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From cottage to 3-star hotel: Rules flouted in Gulmarg

In 2015 the High Court ordered a ban on all construction in Gulmarg in North Kashmir after it got reports of illegal construction.

Zulkarnain Banday | New Delhi |

In violation of a 2015 Jammu and Kashmir high court directive that bans construction in ecologically fragile Gulmarg, the managing director of the Grand Mumtaz group of hotels, Mushtaq Chaya, has reportedly launched construction in the world famous tourist resort, 40 km from the state’s summer capital, Srinagar.

In 2015 the High Court ordered a ban on all construction in Gulmarg in North Kashmir after it got reports of illegal construction. The Bench had directed that no building material or construction material shall be transported to the ski resort till further orders from the court. That ban continues till date.

A few months ago Chaya bought a private cottage owned by one Musadiq Shah. At the time of purchase, the wooden cottage had 5 rooms and a kitchen. Post purchase, Chaya sought permission for renovation of the cottage, which was granted by the Gulmarg Development Authority (GDA) with a rider that Chaya will not do any capacity building. Permission was granted for repair of external walls.

However, under the garb of renovation of the wooden cottage, a concrete structure which is believed to be for a 3 star hotel, has come up and construction work is being carried out 24X7.

The Statesman is in possession of photographs and a video that show work at the site going on in full swing. Sources privy to the development said many alpine trees have also been cut. However, divisional forest officer (DFO) of Tangmerg Mehraj-u-Din denied that any tree had been chopped at the construction site.  “When we got the inputs from some locals and concerned citizens, I personally dispatched a team of officials to the spot. The team did not find any tree having been cut. However, excavation has been done which is not my jurisdiction,” the DFO told the Statesman.

Haneef Balki, CEO of Gulmarg Development Authority (GDA), admitted that the hotelier was violating rules. “There is no construction going on as new construction is banned in the area. However renovation work is allowed. Chaya had been granted permission for renovation of the cottage but he has resorted to deviation and has started constructing a huge structure, which is wrong. He should not have done that. It is, however, human that we make mistakes and there are always deviations. Although I have not visited the site I have dispatched a team of enforcement wing to visit the spot,” Balki said.

A Kashmir-based environmentalist on the condition of anonymity said, “By virtue of the law all of Gulmarg had been declared a wild life sanctuary way back in 1984. All such activities are illegal by virtue of Supreme Court order of 2000. SC has ruled that no construction can happen in any wild life area. So every construction in the area is in gross violation of the honourable SC order. I see this construction as criminal contempt of the honourable HC order,” he said.

He said he has filed an FIR under sections 26, 27 and 28 along with all laws related to wild life. “Also there is a ban on column based structures in Gulmarg. Permission was given for renovation of the cottage, but under that garb he has constructed huge column like structures which is criminal.”

Arif Rashid, a concerned citizen, said, “This is the ramification of the politico-business nexus supported by administration, that a certain class in society can take liberty even with the orders of the highest court. India is already seeing a stress on its forests and ecologically fragile zones. The state itself is losing its food crop acreage to rampant construction, aided by people at helm.

“The same applies to other areas and hotspots like Sonnmerg and Pahalgam which are no different, the only take there is that the high and the mighty are the ones who have the access,” Rashid said.

Divisional Commissioner Kashmir and Ladakh division of Jammu and Kashmir, when asked about the illegal structure coming up at the place, said, “The enforcement authority is CEO Gulmarg Development Authority. If there is anything illegal going on in his jurisdiction, I will direct him to act against it. It is his duty to take the action.”

On the directions of the High Court, the authorities in 2011 had sealed an A-Class hotel named ‘Grand Mumtaz’ belonging to Chaya at Pahalgam for contempt of court and for allegedly harming the fragile environs of the area.

However, Naseem Chaya, son of Mushtaq Chaya,  told The Statesman: “I have got the proper permission of the high court, GDA, environment and forest department for building this structure. I am constructing a small six-roomed cottage and not any 3-star hotel and I am not doing it illegally.”

Asked how anyone can touch his structure if it is being constructed legally, Chaya said,” They are doing it under pressure from some quarters”.

He said his only motive is to provide employment to the poor people of the area. “See, Allah has blessed me with a lot of wealth. You should understand that I am doing it for the livelihood of the poor of the area. Once the structure is completed many people will get adjusted as managers and waiters there,” Chaya said.