There are two valleys in the central Hindu Kush which have no parallels in terms of their beauty. Both open into the extreme north of Pakistan: into Chitral and Gilgit. The one to the east is a bit longer and larger in area whereas the other in the west is shorter but more fertile.
Both the valleys are home to the indigenous Dardic people of the Indo Aryan race. The western one is now a bit more modern culturally as well as in terms of its infrastructure. Here modernization is faster, and change is accelerated while the other valley is still very closed socially and culturally – and very poor in its infrastructure, too. Here cultural change is awfully slow except language shift which has been so rigorous since the 80s while owing to cultural traits and traditional norms the valley still seems to be in the 90s.
The eastern one comprises the upper Swat valley – from Pia Madyan to Ghizer pass via Bahrain, Kalam, Utror and Mahodand. The western one is the Panjkora valley in the upper Dir district and now opens from Sheringal to Kumrat, and up to Badgoi and Kashkin tops via Patrak, Kalkot, Thal and Lamuti. Both valleys share several passes like Daral pass, Batal pass and Badgoi pass. The Jeep track is only through the Badgoi pass, also locally known as Sujun pass.
Both valleys hold the most visited tourist stations in north Pakistan. The valleys of Kalam and Bahrain are in the Swat valley whereas the other most cherished valley, Kumrat, is in the Panjkora valley in the upper Dir district.
Tourism in Bahrain and in Madyan started earlier than it did in Kalam. Bahrain and Madyan became famous for tourism during the era of the Swat state before 1970 whereas Kalam remained an ‘independent tribal’ agency during all this time, though it was administered by the ruler of Swat during the British government before 1947 and later by the Wali of Swat as a representative of the government of Pakistan. Kalam remained so because of claims to own it by three states: Swat State, Dir State and Chitral State.
When it was finally merged into the Swat district in the wake of the merger of the princely state of Swat in 1969, Kalam was still notorious for its harsh and unwelcoming society which resisted any social change. Tourism held its feet in Kalam after the 1990s. On the other hand, the idyllic Kumrat became famous just a few years ago, notably after the former and current prime ministers’ visits to it, and especially after the visit by the Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2016.
After Kalam Valley was discovered, and an increased influx of domestic tourists rushed to visit it, non-local investors came and began to buy lands from the locals to build hotels, shops and restaurants here. The locals did not bother a bit about the future and agreed to sell their lands to these investors who constructed large hotels here. Soon more than 90 percent of the commercial land in main Kalam town was owned by non-local investors. Tourism thus flourished in the valley, but it did not bring any economic change for the locals except the cash for a few years and acquiring of jeeps as taxis.
About 70 to 80 percent of the people of Kalam and Utror valleys had to migrate from the area in winter mainly in search of livelihood. If tourism had to bring any boost in the local economy, there would have been a visible decrease in this seasonal migration. There might be other reasons as well such as fleeing from harsh winter, but the main cause of this migration remained poverty and less food security in winter. Only last winter, when winter tourism got a surprising boost in Bahrain and Kalam, we saw several migrated families come back during the winter to earn livelihood, though very scarce, from it.
Kumrat on the western side beyond Utror now has more tourists than it had before. There is a 40 kilometres jeep road, which can only be used in the summer, from Utror to Kumra, and which goes through lush green pastures and provide soothing sights for those who can undertake travel on such hard roads but the main way to Kumrat is via Dir proper and through Sheringal and is in a deplorable condition beyond it.
Kumrat is a valley probably one kilometre wide on an average and more than 30 kilometres long up to a place where a bumpy and stony jeep track goes. Beyond that one can trek only. It is full of pine trees and azure streams flowing in between with foamy waterfalls on the spurs of the valley.
Four years back, there were less than a dozen lodgings made of tents in Kumrat and now there are numerous lodgings sprawling under almost every tree. While this increase in dwellings is beneficial for the local economy, at the same time it is harmful for the forests and environment there. The Kumrat village is just at the entrance of this beautiful valley, a couple of kilometres from the Thal village.
The valley of Kumrat is traditionally owned by the dwellers of the Thal and Kumrat villages. Having lived under an acephalous system for centuries, the people usually follow their own social code that would seem very archaic and odd to many modern observers. Blood feuds, honour killings and tribal enmities are not unusual here. Alongside, warm hospitality is a common norm, too. People are less exposed to modern means and ideas; and consequently, can easily be led to religious and cultural extremism. The traditional jirga system is remarkably strong, and dissent is not tolerated at all. Despite being of the same race and language, people are usually divided along lines of sub-clans as well as village wise.
The entire Panjkora valley including the Kumrat valley, Jahaz Banal, Lamuti and Kalkot valleys are rich in pine forests and beautiful meadows. The people depend on these forests for firewood and rearing livestock.
Land settlement laws have not been implemented in the area and people have distributed the forested and attached lands among the sub-clans using their own customary laws. They applied customary laws to the Kumrat valley as well and distributed it among the clans. The people have imposed sanctions on land sale in the Kumrat valley except the land in the Kumrat village which is situated at the mouth of it. Beyond this place, nobody or clan can sell a piece of land. People can, however, start to lease their land in Kumrat valley to investors for 10 to 20 years; and many of these investors have installed the ‘tent hotels’.
The Kumrat valley is mostly forested with pastures on its sides. The influx of tourists and the building of temporary shelters like hotels and tents pose potential threats to the forests as well as to the water resources and land here. Trees are cut to build the shelters, to provide firewood for the campfires for the tourists and for use in the kitchens of these tent hotels. The entire valley is full of trash and the beautiful river is brewing with it. Tourism in the valley has also severely affected the habitats of livestock in pastures; and of wildlife.
Another looming crisis is that in the future the locals and the state will openly be at odds over the ownership of the forested land. The fear is that this will culminate into violence. The people are not ready to consider themselves as mere users or ‘right holders’ because they think they are the ‘owners’ of the forests and on this issue, they have been against the government since 2002.
In Kumrat one does not see the presence of the government in any form. The road to, and into, the valley is terribly tiresome; the tent hotels and restaurants have their own laws and there is no check on polluting the forests and streams. The restaurants sell substandard meals at extremely high cost.
There is an urgent need to pay attention to this looming catastrophe in the areas of infrastructure, governance of the forests and land in the valley, mismanaged tourism and harm to the environment before people, local and outsiders, damage the beauty of this paradise in central Hindu Kush.
The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.
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