On May 21, five houses were gutted in a massive blaze at Roni Mohalla Kalan, in the interiors of Dal Lake, Srinagar. The Mir Bahri area of Dal, is five kilometres away from the heart of the city.

"We know none will come to our help to put out the fire. We collected burned rupees, Jewelries, from the debris of gutted houses. From floor to roof we saw everything in ashes," Abass Kashmiri, a social activist, told the Citizen.He said the fire and emergency services couldn't enter the area due to wooden bridge which is only meant for two wheelers. "When we saw the fire engulfing other houses too, Dal residents started to collect buckets from house to house so that fire could be doused," recalled Abass.

Mir Bahri Dal is surrounded by trees, and the place is one of harmony and solace. As one explores the area, its wooden bridges over the stagnant Dal Lake fill senses with delight. Ghulam Mohideen, a vegetable seller from Dal lake, quit his work three years ago as he found no buyers. He says the commuters faced difficulties in reaching out to the vendors. "The tourism hamlet initiative which the government has taken, should have been done decades ago," Mohideen told The Citizen.

"Mir Bahri Dal hamlets remain cut off from the city during inclement weather, and four wheelers can't enter here due to the small wooden bridges. The unfortunate thing is that whenever a groom comes to our area, we welcome him in boats. Now authorities want to develop tourist hamlets. How can it be?" he asked.

The area is home to around 2000 households, however no network towers have ever been set up here by the telecommunication authorities so far. While talking to The Citizen, Abbas Kashmiri, a local, said that three months ago, an Airtel network tower had been set up, but that too seemed to be dysfunctional. During the Covid 19 pandemic, students travelled for kilometres to get internet access. Abass says that the government is planning to transform five areas of Mir Bahri dal into tourism villages, however no mobile network tower has been set up here. "Our area falls into the jurisdiction of the Lakes and Water Development Authority, you can't even construct a bathroom here," he said.

Bashir Ahmed, vice-chairman of Lakes and Water Development Authority (LAWDA) told The Citizen that their department has selected five hamlets in the interiors of Dal lake, which will promote economic status of residents of Mir Bahri Dal. "There is no construction allowed in the interiors of Dal lake, our ultimate purpose is to restore blocked channels. Our efforts are on, we are creating fishing points, parks on selected plots. The prime concern is to promote these areas eco-friendly hamlets," said Basheer.

The Dal is famous across the world, however its residents claim that it may be a tourism worthy place, but is hell-like for those who live here. However, Bashir Ahmed said that the narrow wooden bridges will be re-designed, and claimed that after the areas are developed as tourism hamlets, the economic conditions of the residents will improve.

Abass, a social activist, says that under the tourism village project, a number of trees have been cut down by the authorities. Residents of Akhoon Mohalla, one of the hamlets have expressed resentment over the government project. "We don't feel that it is a good initiative, we are concerned that army officials may stay here" they said. "The 'I love India' viewpoints have been created now, to seek tourist attention. Many houses in the interiors of Dal lake have also been painted by the government," said the locals.

However, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, had said that the authorities will identify the uniqueness of each hamlet, showcase the landscape, foster indigenous knowledge systems and promote cultural diversity and heritage of these villages. The administration believes that these areas have the potential of attracting tourists across the world.

"The step has been taken up keeping in view the potential of J&K for film shooting purposes. The prime concern of our project is to promote shooting of films and offering financial assistance to these hamlets for their sustainable development," the Lt Governor told the media. He added that villages which are a part of this project will also have a digital footprint. "The purpose of our move is to provide maximum job opportunities to youth from different backgrounds and ensure their participation in the policies that have significant impact on their lives," he said.

Bashir Ahmed told The Citizen that in these selected hamlets of Dal lake, the ecotourism villages will have everything "that represents Kashmir culture". Principal secretary Dr. Mehta has directed officers to execute the plans under VC LCMA for: Kachri Mohalla, Sofi Mohalla, Tinda Mohallah, Akhoon Mohalla, Vegetable market and floating garden. These will be developed as tourist villages with all facilities given, both for locals, as well as tourists.

The Chief Secretary told the officers that the development of tourist villages should be done so locals can offer home stay facilities to tourists. Dr Mehta also directed the officers of Handloom & Handicraft and Skill Development to establish skill training centres in these areas for the young residents. Meanwhile, Director, Tourism , Kashmir, Dr. GN Itoo said popularisation of local culture, cuisine, and language is a part of the promotional campaigns of the Department.

Last year, Lt Governor Manoj Sinha, had launched J&K Tourist village Tourism network under mission youth, aimed to transform villages of the Union Territory known for historical, picturesque beauty and cultural significance into tourist villages.

Irshad Hussain is an independent journalist based in Kashmir