Everything in Pahalgam is as it should be. The gushing river Liddar and the enchanting beauty continue their date with the renowned health resort of South Kashmir. Missing, however, are visitors. Pahalgam's saga of woes began with the first rattle of gunfire 12 years ago and Kashmir's violence still feeds it.
The sullen faces of ponywallahs, hotel and dhaba-owners, photo labs, shawl and embroidery shops, cabbies say it all. "Violence has snatched our business away. The whole day we hunt for customers and often go home empty-handed. Sahibs used to seek us earlier, now we look for them," says Ghulam Mohammad, a ponywallah from Laripora village, bordering Pahalgam on the east.
"Our horses are not in the best of health. Grass is abundant but we need cash to keep the horsepower going. Daily shampooing, oils for good massage, vet's fee, fodder and horse maintenance," Mohammad says, pointing to a black stallion aptly named 'Beauty'. "She is superfast and requires thousands of rupees to maintain her pride."
Mohammad reaches the main market in Pahalgam at 7 a.m. every day. Word travels fast in the town hotels that 'Beauty' is ready. However, Mohammad, says the recent spurt in violence, especially in south Kashmir, has been keeping visitors away from the health resort nestled in Kolohoi mountain range.
"Now they (visitors) come only weekends, that too ground conditions permitting," Mohammad says. "For instance, Saturday's mine blast at Mattan on the Srinagar-Pahalgam highway, that blew up a school picnic bus killing a kid, will surely maim Beauty's speed for few more days. Riders will keep away from Pahalgam," he adds.
Abdul Majid, front-office manager at Hotel Raj Palace in the main market, awaits guests for check-in. "Season rate for a room is Rs 800. But under the present circumstances we are forced to give 50-60 per cent discount," he tells The Indian Express. The 22-room hotel register shows occupancy for only four rooms in last 24 hours, while the nearby hotels registered zero occupancy.
"We used to earn nine months a year. The annual Amarnath Yatra in July-August now provides the only saving grace. However, this year we did not earn much from Yatra. The authorities had arranged tents for most of the yatris," says a hotel employee. Prior to militancy, the resort was known for its night life at Pahalgam Club and bars. "Seven in the evening and it's an undeclared curfew. Anything moving on roads is either a security force vehicle or a truck ferrying construction material to the local mini-hydel project site," he adds.
Interestingly, far from stirring any religious feelings, the discovery of a new Shiva shrine on the hill above Chandanwari has united the residents with hopes of business hopes for all. "The new Shiv mandir may ease the visitor drought. Maybe we get to earn some bucks," says a cabbie. His trips to neighbouring sightseeing spots Shikargah, Aru, Baisar, Sarbal and Chandanwari now come few and far between.
Khateja, a Gujjar woman, who sells doodh ki roti (mushkrai) on the mountain roads, and her family is hopeful of the potential the mandir holds. "With the money we will buy sugar, atta (wheat flour)and pulses to last through harsh winter," says her aged mother, shepherding the family's cattle in Aru's lush green meadows.
However, a BSF jawan of the 58 Battalion, who has had a 15-year-old stint in Kashmir, sums up the prevalent situation in the region. On guard at the camp at Aru's Tourist Bungalow, he cautions not to be taken in by the idyllic settings of the place and the geniality of the nomads. He says: "The Gujjars are not as innocent as they seem. We have to watch their movements as we have reports the nomadic tribesmen carry food for militants holed up in the higher reaches."
Published in Indian Express' Kashmir Live. True, every one is suffering with this mindless militancy.