Despite ongoing games fleetingly shifting focus in Kashmir’s winter wonderland, the administration is adamant to clear “encroachers”, even as it’s sitting on the native hoteliers’ land lease cases from last two years.
When one of the oldest hotels in Gulmarg became a burning house in the spring of 2014, not many anticipated that they would soon feel the heat of the mysterious flames.
That cindered hotel of circa 1947 was owned by a Kashmiri Pandit, Inder Krishan Raina.
In April that year, Raina approached the J&K High Court for his King Lay Hotel’s reconstruction, but got involved in a long legal battle.
Amid his protracted justice campaign, the land lease of the hotel expired and the court directed government to frame the renewal policy.
Even after the court directions, the government failed to come up with the new policy.
Raina’s case was the beginning of the larger woe unto the meadow and its hospitable hosts.
By 2018, the land lease of many hotels in Gulmarg would expire and the government failed to extend it for the lack of policy.
“In 2020,” said one of the hoteliers following the case, “the government informed the court that they’re going to give the Gulmarg hoteliers a lease-extension. But since the land laws changed after the abrogation of Article 370, it sought time to renew the lease.”
But, instead of renewing their land lease, the government recently notified the Gulmarg hoteliers as “illegal occupants”.
“When they’ve no policy to renew our lease, how can they say we’re the illegal occupants?” the hotelier wondered.
“Our repeated attempts from the last two years to reach out to government for land lease extension failed as none considered our cases.”
The last land lease agreement between the government and Gulmarg hoteliers was signed in 1978. The pact granted the lease for 40 years, which was to be extended later on.
Officially, lease can be extended up to 40 years and further it’s extendable up to 10 years and 50 years respectively after inspecting all the parameters of agreement.
“We’ve already leased for 40 plus 10 years,” another hotelier said. “Now, let government constitute a committee to decide the rent.”
But rather than constituting a committee, District Commission Baramulla chaired a meeting on December 2 to implement the court order on a war-footing.
Prior to the meeting, on November 25, the court had directed DC Baramulla to inspect properties in Gulmarg, and ordered action against illegal properties and unauthorized encroachments.
“A team of officials have identified 69 occupants holding the land beyond the expiry of their lease period,” reads the minutes of the meeting, a copy of which is lying with Free Press Kashmir.
“Action against illegal and unauthorized occupants needs to be taken in light of the court.”
After the recovery of the land from its “illegal occupants”, the DC office order said, the land will be handed over to supardar against a supardnama and a caretaker shall also be nominated for the recovered property.
“But I’m not aware of any such meeting and neither I’m aware of any minutes of the meeting,” DC Baramulla, Ghulam Nabi Itoo, contradicting his own document, said.
When this reporter shared the official document with him on his WhatsApp number, DC Baramulla did not respond to the further queries.
This official action came when the festive winter sports have already begun in Gulmarg and tourists have started flocking the frozen meadow for arctic adventure.
“We became fretful after some of us were verbally notified that we should not book our hotels beyond December, when most of us have already bookings till January,” said an owner of a four star hotel.
The threat-perception, interestingly, was created in December, considered as the peak tourist season in Gulmarg, he said.
“But we’re just following the court orders,” Inam Siddiqui, CEO, Gulmarg Development Authority, said. “The Baramulla administration has sent a team to take action and we are just a party to it.”
However, after the recent meeting with DC Baramulla, the Gulmarg hotel owners were asked to do the business-as-usual, while the committee is on the job to “identify violators and take action against them”.
As the suspense continues, many hoteliers are getting paranoid about their future in the meadow.
“We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow,” a young hotelier told me, currently face-lifting its hotel.
“But still, I don’t understand why they hold us responsible when from the last two years government is sitting over our land lease files?”
Every year, he said, their business is halted due to one or the other reason. They were looking forward to the promising winter after battling the double lockdown, so that most of them would finally clear their mounting bank dues.
“Hotels have to be renovated time and again, and for that we’ve taken huge loans,” an hotelier said.
“In 2005 I took a loan of Rs 70 lakh to renovate my hotel and the loan was later cleared in 2012 because we received a good booking in that year,” he added.
Then in 2013, he availed a loan of Rs 1 crore to upgrade his hotel décor.
“But till date,” he rued, “we’re not able to clear the loan yet. The situation in Kashmir is known to everyone. Every year our business is shuttered due to the uncertain political situation.”
In somewhat disrupted tourist ecosystem of Gulmarg today, what will happen next makes many wonder.
“If government is planning to shut our hotels, thousands of families will suffer,” said an hotelier.
“And it is totally unacceptable to us that the government will seize our property and keep an unknown as caretakers of our own property. We are the caretakers of this land and property. How is it possible that we will hand over our property worth crores to others?”