Writers Note: On paper everything looks perfect in Jammu & Kashmir. On August 5, the union territory completed three years of its ordinary existence sans the special status granted to it under article 370. On the surface Kashmir looks every bit the paradise on earth it has always been. But is that so in reality? Sending the report based on my personal experience while travelling in Kashmir this year.

The mesmerising beauty of the hills, the sparkling clean water of the rivers, the green meadows, the sheep grazing lazily, tourists hustling through Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh, selfie-taking couples posing romantically on shikaras while enjoying their ride on the Dal lake, horses galloping away with giggling boys, girls, men and women, their little bells tinkling away, luggage=laden tourists' vehicles honking incessantly on a choked Srinagar-Pahalgam road.

The setting is picture perfect- of the best tourist destination in the world possibly where everyone is flocking for an eyeful of the beauty lying hidden so far. The Kashmir valley came alive this year with a boisterous footfall of tourists. The valley saw an unprecedented increase in tourist arrivals.

Whether it is the effect of abrogation of Article 370 or pandemic fatigue, people seem to have suddenly discovered the state which had been out of bounds for so many years.

According to government figures, the state has, till July 2022, recorded the highest ever tourist footfall. From October 2021 to January 2022, a record number of 50,33,956 tourists visited the state, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharamn told the Lok Sabha on March 14, 2022 during the budget discussion. Minister of state for home, Nityanand Rai, replying to a question by Congress Mps told Parliament on August 3, 2022 that from January to July 2022, a whopping 1.06 crore tourists have visited the state.

The tourist rush was so much that the infrastructure started crumbling and the state tourism department had to issue an advisory in mid-May for people to postpone their visit to the state.

Nirmala Sitharaman further told Lok Sabha that a record number of 40,000 government projects have been completed in 2021-22 as against 9229 in 2018-19, the state has seen a 33 percent drop in police casualties, 90 percent fall in ceasefire violations, and unemployment rate has fallen to 13.2 percent only.

Adding to the rosy picture, Rai told parliament that 29,086 got employment in the last one year, 5.2 lakh set up their own businesses, Rs. 28,400 crore has been allocated for industrial development in the state, and owing to increasing normalcy, 54,000 expressions of interest for investment have been received. In a nutshell, everything is hunky dory and it is all thanks to the abrogation of Article 370 which had sort of created a barrier between the people of the state and the rest of the country.

If official figures and the tourist clamour are any indication then the state has become as normal as any other state of India, a part of the mainland, with terrorism and insurgency having become a thing of the past. But is that actually so?

No doubt tourist arrivals are up and the local population has welcomed tourists with open arms because it has brought them their bread and butter but probe a little further and the wounds open. Many local people who spoke to this writer confessed that though they were grateful to God for bringing tourists back to the state, yet what they would actually want is a life of dignity and respect.

Locals being abruptly stopped for frisking on busy roads, being made to wait on the sides in their cars for no apparent reason, subjected to more than usual investigation, are a common sight in Srinagar. Of course, all this is only done for " security reasons" but it does leave the locals feeling bitter.

" We are not trusted in our own land. We are always looked upon with suspicion. This hurts," said Shahnawaz, our taxi driver in Srinagar. According to him, all this hustle and bustle, all this talk of development, good roads, good electricity position, better facilities for tourists is fine but what about those 2.5 lakh individuals who are still in various jails across India. " There are people who have four-five boys from their families in jail and they don't even know where they are.," he says. According to him, the government must deal with this problem on a priority basis only then should it claim that complete normalcy has returned to the state.

Similarly, the state's cricket bat industry is still waiting to pick up steam. Kashmir is famous for making bats with willow wood, which however, suffered a loss of Rs. 1000 crore in the last three years, first due to security reasons after abrogation of article 370 and then the pandemic induced lockdown, according to MSME Business Forum.

The labour intensive bat making industry, which employs 30,000 people, has been languishing for the past three years. Of the 400 odd factories, many are operating at minimum capacity or lying closed. While travelling from Srinagar to Pahalgam, it is a common sight to see huge stacks of willow cleft, ready to be carved into bats, drying on roof tops or by the road side because the demand has simply vanished. " Sab allah ki marzi hai," ( it is God's will) says Mohammad Firdaus, owner of Firdaus Bat Factory in Bijbehara, idling his time in an empty shop, lined with ready bats. The government is still to devise a rescue plan for this industry.

The abrogation of Article 370 has actually brought about a change in how the rest of India sees Kashmir, instead of making any qualitative difference to the life of a local Kashmiri. For people from other parts of India, Kashmir has suddenly become like any other state where they could just pack their bags and go for a short vacation.

This is perhaps the reason why tourists are flocking to Kashmir now. Take for example the case of Sandeep Ali, a businessman from Kerala, who decided to traverse the length of India, with his family, wife and four children, in a car and travel upto Srinagar. " I wanted to show the country to my children," was his simple reply. His experience in Kashmir, he says, was no different from any other state of India. And no, he did not feel unsafe at any point of time in Kashmir. " Local people are welcoming. After visiting I realized that the real Kashmir is different from what they show us in the news," he says.

True, the abrogation of Article 370 has meant a change in the perception of state for the rest of India but for a real change for the local people, much more than cosmetic surgery is required.

Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR