Sonamarg/Ganderbal, May 24 (IANS) Thanks to the skyrocketing land prices in the countryside, Kashmiri villagers are basking in their newfound financial affluence, caring little for the land of their ancestors that are being sold to buy modern-day luxuries.
Amid alarming pollution in the Valley's rivers and streams because of growing commercial activities, ancestral lands on which were once grown rice, maize and oilseeds are getting buried under tons of concrete, depriving the countryside of the magic it has always been famous for.
Land prices in the rural areas, especially at places close to highways, railway tracks and tourist resorts, have soared beyond imagination during the last few years.
"Land in Sonamarg (tourist resort in south Kashmir) cost Rs.20,000 per kanal (1/8th an acre) just eight years ago. Today it costs Rs.50 lakh per kanal.
"Imagine the fortune reaped by somebody who bought 20 kanals of land at Sonamarg just a decade back," Nazir Ahmad, 48, a hotelier in Sonamarg, told IANS.
What is true of Sonamarg is also true of other tourist resorts like Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Kokernag and Yusmarg, to name just a few.
Land along the Srinagar-Leh bypass in Ganderbal district is at present being sold for between Rs.40 lakh and Rs.50 lakh per kanal. In Preng village of the same district, land that once cost Rs.20,000 per kanal is now sold at Rs.20 lakh per kanal.
Villagers in the Sindh Valley area of Ganderbal district who became rich by disposing off ancestral lands have seen agricultural fields giving way to shopping malls and multi-storeyed residential apartments, as also roadside eateries catering to the needs of the ever-growing numbers of tourists.
In most areas of the Kashmir countryside, agricultural land has been sold in violation of laws that prohibit its conversion for commercial purposes.
The state high court has been monitoring the preservation of the Sindh stream which flows in the middle of the Sindh Valley. All construction work along the banks of the stream has been banned. But, despite the court directives, illegal constructions causing massive pollution of the once pristine Sindh stream are being regularly reported by local newspapers.
However, in the green-belt area of Sonamarg hill station, which is located on the Sindh stream, the authorities recently demolished unlawful structures after state Governor N.N. Vohra expressed concern over the encroachments.
Ironically, land brokering has become a lucrative occupation in the countryside during the past few years. Villagers like Sooda Mir, Hassan Parray, Turki and others have bought swanky new cars as their brokering commissions increase in converse proportion to the shrinking agricultural land in the Sindh Valley.
The situation in south Kashmir's Anantnag district, where the famous Pahalgam health resort is situated, is no different from Ganderbal district.
"The difference between the Sindh Valley and the Litter Valley (where Pahalgam is situated) is that prices increased gradually over a period of time in the Litter Valley while they suddenly started touching the skies in the Sindh Valley," said Manzoor Ahmad, a bank official belonging to south Kashmir.
But, then, it's not the private builders who are in the fray. Land has been acquired by the state government for the massive road and railway projects under way in Srinagar, Badgam, Baramulla, Anantnag, Kupwara, Kulgam and Pulwama districts.
"In far-off mountain villages also, land has been acquired by the government to build roads under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. In Anderwan village (of Ganderbal district), the government paid Rs.200,000 per kanal of land. The poor landowners suddenly got surplus capital which they have used for buying cars, building new houses and in some cases even taking a second wife," said Abdul Majid, 63, a resident of a neighbouring village.
(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)