2 lakh trees in the affected areas of Tosamaidan after it was thrown open to the public,” the TBF chairman says. “The forest department has also been doing its duty. The process of regaining the loss is on. Wildlife and birds are starting to return. But if the government builds infrastructure and allows the use of plastics in Tosamaidan, it will do more harm than the firing range.”
Unsustainable tourism model
The 50-year lease to the army took a heavy toll on the ecology of the region. After the agreement expired in 2014, Tosamaidan began to return to its earlier state, but any kind of development to boost tourism will halt the process all over again.
“A large chunk of forest was already razed. Any further construction of buildings or roads means further deforestation and degradation of the fragile ecology of Tosamaidan,” says Ajaz Ahmad, a professor of environmental science at Government Degree College Beerwah in Budgam. “In addition to disturbing the wildlife, any such activity will also cause the adjacent glacier to melt more rapidly.”
The situation took a turn for the worse after Jammu & Kashmir lost its statehood and was declared a union territory in 2019. Government policies now promote corporate tourism more extensively here, which has destroyed the ecosystem of tourist spots like Sonamarg, Pahalgam, Gulmarg and now Doodhpathri.
“The lack of management, reckless construction and ignorance of the region’s carrying capacity have wrecked these fragile tourist resorts,” Rasool says. “The introduction of a single-window clearance policy and granting No Objection Certificates without any environmental impact assessments make the intention of the current government clear.”
The TBF chairman asserts that they will vehemently oppose any such tourism development in the meadows of Tosamaidan. “Infrastructure should be established in the nearby villages we already proposed in the CDAT model,” he adds.
(The author is a Srinagar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)