Updated: Feb 4
Srinagar: When Umer Ahmad, owner of a four-star hotel at famous tourist destination Gulmarg in north Kashmir, visited his hotel after this season's first snowfall, he was shocked to see that the front portion of his hotel had been razed.
Ahmad had been hearing from friends that the government had passed an order to retrieve “encroached and illegally occupied” land in Gulmarg. However, he thought little of it as the land on which his hotel stands is neither encroached nor illegal.
His complacency would prove to be costly to him.
Peak tourist season in Kashmir kicks off in December as snow-clad meadows beckon. Gulmarg in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district is 47 km from Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir, and famous for skiing and winter games.
This year, hoteliers were excited as tourist destinations were opening up after more than a year after the removal of Article 370 in August 2019, followed by the COVID-19 lockdown.
Ahmad knew there was a lot of work to be done in his hotel that was reopening after such a long time. But to his surprise when he reached Gulmarg to begin sprucing up the place, he saw that the government had already razed many structures, part of his hotel amongst them.
Many Gulmarg hotels have been built on land leased by the government decades ago, some leases go back to when the erstwhile kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir.
In Pahalgam too in South Kashmir, another famous tourist destination around 90 km from Srinagar, more than 100 shopkeepers and around 10 hoteliers whose leases expired back in 1972 have requested extensions that have not yet been granted.
Mukhtar Ahmad, a general store shopkeeper in the Pahalgam market who sells various household items said that he had been requesting the government since 1972 along with 100 other shopkeepers to extend his lease.
Now nearly half a century later, after ignoring the expiry of these leases, the government has suddenly woken up to reclaiming the land. Many hoteliers fear that this land might be auctioned to other bidders at prevailing commercial rates.
Local hoteliers said they cannot compete at such auctions at the full commercial value of the land. This will only benefit outsiders, they feel. The reclaiming of hotel and shop echoes similar evictions of tribal nomads, apple farmers and others as Article 14 reported in November and December 2020 (here and here). In those cases too, land that had been held for generations was suddenly lost.
The tide of evictions and similar threats of displacement after the removal of article 370—the Constitutional provision that allowed the merger of the former kingdom of Jammu & Kashmir to India—on 5 August 2019, fuels belief (here, here, and here) that the Centre, which now directly runs what is now a union territory, is amalgamating land in order to settle outsiders and change J&K’s demographics.
Eviction Moves By Stealth, Denial
On 25 November, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court passed directions in a public interest litigation, Mohammad Rafiq Zargar versus State of JK, a copy of which has been read by this reporter, directing the Baramulla district administration to inspect the properties in Gulmarg. The court told the authorities to take action to recover all properties that are illegal and under unauthorized occupation, including encroachments.
After the court directions, Ghulam Nabi Itoo, the district development commissioner of Baramulla held a meeting on 2 December to discuss the implementation of the court orders.
According to the minutes of that meeting, officials had identified 69 occupants in Gulmarg who had been holding land beyond the lease period. These “unauthorized occupants and the occupants who have no legal permission or lease for the land under their occupation are to be verified on spot. Action against illegal and unauthorized occupants needs to be taken in light of the court,” reads the minutes.
Moreover, “After the recovery of the land from its illegal occupants...a caretaker shall also be nominated for the recovered property.”
But Ghulam Nabi Itoo told this reporter that he was not aware of any such meeting in which he had categorized hoteliers as “illegal occupants”.
“I have not chaired any such meeting and if you have any document share on my WhatsApp,” he said. When the reporter shared the document on WhatsApp, he did not respond to calls and texted: “I am in VC (video conference). I will call you later.” He did not call back.
In the first week of December, district administration at Baramulla sent a team to Gulmarg accompanied by the chief executive officer of the Gulmarg Development Authority (GDA). The team retrieved about five acres of encroached land, according to additional deputy commissioner, Baramulla Ahsaan Mir. However, they also demolished various structures that were not on encroached land and had the legal documents to prove possession.
Amongst these was Ahmad’s hotel. Ahmad said his lease agreement is legal and valid and yet, “the government has demolished the front portion of my hotel. I was shocked to see it. I have no idea why the government has taken action on my land,” he told Article 14.
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On 10 December, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the J&K administration in a matter connected with the Roshni Act of 2001, now scrapped, which gave ownership rights to unauthorised occupants of state land against payment of a premium, told the Supreme Court that the government was not against authorised leaseholders but was only clearing land from its illegal encroachers.
“No coercive action will be taken against the petitioners who have approached the court in connection with the Roshini Act,” Mehta assured the bench headed by Justice NV Ramana.
No Extension For Leases In Gulmarg there are around 70 structures including hotels, lodges and huts that have been allotted on lease to various hoteliers.
Nearly 90% of these leases were signed in 1978 for an initial period of 40 years and expired in 2018. But according to the original terms, the hoteliers were assured that the lease would be extended by 40 years and thereafter by an additional 10 years.
These small businessmen whose business is associated with tourism have been running the hotels for years. Most of them have continued their family legacy and have taken over this business from their fathers and grandfathers.
“It was my grandfather who started this hotel in the nineties and then it was continued by my father,” said Mushtaq Ahmed who owns an eight-room hotel in Gulmarg. “Later my elder brother took over it but since his death of a heart attack, I am looking after it. This has been our family business. If the government will allow us to continue, even my children will get involved in it,” he said.
Since 2018, the hoteliers said they have been asking the administration to extend their lease.
“After 40 years the government was also to frame a new policy for the ground rent. For the first 40 years we paid our ground rent in advance along with a premium. Now we are asking the government to decide our ground rent for the next 40 years,” said another hotelier who requested anonymity.
There is no question of being an “illegal occupant”, the hotelier continued, particularly when the administration had failed to come up with a lease policy and had permitted renovations and repairs of the hotels for the last two years.
Fear Of Losing Leases In Pahalgam Too
In Pahalgam too more than 100 shopkeepers and around 10 hoteliers whose leases expired back in 1972 have been requesting extension.
“The Pahalgam Development Authority (PDA) has said that they will serve eviction notices to the hotels and shops whose lease has expired after the district development council elections ” said one of the hoteliers in Pahalgam.
“Government granted us a lease in the 1930s and since then our shops have existed. Our lease expired in the 1970s. How can the government evict us now?” asked Mukhtar Ahmad who runs a small general store, mentioned earlier. “We have been hearing that the government is going to evict us from our property but how can we accept it? Our shops are 90 years old. We don’t know what the government is up to.”
A four-star hotelier in Pahalgam on the condition of anonymity said that in the higher reaches of Pahalgam, the government has already demolished many structures and retrieved land from encroachers. “But we have neither encroached this land nor are we illegal occupants. We have a proper lease agreement with the government and they have to extend our lease ground rent,” he said.
Unprecedented Fear Among Hoteliers
Government orders and directives have left the hoteliers in an unprecedented situation. They fear losing their property after the government mentioned them as illegal and unauthorized occupants.
Mehtab Ahamd, another hotelier has been running a hotel in Gulmarg for years to support his family. He fears that he along with hundreds associated with tourism could not sustain if this industry will be shut.
“There is a lot of fear among my family members because they know if the hotel shuts we will be on the street. There are huge loans on our heads. The bank will seize our homes if we do not pay these back on time. One hotel does not mean one family. Hundreds of families are associated with one hotel. I have 30 employees in my hotel and the tourist’s guides, the cab drivers, the sledgewallas are also part of this chain,” Mehtab said.
“Government did not allow us to renovate our hotel this year. Earlier, GDA even had told us not to make bookings from December but after the media highlighted this issue they now said we can take bookings for the winter,” another Gulmarg hotelier said after pleading for anonymity.
Hoteliers also fear that the government will take possession of their property and later auction it off at commercial rates.
“We have taken huge loans from banks for the construction of these hotels. It took us years to build hotels worth crores in Gulmarg because the situation in Kashmir never allowed us to flourish. When the situation eased a little, the government is attacking our business now. We have not even paid off our loan yet,” said a hotelier.
The hotelier said that the government will auction off their properties and bring in outsiders because local Kashmiris cannot afford to buy property at exorbitant rates.
“If even 1% of hoteliers in Kashmir can afford to purchase any property in the auction he will be questioned about the money and how he got such a huge amount,” he added.
Running a profitable hotel business has not been easy in Gulmarg. The peak of militancy in the 90s followed by shutdowns and strikes on various issues have come at a cost to the tourism business.
“Our business is associated with tourists. When the situation in the valley never remained conducive for tourism, how could our business flourish?” asked Sajid Ahmad, another Gulmarg hotelier. “There was only one year when our business did well in 2012. Our hotels were booked in all seasons that year.”
That year, said Ahmad, he was finally able to pay off the loan he had taken back in 2005. The next year, in 2013, bolstered by the previous year’s performance, he took out another loan of Rs one crore in the hope that he would be able to pay it back soon. “I am yet to return it,” he said.
The government is indeed planning to issue eviction notices to shopkeepers and hoteliers whose leases have expired, confirmed Mushtaq Ahmad Simnani, PDA’s chief executive officer. This was to be done soon after the District Development Council elections, but for now, said Simnani, plans have been put on hold.
Simnani told Article-14 that the government has set up a committee to decide on the issue of lease extension. “We have not decided anything yet. There will be a meeting with all the members of the committee and decisions will be made collectively. Till then we have asked all the hoteliers and shopkeepers to produce the document of their lease,” he said.
(Bisma Bhat is a freelance journalist based in Kashmir.)