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Kalash Valley: Paradise lost

Published Aug 26, 2012 01:05am

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Thirty-two years ago, I was enchanted by the poetic and sublime beauty of Bumburet, one of the Kalash Valleys. There were indeed meadows with sparkling water from the irrigation channels, fed by the rushing foaming river. Willow trees stood on the river bank and giant walnut trees shaded the bright green grass. The mountains stood in the back, while up river, the snow clad top of the Shawal Pass gleamed in the bright sunlight.

Now my favourite meadow is no more. On that site is the PTDC hotel, which I and the people fought to stop from being built, but to no avail. That was some years back. Since then, cement built hotels have proliferated, as have shops and other out-of-place buildings such as the Greek Kalasha Dur, which would look great in Athens, but in Bumburet stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. Now there is talk of a big hydroelectric power station being built to feed down country. The other valleys have not escaped either.

A few years ago, someone gave money to one of the elders to build a dancing ground on the top of Grom in Rumbur — cement pillars and a metal roof. Kalash and tourists were aghast. Finally, to the relief of all, it was demolished, but what has risen since? Another cement structure, albeit not so big and with a painted metal roof. Now Grom cannot be the heart of any World Heritage Site. Other cement structures have also been erected in Rumbur. This trend started with Bashali Houses being built, helped by the local administration.

Birir has not escaped either in spite of the pressure I put, backed by some erstwhile bureaucrats.

The Autumn Festival, known locally as Pur, was ruined forever by a Secretary of Minorites (he had never visited the valleys) who sent funds through the usual channel of local administration, which then reportedly gave the money to C&W (construction and works) for retaining walls and the rest was then handed over to a contractor, known to everyone as a timber merchant; unless someone declares it illegal and orders it to be pulled down, the high cement wall, cordoning off the dancing area and the small jestakhan (Kalash temple), has shut out forever the beauty of the valley to the dancers and tourists. What was once a joyful festival has now been corrupted. I have never returned to see the Pur. Again, who is going to remove the broken down cement from the river?

A couple of years ago, thanks to Minoo Bhandara, whom the people had asked to rebuild the jeep track on the other side of the river, money was again given through the same channel and yet another timber merchant appointed as contractor. To the surprise of many the bridge collapsed even before completion. The shipment of wood constantly puts pressure on both the cement pillars and the wooden planks upon which these heavily laden vehicles have to cross. The historical Gahiret Bridge suffers the same fate. The bridge has been repaired twice now by a brave and fearless engineer.

This year, to my horror, I got to know that the steps we built for the people of Guru have been replaced by a dangerous cement staircase, the base of which is one long slope. Covered in winter ice it will be a public danger to the inhabitants. It will also rule out Guru Village being thought of as the heart of the world heritage site.

Likewise, a project encompassing four cement latrines has been undertaken near the Bashali House of Bishal (though only a few women go there), which we built only a few years ago, complete with a washroom and commode. Near the Bashali we built near Guru, which is checked constantly by one of our Kalash women health workers, more latrines have been built — puka ones with tiled walls and floors. There is also a special room for washing hands.

When the population, both Kalash and Muslim, are in need of retaining walls, bridges and irrigation channels on a priority basis, this senseless waste of money is unforgivable. Again, it will not help our long pursuit of making the whole area a Unesco Biosphere and certain villages a world heritage site.

About five years ago, when Ingeborg Breines was the representative for Unesco, I went to Geneva and Paris to discuss the possibility of the Kalash Valleys becoming a WHS. I was told that as the region in question (including Jingeret Ku, where there are the remains of two Kalash Defence Towers, which we restored with Finnish money) was spread over a large area, a Biosphere with a special site as the core of the WHS would be in order.

On my return to Pakistan, I met with a number of officials in Islamabad. Mostly I was paid lip service, but then last year, the current Chief Secretary, Ghulam Dastgir, and the former Secretary of Culture, Azam Khan (now Home Secretary), took up the idea and the Culture Secretary wrote a proposal to go along with the WHS forms. It was then passed on to the Secretary of Minorities (now transferred) to deal with, and then also given to Faridullah Khan, the federal secretary of heritage, who was also transferred. Except for an offshoot seminar in Islamabad earlier this year, nothing more has been heard of the matter.

It is hoped that the new secretary of minorities will take an interest and push the proposal to meet the end of September deadline; otherwise, we shall have to wait another year, before we can again apply. A while back, our NGO attended a government meeting with C&W. The Line department listened to us and have agreed to find ways of removing the concrete from the steps and the broken cement retaining walls from the river. Who knows how things will proceed, but at least hope burns eternal.


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