Situated 87 km from summer capital Srinagar in north Kashmir's Ganderbal district on the foothills of the Zojilla Pass, Sonamarg has been the ultimate destination for nature lovers, trekkers, whitewater rafters, anglers and Bollywood.
Thajwas Glacier, situated three kilometres from Sonamarg, is a major attraction for visitors and locals. But, environment scientists say the glacier has shrunk over the years and could be melting fast to become a thing of the past.
Shakil Ahmad Romshoo, a professor in Kashmir University's department of earth sciences, who has done pioneering work on environment in Jammu and Kashmir, told IANS: "A concrete road has been constructed up to the Thajwas Glacier. Everybody who comes to Sonamarg is encouraged to go to the glacier."
"If you look at the records of last 40 years, the Glacier has alarmingly shrunken because of its fast meltdown. Human interference is squarely responsible for this.
"Nowhere else in the world one finds a concrete road constructed up to any glacier. If people love to visit a glacier, they must be prepared to trek a few kilometres to see it and not land directly into it with their automobiles," Romshoo added.
Till just a few years back, there were a couple of tourist huts owned by the local tourism department and three to four hotels in Sonamarg.
"Those days, most of the visitors would pitch tents in the vastness of the meadow and then enjoy trout fishing, trekking, mountaineering and the like. There were just a few hotels here and those too did not have more than half a dozen rooms each," Nazir Ahmad War, 52, who owns an old hotel in Sonamarg, told IANS.Today, there are over two dozen hotels here and more are being constructed.
About the never-ending hotel and other infrastructure being built here, Romshoo said: "Under the state laws, it is mandatory that an environmental evaluation is made before allowing any infrastructure development at ecologically sensitive places. Sonamarg is one case where no such study was ever made and constructions are being allowed under political influence."
The fact that government land has been encroached and even fraudulently sold by brokers in connivance with the officials of the revenue department hardly needs official confirmation.
Senior revenue officials have ordered fresh demarcation of state land in Sonamarg fearing that large portions of this could have been fraudulently transferred as proprietary land by unscrupulous land brokers to buyers from Srinagar city and elsewhere for business ventures."Yes, we have ordered spot verification and demarcation of state land in Sonamarg where it is feared some fraudulent land transfers could have taken place involving state land," a senior revenue department official, who did not want to be named, told IANS.
Sonamarg is not only thronged by tourists and adventure lovers each year. Thousands of Yatris going to the Amarnath Cave Shrine stay overnight here before going to the Baltal base camp.
There is no regulation on the number of daily visitors to Sonamarg by the state government.
The net result is that while official campaigns and paid advertisements ask visitors and nature lovers to visit Sonamarg, this golden meadow of Kashmir is fast becoming a ghetto of hotels and concrete.