Saturday, June 20, 2015

Chandanwari, Betaab and Aru Valleys

With Pahalgam as the base station, tourists make trips to nearby valleys and trekking spots. Baisaran valley is one of the most popular attractions. Chandanwari, Betaab valley and Aru valley are other  highly visited destinations, covered from Pahalgam. A one-day tour covering these three points are generally taken by tourists staying at Pahalgam. The trips are a delight to the eyes and provide varying sights; from snow-clad white regions to green-filled meadows and rocky terrains to dense forests.  These trips are done by hiring taxis available locally. While private vehicles can ply to these destinations without any restrictions, taxis coming from other parts of the state like Srinagar are not allowed to ply to these view points.

Pahalgam is itself a hill station and is at an elevation of 7,900 feet.  The other destinations mentioned above are at higher altitudes in the Himalayas. Chandanwari, Betaab and Aru form a triangle as we climb up from Pahalgam. Chandanwari is at a distance of 16 Kilometers from Pahalgam and at a height of 9,5000 feet. This is the starting point for "Amaranath Yatra". The short journey from Pahalgam to Chandanwari itself is quite enjoyable and a travelers delight. Lidder river flows on one side of the road and mountains with green vegetation provide the setting on the other side. There are innumerable streams flowing down from the snow-clad peaks. After reaching Chandanwari, tourists can have a sight seeing stop and enjoy the scenery. A picture given above shows the melting snow converting into a stream and flowing downwards.

While tourists can drive up to Chandanwari, further journey to Amaranath has be either on foot or ponies.  There are two more stops on the way for tourists before they reach the Amaranath cave.  Sheshnag Lake is the first stop and at a distance of 11 Kilometers from Chandanwari.  This lake is at a height of 11,725 feet. After Sheshnag lake, tourists camp at Panchatarni after covering another 13 Kilometers. Amaranath cave is a further 6 Kilometers from there and at a height of 12,100 feet. Our trip was up to Chandanwari only as the Yatra season had not yet started when we visited that place.

After visiting Chandanwari, Betaab Valley is the next destination. The original name for this valley was Hajan Valley and is at a distance of 15 kilometers from Pahalgam. A Hindi film by name "Betaab" was shot mostly in this valley and the valley is now known as "Betaab Valley".  It is a beautiful valley with the background of mountains and a long valley through which a river flows. A beautiful park is created along the river. When the days are bright and sunny, a whole day can be spent in the park to enjoy the scenery and flowing waters of the river. Warm clothing and umbrellas are available for hire at the entrance of the valley to protect the tourists from sudden change in the weather. 
Another valley in the area is Aru Valley which is known for camping and trekking activities. This valley is at a height of 8,000 feet and provides wonderful scenery all round.  The drive through Aru valley is itself quite enjoyable and a travelers delight. This is also the starting point for trek to Kolahoi glacier. Enthusiasts of long trekking expeditions can even go to Sonmarg after a long trek of three days.  Twin lakes of Tarsar and Marsar can be reached from Aru valley, again after a 3 day trek.

Physical fitness and the urge to enjoy the beauty of the hills and valleys are the only limiting factors. If one is ready to camp on the way and put up with the limited facilities available, man can merge with nature and lose himself or herself, at least for a few days.    

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Window Tax, Daylight Robbery and Service Tax

Service tax has been increased from 12.36% to 14% with effect from 1st June 2015.  Many have interpreted this as "Daylight Robbery", inflicted by the Government on its subjects. Some also say it is "Highway Robbery".  In this context, it is pertinent to examine what is the difference between these two robberies and the history of service tax.  It is also relevant to understand how the word "Daylight Robbery" actually came into existence. Recalling the way service tax has developed over the years would remind us as to how we are paying through our nose and more often without realizing it!

Online dictionary defines "Robbery" as the "felonious taking of the property of another from his or her person or in his or immediate presence, against his or her will, by violence or intimidation".  The three elements of robbery are: taking away someone's property, against the owner's will and by violence or intimidation.  If the property is taken without the knowledge of the victim, it should be probably called as theft and not robbery.  If an element of consent can be brought in here, it ceases to be either theft or robbery! Popular perception is that when someone demands an outrageously high price for a product or service, it is called as "Daylight Robbery" as it is (like) a crime committed in broad daylight. "Highway Robbery" is different from daylight robbery since there is a choice for the robbed in daylight robbery, but no such luxury in highway robbery. One can refuse to buy or pay at such exorbitant price or charges and escape daylight robbery.  But in "Highway Robbery", there is no such option for the robbed because the robber is armed and threatening as it happens in robberies on highways or trains.   

The term "Daylight Robbery" has a historical background and connected to robbing of actual daylight one enjoyed in their homes. During the times of William III, monarch of England, Scotland and Holland, royal finances were in very bad shape and there was an urgent need to raise money from the public.  The tax levied at that time was known as "Hearth Tax".  Hearth is the floor of the fireplace of a house, usually made of brick or stone in one part of the house.  A fire is lit in this place to keep the house warm, especially in winter.  The picture given alongside shows a hearth. It was believed that the fireplace was an index to measure the taxable value of the house and it was simpler to measure this place instead of the entire house!  Bigger the house, bigger the hearth and higher the taxes.  

In order to assess the tax payable by the house owner, the tax assessor had to visit the house and measure the area of the hearth.  This was resented by many people. This paved the way for "Window Tax", a method of levying tax based on the number and size of the windows in a house, and replaced "Hearth Tax". There was no need for the tax assessor to visit the house now as he could count the number of windows or window-like openings from the street and finalize the tax amount.  A tax of 2 shillings per year was levied on every house as a minimum. Those houses with 10 to 20 windows were charged four shillings more, making it 6 shillings.  Houses with 20 to 30 windows were levied a window tax of 10 shillings per year. Houses with over 30 windows paid One Pound as tax.  It was 20 shillings per pound and 12 pennies per shilling in those days.

While many affluent people paid the window tax as a matter of status and prestige, others resented the tax.  In order to avoid payment of higher taxes, house owners reduced the size and number of windows in their houses. Many even bricked-up the existing windows in their buildings to be assessed for lower taxes. A specimen of bricked-up window is given in the picture alongside. As the number and sizes of windows were reduced to save tax, the quantum of daylight that was entering the house was naturally reduced.  This was referred as robbing of daylight by the tax administration and hence the term "Daylight Robbery" came into existence. This tax was introduced in 1696 and continued for 156 years, when it was repealed in 1851. Window tax was levied in France as well. Introduction of Income-tax in England in 1842 hastened the repealing of window tax law and allowed more daylight into houses. However, the term retained its popularity and came to be used for any exorbitant and unreasonable charges levied by others.   

Service tax was first levied in our country, and then increased from time to time, by successive governments  duly elected by the citizens.  Thus, there is an element of implied consent and hence it is not fair to call it as robbery in the first place.  It is a pain alright; but a pain inflicted by our own representatives whom we have lovingly chosen to rule us.  It can be compared to the pain generated by the kick of a grandchild; it hurts but you cannot complain!   A little peek into service tax regime makes an interesting study.  The menace of service tax started in a very small way as any other similar trouble would germinate.  It started in 1994 with a moderate rate of 5% and was levied only on 3 items.  Earning from service tax then was only Rupees 407 crores per year.  Over the next two decades, more and more items were added to the list coupled with increase in rates. The number of items had swelled from 3 to 119 in 2011-12 and earned a whopping Rupees 1,32,512 crores that year.  Last year's (2014-15) earnings by way of service tax was around 2,15,973 crore rupees. Levy of education cess further increased the incidence of service tax. Another wonderful thing happened in 2012. On 1st July 2012, the concept of "Negative List" was introduced.  That means all services are taxed except a few identified items placed on the negative list.

When one considers the growth of service tax as above, it is neither daylight robbery nor highway robbery.  It is actually both rolled into one and something more.  From the point of public finances, it is a remarkably efficient tool.  Collection mechanism is very easy and simple; everyone pays it.  Window tax and daylight robbery were better.  Only those who owned houses paid that tax.  Those who did not own property could have had as much of sunlight as they wanted in the open areas.  Service tax is paid by everyone including daily wage earners. It is like the hemophilia disease; the patient continuously bleeds because blood does not clot and often he does not know about it. Service tax has another interesting feature.  A small reduction in income tax grabs big headlines.  Interested lobbies make much noise when income tax is increased. Increase in service tax often goes unnoticed.  Income tax is paid periodically; may be every quarter and four or five times a year.  Service tax is paid four or five times a day or even more.  It is like breathing; happens regularly but seldom noticed until it finally stops.  

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Body backwards; Legs forward

Pahalgam is one of the main tourist attractions of Kashmir.  After about three hours drive from Srinagar, Pahalgam can be reached and that is the gateway to many beautiful view points and valleys.  Baisaran valley, Betaab valley and Aru valley are the more famous ones.  Chandanwadi is another beautiful place which is also the base camp for Amaranath Yatra (cave tour).  Pahalgam has many hotels and resorts for comfortable stay.  Lidder river flows alongside and there are a number of trekking destinations for those interested in it.  Younger lot can walk as long as they want. What about those who cannot walk?  "Do not worry; we have ponies!" say the poniwallahs.  There are hundreds of them waiting to serve you, for a charge.  You can bargain with them and fix a price.  After a long ride and once you are safely back, you may yourself give a little more than the contracted amount to show your gratitude.  Gratitude for having brought you back in one piece!

Baisaran Valley is popularly called "Mini Switzerland".  My own view is that calling it as such is neither fair to Switzerland nor to Kashmir.  It is said that there are about 160 locations all over the world which resemble Switzerland.  Baisaran valley is so called because it has long dark meadows as in Switzerland.  Khaijihar near Dalhousie in Himachal Pradesh is said to resemble Switzerland more.  Baisaran need not be compared with anything else; it is beautiful on its own.  Only problem is that reaching that place is difficult and tedious.  Ponies are our saviours; they manage to take us there and bring us back.   

Many tourists, especially elder ones find climbing on the ponies rather difficult.  But the friendly poniwalla will ensure that you are on the pony, by either taking you over a bench and then make you jump on the horse or simply lifting you with the help of his mates and downloading on the pony.  If you feel uncomfortable and ask them how long it takes to get back, all he would tell you is that it is nearby.  Make no mistake, it takes at least three to four hours to reach Baisaran and return after sight seeing time there. After a few minutes of pony ride, you get used to it.  Even otherwise there is no worry at all; you cannot get down on your own and poniwallah will not help you to get down until you reach Baisaran.   

The slushy mud tracks often are very steep and cross through small streams and pebble-filled curves.  The friendly poniwallah is always on your side. He keeps encouraging you with appreciation as to how nicely you are sitting on the horse and how you are enjoying(!) the ride. He offers to take your picture at major view points.  He will ask you to show victory sign and all. He is truly concerned about his pony, more so if you are a heavyweight. But his demeanor ensures that his only worry is your safety.  He keeps giving instructions as to how you have to manage your weight on the pony from time to time.  There are no concerns while riding on the pony on level land, but there is not much of level land on the way. There are steep climbs and sudden twists. You often wonder how the pony will move further. "Body forward; legs backward", he says and you just obey.  Just as the pony feels your weight management is clear, it jumps and moves!  So, the lesson is "Body forward and legs backward" while climbing. The best way to enjoy the trip is not to look at the ground. Look around and ahead; there is wonderful scenery all round.

Once Baisaran is reached, the tourist is helped off the pony to go and enjoy the scenery. The views are breath taking and majestic.  Dense pine wood forests and snow capped mountains are a tourists delight. You can spend as much time as you desire but the return journey on the friendly pony is always at the back of the mind. There are shawl sellers and other hawkers around you going on with their business. Once you decide to go back, the poniwallah will ensure that you are on the pony quickly. On the way back one can enjoy the Deodhar trees on the sides.  The pony suddenly stops as it approaches another steep downward bend.  "Body backwards, legs forward", instructs the poniwallah.  This is the lesson when you are coming down.  As you adjust the weight, the pony makes two or three quick moves. You feel you are flying, but it indeed lands safely.  The return is through a shorter and steeper route. He is in a hurry because once you are safely deposited, he could make one more trip with another tourist, if possible.  It should be remembered that all along he is walking on such difficult terrain, mostly looking at us and not the ground.  It is a tough life for them indeed.   Back at your hotel compound, you are helped to get off the pony. He collects his fare, some tips and salutes you and moves away for the next tourist.

Our guide told us that his ponies on which we traveled have been to Amaranath Yatra several times.  He has invited us to take a trip to Amaranath caves.  If Baisaran is 5 kilometers, Amaranath is only 24 kilometers, he said.

Baisaran valley is very beautiful.  So are the other three view points on the way. The forests, the streams and the snow capped mountains are a treat.  More than that is the pony ride. Much more than that is the relief that you are back safely to look forward to another pony ride.  Even more when you see some others falling from their ponies.  The tip is only a negligible fraction amount, when one thinks of a fractured limb....

Monday, June 1, 2015

Baba Mandir near Nathu La, Sikkim

The true value of effort and bravery of security personnel guarding various vital installations and watch posts on our international borders often goes unnoticed. There are many beautiful spots in the upper Himalayan Region, where a tourist cannot spend more than a few hours during day time in summer, when the weather is very pleasant. The burden of the heavy overcoats and gum boots make us feel miserable and get out of them at the earliest opportunity.  But these personnel of the Army and security forces spend days and nights continuously, even under very severe weather conditions.  They routinely face chilling winds, heavy snowfalls and continuous rains.  Sunshine is not seen for long periods of time. There are areas where one does not understand the end of land or beginning of the sky. Everything appears murky and white. Supplies of food and water are difficult to reach them and the threat of a showdown from across the border is always there. The burden of arms and ammunition is a constant companion for them.  That the tourists are able to enjoy their vacation and have grand sight-seeing time is entirely due to the sacrifice made by these Officers and Soldiers of the armed forces. This brings to mind, our visit to "Baba Mandir" near Nathu La in Sikkim, a few years ago.

Nathu La border post between India and China is 55 Kilometers east of Gangtok. Indian tourists are allowed to go the border post on selected days of the week, as decided by the Government.  For going to Nathu La, a permit issued by the Department of Tourism and civil Aviation of the Government of Sikkim is required. The applications are to be submitted through an authorized travel agent, two days in advance of the visit. Major hotels in Gangtok arrange for the permits as they have tie up with the authorized travel agents.  An acceptable identification document is required to be produced and this document is to be carried by the person on the day of visit.  Nathu La pass is on the old silk route at an altitude of 14,150 feet above sea level.  The pass was closed after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, but was reopened in 2006 after bilateral trade agreement.  Limited international trade is permitted through this pass.  There is an Indian War memorial at Nathu La.  The road to Nathu La from Gangtok is one of the highest motor able roads in the world. Tourists are taken in six-seater jeeps. An ATM is available here and is said to the world's highest ATM. 

During our visit to Sikkim, our Hotel owner wanted our documents to obtain permit.  He told us that we can visit Babaji Mandir and Nathu La border post.  I politely told him that we are not interested in visiting any Baba Temple and our permit should be only for Nathu La post. He advised that all vehicles to Nathu La pass through Babaji Temple and if we do not desire to visit it, we may sit in the vehicle until other tourists return.  We decided to do the same.  But once the vehicle reached that place, the surroundings aroused some curiosity.  We went to the Mandir and found that it was not any other Babaji Mandir, but a memorial built for one of our brave soldiers who laid down his life in the course of his duty.  All soldiers and officers who pass through the area stop here and pay their respects to their departed colleague.  We were indeed glad that we did visit this sacred place.  The pictures given here, taken from the internet, gives a view of the temple's exterior and photo of the babaji kept inside the temple.
Major Baba Harbhajan Singh was born in the year 1941 in a village in Punjab and joined Indian Army in 1956.  He was commissioned in 1965.  As per the official version, he died in a battle with Chinese at a battle in Nathu La border. He was awarded a posthumous "Maha Vir Chakra" for his bravery. According to a legend, he drowned in a glacier while escorting a party with mules carrying supplies.  He is said to have come in the dream of his fellow soldier and told him the actual place where his body was lying. Three days later his body was found at exactly same place.  His body was cremated with full military honors.  He was only 26 years old when he died.  He is hailed as the "Hero of Nathu La" and a temple has been constructed in his honor.  Soldiers on duty in the area believe that his spirit gives them advance warnings about lurking dangers and attacks on them, and protects them. Chinese soldiers are also reported to respect the sentiment and said to have even set up a chair for him during a flag meeting.  Every year on September 11th, his death anniversary, one vehicle leaves the temple with the personal belongings of the soldier kept in the temple, to New Jalpaiguri, nearest railway station.  A new set of uniform and other items are kept in the temple.  From New Jalpaiguri, the belongings brought from the temple are kept on a berth booked in his name on a train, and accompanied by army jawans to his village in Punjab. The berth is not allotted to any other passenger, though unoccupied.  The sentiment is respected by all concerned without fail.  A board near the temple reads: "Call of duty beyond death".

Baba Mandir and Major Harbhajan Singh are a standing testimony for the bravery of the members of the armed forces who spend the most important years of their lives in guarding the country's borders in such unfriendly terrains.  Anyone who visits this place is sure to come out with wet eyes, as we too did.

On the return journey from Nathu La, there is a usual stop at Changu Lake, also known as Tsongmo Lake, which gives a beautiful view with different colors during different periods of the year (see picture).  The return journey from Nathu La is scary as the roads are in treacherous terrain and visibility nearly zero by evening. Some of the passengers with us closed their eyes and most of them started their prayers!  The driver of our van could view the road only by putting his face outside the window as the windshield became opaque due to fog.  I told him to stop for some time till the visibility improved. He did not respond and continued to drive.  After reaching Gangtok, when we were about to get down, he told me that the visibility will only get worse and this is the situation every day. There are many interesting boards put up by the army personnel that we cross as we return from Nathu La.  Two of them are fresh in my memory and read something like this:

"We are sacrificing our today for your happier tomorrow"

 "Go back and live happily with the thought that we are here guarding your safety"


This is, by coincidence, my 200th blog post in 195 weeks.  I am glad that the subject of the post is a soldier who laid down his life in the protection of our motherland.  One who is alive and on duty even after his death. 

I am grateful to all the readers, friends and well-wishers who have encouraged me over the last four years in this journey.  This hobby has kept me away from unwanted TV viewing and wasteful pursuits.  It has helped me in learning new things and develop interest in varied aspects of life.......