theindialog

December 9, 2009

Fort Kochi

Filed under: Kerala,Leisure — loggers @ 11:01 am

Often times I (and others) forget that we had Western colonizers and settlers other than the British, dating back to the 15th century. The coastal regions were where most of this took place, and our exposure to those areas was limited in previous states. A visit to Fort Kochi, an island off the city Ernakulum and right next to the bustling Cochin Port, reminded me of that fact.

Vasco da Gama landed at Kozhikode back in 1498, and the church that was built[1] by the Portuguese soon after, still stands today. He was buried at that church, with the tombstone still present till date. In addition to the Portuguese, the Dutch also staked their claim to the port, with a palace and cemetery reflecting their past presence.

Dutch Cemetery

Chinese, Jews and Arabs were prominent traders[2] that came, and left their mark on the Malabar coast. Chinese fishing nets, so called because of their unique process as introduced by the Chinese, feature prominently along the shore. There is also a Jewish synagogue, supposed to be the oldest in the British Commonwealth, in an area of the island called Jew town.

Chinese fishing nets

Homestays are a very popular mode of accommodation on this island, where local families host tourists in their home for as little as Rs.400. Bicycles are the best mode of transport, which can be rented for Rs.50/day. Fort Kochi, with all its multicultural past, is definitely worth a visit prior to continuing further south towards the backwaters.

-Mihir


[1] St. Francis Church was the first European church to be built in India, in 1503

[2] Spices such as ginger, cardamom, cloves and pepper dominated trade then

November 13, 2009

Buoyant Benaras

Filed under: Leisure,Religion,Uttar Pradesh — loggers @ 10:01 am

Thus far, most places we have visited have beckoned us due to their explanatory power. In our attempt to avoid repetitions, we’ve selected villages, towns and cities which have a unique place on India’s economic, political or socio-cultural map. Benaras, and Uttar Pradesh, were chosen for their ability to augment the religious and political understanding of India.

As soon as we arrived in Benaras, we headed to the Dashashwamedh ghat (bank) to attend the evening Ganga aarti (prayer). This daily ritual, witnessed by hundreds of tourists, is a visual delight that is a mandatory stop for everybody visiting the city. In fact, many tourists are drawn to Benaras by the visuals of this ceremony. The practice captures the often inexplicable religiosity of a majority of Indians who worship a multitude of objects, living beings and geographical features. The Ganges is considered the lifeline of the north as it is credited with lending fertility to the lands of several states before it merges with the Bay of Bengal. However, this knowledge and the mere existence of the water body has become a curse for these states which take the flow of the river for granted and refuse to part with their lands for any activities, thereby not fully exploiting its fecundity.

GangaAarti

Preparations for the evening Ganga Aarti

On Diwali day we visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple, considered one of the most sacred spots in the country for Hindus. The compound surrounding the temple also contains a mosque, which is surrounded by barbed wire. The very existence of 2 different places of worship in the same complex is most telling. Not only does it reveal the coexistence of multiple communities in India, it is a comment on the insecurity of a mosque in a post-Babri India. That barbed wires have been erected to prevent another demolition is a worrying reality. The area is heavily guarded by security personnel, who themselves routinely jump queues to enter the temple in order to seek blessings. The line to enter the temple is quite heterogeneous by region, as patrons from across the country throng the site.

We proceeded to taste some Benarasi thandai, a milky concoction of saffron, almonds, peppermint and cream. These stalls are famous for their bhaang (marijuana) thandai. We stuck to the sober version which was quite a delight. We also checked in at a local chaat shop to sample various local delicacies. The tamatar (tomato) chaat is an idiosyncrasy and a must try. Another item not to be missed, which is unique to Benaras is Baati Chokha — a local favorite consisting of a coal baked wheat ball and a mixed vegetable made of potatoes, aubergine, tomato, garlic, onion and mustard oil.

Thandai

Thandai being prepared

baatichokha

Baati Chokha stalls

To truly explore Benaras you must get hold of a local, preferably with a motorbike as the alleys of the city house its most precious sites and practices. 2 loggers and our host (a local journalist) traversed Benaras on one motorbike — it was a workable exercise in addition to being a visual delight for bystanders. This is how we made our way to India’s biggest and most pious cremation ground. The banks also serve as burning grounds for bodies of the deceased which are brought in large numbers. It is said that the process is perpetual, and the practitioners believe that there is an expressway from this spot to heaven. In order to ensure that none of the souls go to hell, the orchestrators of the last rites pull out the spinal cord of the bodies – while they are burning – and throw them into the river for purification. Apparently, all sins are washed away by the receptacle of all living and non-living things — the Ganges.

Cremation Ground

During our stay in Benaras we visited the Benaras Hindu University, one of Asia’s largest educational institutions. The museum within the campus, Bharat Kala Bhawan, is remarkable as it houses a wide range of artifacts. The curator complained of insufficient funding and as a result, a deficiency of manpower and space. In fact, only 2 per cent of the collection has been displayed. Despite these constraints, the museum has been very well maintained. The University, with ~100 departments, is a wonder in itself.

BHU

Library at BHU

To conclude we would like to submit that a part of India’s pulse can be gauged in Benaras. Its narrow streets with countless people, order in that chaos and multiple shades of every color make for the right paraphernalia for one of the world’s oldest cities. It is a confluence of history, religion and spiritualism which questions the simplicity of frameworks usually deployed to understand India.

October 22, 2009

The Bihar Buddha Trail

Filed under: Bihar,Leisure,Religion — loggers @ 11:23 pm

After a night in Patna, we pushed off for an excursion to the Nalanda and Gaya districts- centers of origin for Buddhist and Jain philosophies. Our first stop was the ancient Nalanda University, a monastery and educational institution, which dates back to the days of Buddha and Mahavir (6th century BC). The institution represented that of a modern-day liberal arts college as it offered courses ranging from Philosophy to Grammar to Astronomy. With living quarters for the monks and designated lecture grounds, and even had international students enrolled from China and Persia at its peak in 5th century AD. While the 5th, 6th and 7th levels have been excavated, much of the ruins remain underground and are yet to be seen dug up by archeologists.

Campus ruins

Campus ruins

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

Private monk-to-disciple teaching quarters

From Nalanda University, we drove about 40kms to the city of Rajgir. One of the first things we noticed were signs pointing to a Japanese temple. We later found that the presence of East Asian countries with heavy Buddhist influence would only increase as we gained proximity to Bodhgaya, the city where Buddha attained enlightenment. We topped off the evening with a sunset ropeway ride down from the World Peace shrine (also built by the Japanese), which is perched upon a hill where Buddha spent time meditating.

The World Peace shrine

The World Peace shrine

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The following day, we took another short road trip to Bodhgaya, where Japan, Tibet, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Thailand have all erected their own respective Buddhist shrines with unique ethnic flavors. The town is also home to the sacred peepul tree under which Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment. As a result, the town is a hotbed of tourist activity, where you can also find travelers from all over the world crowded around a snake charmer outside a Japanese temple, before grabbing lunch at a Thai restaurant- something one may not expect from small-town India.

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Thai shrine in Bodhgaya

Local shop signs in Japanese 'katakana'

Just another shop sign in katakana

October 14, 2009

The Power of Trump Cards

Filed under: Cricket,Leisure,Tidbits — loggers @ 10:47 pm

What has kept us busy during 300+ hours of train/car rides:

WWE

WWE

ODI & T20 Cricket

ODI & T20 Cricket

Wickets 479, clash.

October 12, 2009

Temple Visits in Orissa

Filed under: Economics,Leisure,Orissa,Religion — loggers @ 12:52 am

To complete our visit to Orissa, we dedicated a day to visiting the Konark ruins and the Jagannath temple. The ruins of Konark, one of the 4 sun temples in India, are located ~65km outside of Bhubaneshwar on the road to Puri. While a guide is helpful for explaining the history behind the construction/destruction of the temple, this information can also be found easily on Wikipedia. What we found fascinating were the intricate, and graphic, carvings on the temple walls.

The Konark temple ruin

The Konark temple ruin

The enormous wheels that border the temple were geometrically designed as timetables- depicting what people should be doing at different times of the day under social norms. Most of the other 100’s of carvings on the walls had one defining feature in common- they were all depiction of the kama sutra. A barrage of positions will keep you engaged as you stroll around the main structure, and a guide would be able to provide interesting insight as some may be difficult to decipher. The morning, mid-day, and evening sun gods overlook the grounds, and each is given the spotlight during his respective hour while you find the others in the shade. The geometrical precision and cultural boldness in the carvings make for an eye-opening spiritual/historical experience.

Timetable wheel in the midday shadow

Konark wheel in midday shadow

Polygamy

Polygamy

The Jagannath temple, located in the city of Puri[1], is more aligned with what we are used to seeing in Hindu places of worship. We left our cameras and phones in the car, because photography is prohibited, and headed up the 2km road to the temple on rickshaws. The shrewd locals have capitalized on this being one of the most popular religious destinations in the world, erecting dharamsalas lining both sides of the road. Later that evening, the city market was buzzing with a peculiar energy. Fish vendors, local pujas, rickshaw wallahs and snack stalls were all in action, while an old-fashioned cremation was taking place just off the road. Everyone was spending money in some way or another and contributing to the unofficial “C” that is not reflected in India’s GDP. This sparked thoughts on the suffocating grip that religion holds over the Indian economy…

What would happen if a Prime Minister ever announced that s/he was an atheist?

Can the number of religious holidays/occasions ever be curbed in the interest of productivity?

What is the country’s ratio of temples to schools or hospitals?

…Just food for thought

Puri beach- the Goa of the East

Puri- the Goa of East India


[1] Puri is also home to one of India’s cleanest beaches (comparable to Goa), where dolphins are occasionally spotted.

October 9, 2009

Raghurajpur — The Village of Artists

Filed under: Economics,Leisure,Orissa — loggers @ 6:55 pm

On our way back from Puri to Bhubaneshwar, we decided to take a short detour to Raghurajpur-known as the village of artists. Inspired by Dr. Jagannath Mohapatra, every household in the village is engaged in some form of craftsmanship. The vibrant colors and the laid-back atmosphere were inviting, and the villagers were eager to show us their work. As we sat down with the artists, they discussed the philosophy behind their art while also pushing their merchandise.

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The villagers cultivate their innate interest in art from an early age in order to develop the handicraft economy and promote eco-tourism. Their materials are 100% organic as the colors used are extracted from sea shells, stones and plants, while the fabric is generally made of palm. In addition, each household holds expertise in a distinct art-form and has a unique style. For example, the first house we visited specializes in intricately designed bookmarks (which make for great gifts), while the last house offered an elaborate beer cooler made from the shell of a coconut. This distinctiveness has given birth to a healthy, competitive market.

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At the conclusion of our visit, a local explained that during peak season, foreigners visit the village nearly every day. He has also set up accommodation for such tourists to immerse themselves in the “real” Orissa for a few days and interact with the villagers. This is a heartening example of a society that is capitalizing on their natural abilities to generate revenue for the state and promote a different form of tourism.

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Calcutta’s Old World Charm

Filed under: F&B,Leisure,Politics,Transport,West Bengal — loggers @ 6:51 pm

If in Assam people are used to a lahe-lahe (slowly) culture, then West Bengal seems to run at an even more leisurely pace. Calcutta, which served as the capital of the British East India Company, felt like a city stuck in the 60s, resistant to change. For one, Ambassadors are the only taxis that are allowed to roam the streets – mainly because the Hindustan Motors plant that manufactures these cars is located in the state. Rickshaws pulled manually are still a common mode of transport around the city. The city’s tram line is the only one of its kind in India and apart from a few modern carriages that have been recently introduced, most look like they haven’t been replaced since the British left. However, one aspect of urban transportation that the city has been ahead of others is in the Metro system. We took a ride and found it very clean and punctual. The platform even had cable TV showing the latest EPL highlights.

The Ambassador Taxi in Calcutta

The Ambassador Taxi in Calcutta

Rickshaw puller

Rickshaw puller

The Calcutta Tram

The Calcutta Tram

Jute, a very lucrative cash crop and abundantly grown in Bengal, is one of the state’s largest exports. We visited the Howrah jute mill, which was set up during the British time and subsequently purchased by a Marwari businessman. The mill was large, producing 130 tons of jute every day and employing hundreds of workers. However, the machines and processes being used seemed ancient, as if no changes had taken place in the last 6 decades. Dust and dirt filled the air around us and the environment seemed to come across as a health hazard for the workers.

Jute Mill

Jute Mill

Every big city has its own colonial imprint – for Calcutta, this is the Victoria Memorial Hall (the most popular tourist attraction, after the food that is). This lavish monument comes across as a mix between St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Taj Mahal. Inside, there is an excellent collection of historical photographs and paintings depicting times gone by. There is also a well preserved exhibition hall (air-conditioned) with timelines, artifacts and even a showcase portraying village life.

Victoria Memorial Hall

Victoria Memorial Hall

Aside from visiting a couple of colleges, Presidency and Jadavpur, we stopped by the well-renowned Indian Coffee House. This is the place where the quintessential Bengali comes to debate and discuss anything from the weather to cricket to politics, over a cup of coffee. A very simplistic milieu where even bottled water is not available, this is where the philosophy of Marx and Lenin find their most vocal support.

Indian Coffee House

Indian Coffee House

Change (in governance) in West Bengal could well be around the corner. A number of individuals whom we spoke to mentioned the rising tide and influence of Mamata Banerjee and her Trinamool Congress party. If victorious in the next election, it would be the first time a party other than the CPM would be in power over the last 3 decades. Maybe this is a sign of things to come.

September 30, 2009

A Night with the Singphos

Filed under: Assam,Leisure,Nature — loggers @ 12:21 am

After visiting Kaziranga, we left for Enthong- the village of the Singpho tribe in Assam. The Singpho were the first to discover the process of tea cultivation in India. They taught the process to the British, who then grew the Indian tea trade exponentially without giving the Singpho community their due credit. This has left a degree of resentment amongst the community, which until today sustains itself on tea farming (each household within the community maintains a plot of land for this). Today, the Singpho community in India is on the verge of extinction, with only ~25,000 remaining inhabitants. Other major Singpho hubs exist in China and Myanmar.

Manjela and Alok outside the Eco Lodge

Manjela and Alok outside the Eco Lodge

In Enthong, we stayed at The Eco Lodge, which is run by a Singpho family. It is situated amidst the tea gardens and is entirely made of bamboo (hence the name)[i]. The manager, Manjela, plans to install solar panels to power the entire lodge over the next year, and is only using conventional electricity until the lodge raises enough funding to switch to green technology. We learned that the lodge is partly funded by the DS Group, which plans to leverage its relationship with the Singphos in its future endeavors within the hospitality space.

Manjela playing the guitar

Manjela playing the guitar

Our room in the Eco Lodge

Our room in the Eco Lodge

Food was most certainly a highlight. We were served an elaborate, yet organic and eco-friendly, Singpho dinner that consisted of delicacies such as rice steamed in bamboo sticks, spicy tomato chutney, fresh eggplant, greens and potato preparations, and yam soup. The next morning, we awoke to the sounds of a howling gibbon (an endangered animal) and Manjela playing the violin.

Our traditional Singpho meal

Our traditional Singpho meal

Anti-dandruff shampoo for Rishi

Anti-dandruff shampoo for Rishi

The Eco Lodge is in the district of Margarita in Upper Assam. It has 11 rooms, and while we were the only guests at the time, it is frequently visited by foreign tourists who have heard about it through word-of-mouth. However, it maintains strict rules regarding respect towards the Singpho way of life, and manages to retain a tranquil and serene atmosphere. Establishments such as these should be encouraged as they promote a healthy tourist lifestyle and open doors to relatively unexplored parts of the country.


[i] One of the reasons why eco lodges are prevalent in the northeast is because ~60% of India’s bamboo cultivation takes place here- resulting in cheap inputs.

After visiting Kaziranga, we left for Enthong- the village of the Singpho tribe in Assam. The Singpho were the first to discover the process of tea cultivation in India. They taught the process to the British, who then grew the Indian tea trade exponentially without giving the Singpho community their due credit. This has left a degree of resentment amongst the community, which until today sustains itself on tea farming (each household within the community maintains a plot of land for this). Today, the Singpho community in India is on the verge of extinction, with only ~25,000 remaining inhabitants. Other major Singpho hubs exist in China and Myanmar.

August 30, 2009

Science City and the Akshardham Temple

Filed under: Gujarat,Leisure — loggers @ 12:53 am

Ahmedabad is decorated with signboards pointing to Science City, home of the Vibrant Gujarat campaign. Eager to see what all the fuss was about, we visited the uniquely positioned theme park. After marveling at the aesthetically pleasing infrastructure and energy/space exhibits, we were hit by an overshadowing observation- the place was dead. Though elaborately designed, the science hall consisted mainly of satellite images of India (think Google Earth), and the energy park’s main feature was a pond where one can squirt water onto a tiny dancer to make her swivel around (this was actually quite fun).

It is disappointing to see such a large-scale project going down the drain- especially one that can have enormous relevance today, with energy being such a hot topic. The infrastructural foundation is set and the hardest part is over. Now, to bring in the crowds it just needs to be made more exciting.

Space Hall at Science City

Space Hall at Science City

Pathway to the giant globe

Pathway to the giant globe

A few features that we believe would increase footfall are solar-powered bumper cars, science-themed mini golf, and a more educational demonstration of how hydro-power is generated.

It was interesting to see that the Akshardam temple was more happening than Science City. We entered to the sounds of screaming uncles and aunties who were catching a quick TORATORA ride before their afternoon prayer session. The water slides, although not fully-functional at the time, supplemented the 8-9 amusement park rides to create a bewildering cross between Six Flags and Swaminarayan worship. Refreshments are served at numerous stalls and the screening of Mystic India in the temple theater is worth catching if you have the time.

August 14, 2009

Wagah: The Indo-Pak Border

Filed under: Leisure,Politics,Punjab — loggers @ 3:00 am

We drove past a special security barricade at the Wagah border to enter a reserved seating zone, excited to witness the ‘Changing of the Guards’ ceremony.

loggers at wagah

loggers at wagah

It was a stadium setting where Indian stands were full (2,000+ spectators) 2 hours before the event, and Pakistani fans trickled in gradually. On the Indian side, women were given flags and were allowed to run ~20 meters up to the gate and back (foreign women got the loudest cheers). The countries created a competitive atmosphere by playing patriotic pop songs on their loudspeakers, and again, only the Indian women were permitted to dance freely to the tunes. On the Pakistani side, the men were doing the dancing. What transpires before the ceremony begins is a manifestation of Bharat Mata, the belief that India is a feminine entity.

women empowerment at the border

women empowerment at the border

Another aspect of Indian culture that is carried up to the border is accommodation for VIPs. Two rangers were deployed to monitor the reserved seating zone, and these rangers would not allow VIPs to participate in the ceremony because, according to a BSF jawaan, “Dehatis” (or villagers) would be given priority.

jawaans assemble before their marches

jawaans assemble before their marches

The ceremony began at 6:30pm, when 5 jawaans lined up to perform their individual marches. It was a powerful display of intimidation, where rangers pumped up the crowd with energetic kicks and stomps. Fans on both sides chanted patriotic slogans as the guards marched up to the border and stared each other down with their arms flared. Eventually, the gates were violently thrown open and we were able to gaze onto Pakistani soil. The guards on the other side were taller and clad in black uniforms with red waistbands (in our opinion they were more daunting than the Indian jawaans).

Indian jawaan strikes an intimidating pose

Indian jawaan strikes an intimidating pose

Clearly, Wagah embodies the political tension between India and Pakistan, and thereby makes for an exhilarating experience for tourists. It is essentially where 62 years of cross-border conflict meets T20 cricket. It would be nice to see both sides finding a way to popularize a quest for peace in the region for a change. After the stare-down between opposing guards, a friendly handshake may do the trick…or perhaps a hug?

Golden Temple & Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar

Filed under: Leisure,Punjab — loggers @ 2:58 am

Loggers at GT

We noticed that the complex was clean and peaceful despite being thronged by thousands of visitors. The walls were decorated by Omega and Baume & Mercier clocks. Bhajans were being played on dozens of strategically placed Bose speakers. After having visited other places of worship around the country, we were taken aback by the advanced technological infrastructure.

B&M at GT

The line to enter the main chamber, where the Guru Granth Sahib is kept, was 45 minutes long at 2pm on a Sunday afternoon. Unlike other queues, the path was lined with multiple fans which made the wait comfortable. As live bhajans (prayer songs) were being played on speakers on both sides of the line, people maintained silence and order. Women and men have to cover their heads before entering the premises. As the walk has to be done barefoot, avoid visiting the temple on a hot, sunny day.

Waiting at GT

Upon entering the chamber, we were blasted with cool air from the Daikin ACs. The main structure is divided into 2 floors and a terrace. We found mini-balconies where we sat individually and absorbed the lake view and the temple atmosphere. We would recommend spending some time in the main temple and also going up to the terrace for the views it offers. While exiting, do try the sheera served by the temple officials.

Terrace

The temple also has a museum, with paintings and relics depicting the history of the Sikh community. The paintings were surprisingly violent, depicting the murders of religious and political Sikh leaders. Interestingly, the so called ‘terrorists’ of the Blue Star operation of 1984 were classified as heroes by many of the writings alongside photos of the time. A particular caption under a post operation picture of the temple is paraphrased as:

“Thousands of Sikhs were attacked in a calculated move by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The event was a uniting force for all Sikhs, and the community soon had its vengeance” (with Indira Gandhi’s assassination)

Turbunator

Jallianwala Bagh, a garden infamous for the bloody incident that sparked an aggressive and urgent struggle for independence from British rule, is a few meters away from the Golden temple. Neat stone tablets at the entrance explained the significance of the area. We were impressed by the maintenance of the site by the Department of Tourism. Important historical landmarks were highlighted and the park, known for its gory past, was manicured to be aesthetically appealing, a great positive for the tourism sector as a whole.

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala Bagh

Jallianwala

August 9, 2009

Dachigam National Park

Filed under: J&K,Leisure,Nature — loggers @ 12:58 am

During our visit to the Dachigam National Park in Srinagar, the park Ranger allowed us to access a private area of the park. We bypassed a beautiful house[1] constructed by the Maharaja of Kashmir as a hunting lodge, and then trekked a few kilometers searching for black bears and endangered musk deers (hanguls).

Rest stop in Dachigam

Rest stop in Dachigam

Along the way, we were entertained by a guide, who bragged about his unparalleled knowledge of botany and zoology. To his dismay and ours though, we were unable to spot any of the endangered animals he promised to show us. We ended up seeing a lot of bear feces, and kept ourselves busy by making mating calls to Kashmiri wobblers.

All in all, it was a refreshing 3-hour walk through nature- a great change of pace from the rest of our appointments.


[1] The house is currently used by the Chief Minister of J&K as a holiday home

July 28, 2009

Shikara Ride on the Dal

Filed under: J&K,Leisure,Small Businesses — loggers @ 7:41 pm

After a meeting with Nisar Ali, Chief Coordinator of Post-Graduate Studies, University of Kashmir and member of the state Finance Commission (more on that later), we sat down for nun-chai (salty Kashmiri tea) with a friendly houseboat owner.

nun-chai and Kashmiri bagels

nun-chai and Chochuru (Kashmiri bagels)

The octogenarian houseboat owner told us that this was his family business and that his father and he had managed the business for 2 generations. He introduced us to his son, Basheer, who, despite his mother’s reservations, migrated to the US to pursue a career in medical technology. Basheer is now based in Los Angeles where he works in the radiology department of a local hospital. He lives in Srinagar during the summer months and is in the process of building a house here. Since we are interested in unearthing evidence of intergenerational economic mobility, we found his story compelling. When asked about his family, Basheer mentioned that he wants his children (2 daughters) to pursue their education in Srinagar until they are 15 to instill local cultural values.

After our rendezvous with Basheer we boarded our Shikara on the Nageen Lake. The 1.5 hour ride took 5 of us from the New Majestic House Boat to the Dal lake gate for INR 500.

Common Shikara

Common Shikara

During the ride we saw an active lake-community , which included shops for vegetables, handicrafts, carpets, telecom and pharmaceuticals. The majority of the population belongs to the Shia sect of Islam. The market was open despite the city-wide strike. A large part of the community has been developed illegally. As the lake economy is thriving, the size of the Dal lake itself is decreasing- a negative externality for a state whose primary industry is tourism.

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