Helicopter service to Kargil has been overdue but the real requirement is a regular civilian air connection to the area pending for decades which could put it on the World Tourism Map!
It was a pleasant surprise to see a video of the dramatic Nun-Kun peaks in the Suru Valleyof Kargil on the Facebook taken from a helicopter of Pawan Hans during its flight to the area. The video has probably been taken on the reconnaissance flight of the aircraft for starting a service between Srinagar and Kargil. A similar helicopter service was in operation through the same company earlier also. Pawan Hans Company had, in fact, also started a service to Gurez, Kargil and Zanskar some years back. Once there was a government proposal to start small aircraft service as well as helicopter service to many far flung areas usually cut off in winter due to the closure of the passes. In fact, the government had set up a State Level Department of Civil Aviation for the said purpose. Unfortunately, the proposal could not fructify and most of these areas remain cut off during winter and depend entirely upon Air force Courier Service which is operated on the request of the State government.
Now that the attention is again on the subject, it would be advisable to have a comprehensive project not only to provide a regular air connection to the area but to develop the most important basic infrastructure to fully throw open this potential region as an ultimate destination for adventure. As regards adventure, Suru and Zanskar Valleys are virtual Gold Mines! In no other place in the world can a 7000 metre high peak like the famous Nun be reached in a matter of hours from a road-head! There are dozens of unnamed peaks, some still unclimbed, in the range of 5000 to 7000 metres. Mountaineering, rock and ice-climbing, ski-mountaineering, trekking, white water rafting and kayaking, para-gliding and so many other adventure activities have tremendous scope in the area. The toughest leg of the Car Rally, the Raide de Himalaya is between Kargil and Padam. In fact, one of the best Adventure Institutes can be set up at Panikhar in the Suru Valley.
Apart from that this region has some cultural significance also. The famous Drokhpas, supposed to be pure Aryans and considered by some to be the progeny of the remnants of the Alexander’s army who settled in the area, have an interesting life style. In fact, on the other side of the border the famous Kailash Tribe is of the same origin. Their Greek connection has been researched thoroughly on the other side of the border in Hunza area by scientists from Greece. Kargil has also been on the famous Silk Route. However, the road to Skardu which leads to Gilgit and beyond, even though passable, is right now closed. It could have been included in the cross LOC travel but the same has not so far materialised.
Unfortunately, Kargil has been facing a double jeopardy! First is its closeness to LOC even though the other side postshave been pushed back compared to earlier position when the forces stationed there could straight away target all areas in the Kargil town? However, the vicinity is uncomfortably close! The other jeopardy is lack of enthusiasm among the local population and its leaders for modernisation especially Tourism which is in total contrast to the Leh people who have very enterprisingly made Leh as one of the prime destinations for domestic and foreign tourism. During early nineties when Leh and Kargil were taken on board the State Tourism Plan with a yearly allocation of one crore each, the Leh authorities overspent by 20% while as Kargil surrendered 80% of the allocation! Apart from Tourism, an air connection is a mandatory requirement for taking care of various activities including healthcare necessary for the well-being of the local population. In fact, the Kargil Airport had been upgraded by the Civil Aviation Ministry and a trial flight was also operated during the time of Ghulam Nabi Azad as the Union Civil Aviation Minister. A Dornier aircraft had flown from Delhi to Leh and then to Kargil and back. The whole project probably got shelved due to perennial “Security Reasons”! Now that the government has started a helicopter service, the possibility of a regular air connection needs to be explored again. In the meantime, similar treatment is required for Gurez, Tilel, and Karnah especially during winter. The other important location which too is a gold mine for adventure Tourism is the Kishtwar area. This has been the most popular area with the British climbers and trekkers as it involves week long trekking to most of the base camps of different peaks like Brahma, Sickle Moon and so on. The most impressive treks are through Wardwan and Paddar Valleys. Kishtwar too had a small airstrip and it was explored for starting an air service but again the proposal somehow disappeared even though there were no “Security” considerations here!
If handled properly, Kargil could even redeem the declining tourist flow to Kashmir Valley. With air connections both at Srinagar and Kargil, the tourists could easily travel between Srinagar and Kargil. Incidentally, the Adventure Tourists are not put off by the exaggerated media reports about the situation in Kashmir. We had heli-skiing going on during the peak of militancy in the nineties of the last century. The travel trade and the state organisations need to pay special attention to this sector in view of the prevailing situation. This activity can help a lot in preventing the total collapse of Tourism sector.
Mohammad Ashraf, I.A.S. (Retired), Former Director General Tourism, Jammu & Kashmir