Thursday, October 6, 2011

Shiv Khori Tourist Circuit

Yatra to Shiv-Khori has become an important component of the religious tourist circuit in Jammu province. Annual yatra to this holy cave located in Reasi District is around one million or so at present and it is increasing. Based on the lines of Vaishno Deviji(where the Shrine Board has brought about marvelous changes by undertaking massive development works from public offerings at the holy Shrine in last 25years),Board for managing Shiv-Khori Shrine has also been constituted. Lot of facilities are being developed on the entire 3.5km long pedestrian route from Ransoo town to the holy cave.

Like Katra occupies a prominent place for Vaishno Deviji yatra as a base town, Ransoo is the base town of Shiv-Khori yatra. Unlike orderly development of facilities on the entire 13km route by the Shrine Board, Katra town presents a dismal urban picture because of its haphazard growth in last 3-4 decades. This town of about 15000 souls is perhaps the wealthiest town in our state through which about 90 lakhs yatries pass annually thus opening enormous opportunities for local population. Many good hotels have come up in Katra but the town as a whole hardly offers any attraction to pilgrims to extend their stay there even for a day. Narrow roads, congested Bus stand, poor municipal services, polluted water body, etc. offer hardly any interest to visitors who mostly confine themselves in their hotel rooms during their brief stay in Katra. Visionary efforts are required from all concerned to ensure that Katra model of growth does not get repeated in Ransoo town. Presently this town is a small settlement with a lot of vacant land but signs of haphazard development especially along its only main road are already visible.

Realizing the opportunity to develop Ransoo as an attractive pilgrim town in future, the State Govt. has notified this town under the provision of state Town Planning Act of 1963. A Development Board has been constituted to prepare a Master Plan which probably is ready by now. But experience of other towns in our state point out that Master Plans even after their approval by Govt. are hardly effective. Mainly it is because the measures to implement Master Plans particularly the urban land management tools are not spelt out clearly in our state urban development laws. We understand that necessary amendments through various urban reforms in this behalf are on the anvil but the same is taking a long time to mature. As such strategy to develop Ransoo town within the best possible existing framework needs to be chalked out.

How can Ransoo be developed as an attractive halt town? At present, excepting for the roadside lands which have developed under commercial use, most of the land in Ransoo town (spread over a sloping plateau of about 900 kanals) is still under agriculture use. But now pressure for conversion of these lands into commercial urban use are building up with each passing year due to increasing yatra traffic. The rural face of Ransoo town is changing fast. Wealthy & influential people (mostly hoteliers from Katra) are buying vacant undeveloped lands in this town. The resultant exorbitant land prices in Ransoo are testimony to these land transactions. These investors shall play a big role in shaping the growth of this town in near future. If regulated properly, they can do wonders. But if left to themselves by a loose Govt. response, Ransoo town too shall be another Katra in making. Thus the state govt. is required to play a proactive role. Perhaps the most appropriate option could be that all developable lands in Ransoo are acquired through negotiations and an attractive compensation (both economic & financial) is paid to land owners. Acquired land ,after development, can then be used as a resource to generate funds (through auction of commercial sites)required to provide quality infrastructure like a good Bus Stand, wide roads, proper water supply/electricity/sewerage systems, green spaces, development of Dudh Ganga rivulet, etc. This approach, however, is not likely to be acceptable to the local people as well as local politicians as they eye only short term gains. Awareness to motivate and educate them that a planned Ransoo town shall ultimately benefit their economic development in the long term perspective, need to be undertaken by the Shrine Board/other concerned. It is to be realized that network of wide roads not only spreads economic activities in all parts of any developing town more evenly but it is also very essential to efficiently lay the distribution networks of all infrastructural services required to ensure quality living in any town.
Another option could be a Land Pooling scheme under which land parcels of all land owners are pooled, reconstituted and then 50% of the same land is returned to the same owners for their use as per an approved layout plan. 50% of the land acquired from the farmers is utilized for laying roads, parks and other public facilities. This method known as Town Planning scheme has been a very popular & effective urban management tool in Gujarat and Maharashtra state. In fact it is an important provision in their urban planning & development laws & is generally referred to as Land Acquisition without tears. But since relevant Acts in our state do not have this provision and land owners are not likely to agree to this cooperative concept very easily in Ransoo, best course is perhaps acquisition of all vacant lands by any nominated Authority to be entrusted with development of Ransoo town. Funds for acquisition can be partly taken as a loan and partly State Govt./Vaishno Devi Shrine Board could help in this venture. No doubt it looks harsh for the poor farming land owners but if the land acquisition costs to be paid to them are attractive and their economic rehabilitation is addressed humanely, it sounds to be the best option keeping in view the long term interest of this upcoming town.

Besides, Ransoo town should be atleast notified under the Municipal Act so that a Municipal Committee comes into existence to look after its day to day civic needs.

In a nutshell, Ransoo town deserves priority. Opportunity to develop it( which may not be easily available later on) as an attractive town developed on planned lines should not be lost. This town, most likely will grow whether the State Govt. intervenes effectively or not. The choice is whether it should grow as a pilgrim friendly base town for Shiv-Khori yatra or it should follow the unpleasant growth model of Katra Town. Shiv-Khori Shrine Board needs to own and play a vital role in framing and translating this perspective (of developing a planned Ransoo town) into reality unlike Vaishno -Devi Shrine Board which kept a distance from investing in the infrastructural development in Katra town may be for some compelling reasons.

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