SHARDA NEELUM VALLEY, June 28: Activists and expert at archeological heritage in Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) have raised concerns over the construction of a private guesthouse by an influential bureaucrat at the Sharda Sangam, one of the sacred sites associated with Sharda Temple, where pilgrims used to take last ritual bath during their Sharda Yatra centuries ago.
“It is unfortunate that the people in power are grabbing land in the area for their financial interests and encroaching the unprotected archeological sites of religious and historic importance,” said Dr. Rukhsana Said Khan, Assistant Professor at the University of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, who done her Ph.D. research on the archeological importance of Sharda.
The construction for the guesthouse, which belongs to Wajahat Rasheed Baig, was started back in 2015 at the bank of Surgan Nullah—previously known as “Madhumatti’’ and carries water the “Saraswati” lake. But after civil society launched a protest campaign, authorities imposed a ban on any kind of construction along Neelum River aka Kishanganga.
Dr. Khan, a researcher at that time, wrote letters to civil and military administration in the region, highlighting the importance of the issue. On military administration’s intervention, the local civil administration imposed the article 144 in construction along the entire length of the river, but it has lasted for a couple of years hardly.
Some recent photos circulating on social media show that the excavation has again been started at the junction of Surgan Nullah and Neelum River some two kilometers north of the Sharda Temple site, whereas some temporary shelters have also popped-up overnight.
“Once known as Sharda Sangam, the site has a historical and religious affiliation with Sharda Temple,” Dr. Khan said. “At the junction, Pundits from all over Kashmir performed final ritualistic bath during their annual visit to Sharda Temple,” She added
In recent years, the picturesque Neelum Valley have observed an influx in domestic tourism, multiplying the interest of investors—most of them are bureaucrats or politicians—in the area who grabbed most of the available land by managing to get it allotted or by purchasing a small piece from a local owner and grabbing as much as they could in adjacent areas.
“It is a common practice among influential people,” said Khawaja Muhammad Akbar, an activist in Sharda town adding that most of the bureaucrats and politicians are protecting each other’s interests and supporting each other in a race to convert the Neelum Valley into a concrete Jungle. “They even don’t realize the historic, cultural and environmental importance of the area and are grabbing every available piece of land,” Akbar added.
According to Dr. Khan, these immensely important heritage resources are fading out due to the human vandalism in the form of unregulated tourism and encroachments in the Neelum Valley, which required attention from the concerned authorities. All ancient archaeological sites must be declared “protected”.
“Sharda has a multilayered importance varying from cultural to religious and environmental as well as historical. Encroachment at any site, such as Sharda Junction, is a clear violation of UNESCO Antiquity Act 1970,” Miss Khan said. “Local department of tourism and archeology should take notice of this encroachment and impose bane of allotment as well as any kind of construction at the sites of historic and cultural importance,” she added.
Locals believe that if the authorities will not take the issue seriously, every piece of land in Neelum Valley will be converted to a concrete jungle in the years to come. The move can bring a huge environmental devastation and trigger the land sliding in the area already declared ‘’vulnerable to climate change’’ by experts. On the other hand, encroachment at the sites of religious importance can surface a ground for negative propaganda against the country internationally.
There is an urgent need for intervention from government to regulate tourism and devise a capacity building and consultancy mechanism for the local population about construction near important archaeological sites.
Jalaluddin Mughal is a journalist/ blogger and activist based in Islamabad/Neelum Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org