Devious Dispossession

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At a time when the BJP-PDP government is loudly talking about the new road encircling Srinagar as a major add to manage infra-deficit, nobody in the governance circuit is trying to see the bloodless massacres that the road is leading to, reports Shams Irfan

Freshly cut apples trees in Wathoora village where new road will be built soon.

The calm in Budgam’s Wathoora village is broken by the sound of fast moving trucks and lumberjacks, working with their heavy axes on once blooming apple and plum trees.

Once an eye soothing vast stretch of apple and plum orchards, Wathoora’s fate is sealed by two small yellow concrete poles – erected 120 feet apart – marking the boundary for upcoming Semi-Ring Road (SRR).

This 61 km long road will connect Gallendar in Pampore town with Manigam in Ganderbal, and move forward to connect with Sonmarg, all the way to Baltal base camp and finally to Ladakh. But, despite the voluntarily felling of fruit-bearing trees by farmers, whose orchards will be part of the new highway, there is visible resentment.

“Government should have taken barren land instead of fertile orchards,” feels Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a social activist. “We live in a land deficit valley where every fertile inch of land is precious, but still they chose orchards for this highway.”

The Rs 2144 crore National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) project, covering around six-thousand kanals of apple, plum and paddy land, in Pulwama, Budgam, Srinagar and Ganderbal districts, is the new infrastructure ruling BJPDP is talking about so loudly, these days.

In 2017, after the construction of this road was announced by the NHAI, the process of land acquisition, assessment of loss of crop and compensation began. This is where the trouble started.

The Jammu and Kashmir government has an outdated Land Acquisition Act, 1934, under which compensation offered, farmers say, is four times less than what their counterparts get in neighbouring Punjab and elsewhere. “They are offering us stamp rate of Rs 29 lakh per kanal plus fifteen percent solatium, while as the same land is sold for over Rs 80 lakh as per prevailing market rate,” said Bashir Ahmad Bhat, 66, who owns eight kanals of land on the outskirts of Wathoora village, out of which three kanals will be part of the new road soon. “What am I going to do with such low compensation? I cannot buy land elsewhere as rates have already skyrocketed because of the planned highway.”

Solatium is a consolation that government offers to landowners for taking over their land against their will, a sort of money to compensate the coercive jabirana takeover.

But Bashir is not alone, his brother Mohammad Afzal Bhat, 60, too, looks painfully at his plum orchards, which he soon has to axe to make way for the new road.

Jointly, Bhat brothers will lose 13 kanals of orchards comprising of 150 plum and 50 apple trees.

Paradoxically, Horticulture Department (Kashmir), which is entrusted with the assessment of damage to crop and trees, has based its conclusion on 1995 price level! Interesting, the government is using the 2011-12 price level in all its calculations including the SGDP.

Basing their assessments on 1995 price level is something that the government has done away with much earlier. But the ingredients of assessment are funny and tragic. A 22-year-old fruit-bearing plum tree, for instance, yields just 15 kgs of fruit in a season!

“Their assessment is flawed in more than one ways. A two-decade-old tree at least bears more than 140 kgs of plum,” said Bashir. “Even the wastage from such a tree is over 20 kgs.”

Interestingly, the officials from Horticulture Department came for assessment of crop in October when trees are denuded of the fruit and the foliage. Plum is harvested in July. “How can they assess our crops without even looking at a full bloomed plum tree?” asks Bashir.

Even Apple, the mainstay of the rural economy, is going the plum way. Horticulture Department has set the price of Rs 16, for every kilogram of apple fruit, in its assessment. Incidentally, the rate of every kilogram of C-class apple is Rs 10 under Market Intervention Scheme.

“Tell me where in the market will you get good quality apples for such an amount?” asks Ghulam Qadir Bhat, 65, a resident of Gudsatoo, who has to cut his apple orchard for sake of highway. “We are not against any developmental work, but at least give us adequate compensation so that we can live with dignity.”

As land owners dislocated by the new road started moving from one official to another, to get their voices heard, something interesting happened – farmers from Kashmir and Jammu joined hands and formed joint Ring/ Semi-Ring Road Land Owners Welfare Committee (RRLOWC).

“We joined hands once we realized that both parties were fighting for the same cause,” said Ghulam Ahmad Pal, RRLOWC Provincial President, Kashmir.

Under the banner of RRLOWC when farmers from Kashmir met BasharatBukhari, state’s Horticulture Minister, he was shocked to learn about meagre compensation NHAI was offering them. “He immediately ordered the formation of a committee to revise the assessment of damage to crop and trees as per current prices,” said Pal.

It has been over a month since, but nobody reached Pal and other farmers for revision of prices.

When contacted Director Horticulture, Mohammad Hussain Mir, pushed the ball into his subordinate’s court, saying: “I have nothing to do with this issue. I don’t look after compensation or assessment.” But it is his office that is presiding over the destruction of fruit-growers.

 Compensation Woes

In January 2018, Ali Mohammad Pal, 52, a farmer from Daharmuna (Budgam), breathed his last, days after he was told that his 10.5 kanals of ancestral paddy field would be taken up for the new highway for peanuts.

“He had a family of twenty to look after. He used to feed them by working in his fields. Who will feed them now,” asks Ghulam Ahmad Pal.

For Daharmuna,the stamp value set by the state government is just Rs 8.60 lakh. The requirement is 10 times more.“They are taking our land for almost free. Our fight is for equal compensation,” said Ghulam Ahmad Pal.

 Way Out

Despite being outdated the J&K’s Land Acquisition Act, 1934 has a window of hope for farmers, which if used properly can end the deadlock. “There is a provision of private negotiation with the farmers before any acquisition,” said Pal.

But NHAI has categorically rejected to go for any private negotiation unless, either state implements new Land Acquisition Act of 2013, or amends its’ existing Act.

“If state government puts some pressure on NHAI then why won’t they agree?” feels Pal. “It all depends on how strong our government is. But they don’t seem to bother about farmer’s welfare.” The crisis is that the state government agencies are aiding in exploitation and dispossession of the state subjects when they have adequate options available even within the law, which is obsolete by all means.

To press NHAI to abide by the state’s laws, a delegation of farmers from Kashmir met Deputy Chief Minister Dr Nirmal Singh in Jammu. But to their surprise, Dr Singh told the delegation that as long as J&K enjoys special status under Article 370, he cannot either press NHAI for private negotiation nor can he help farmers get compensation at par with other states. “That is why I ask you to work for the abrogation for Article 370,” Dr Singh told Pal.

“When we say put us at par with central land acquisition law, they say you have Article 370 here, so it cannot be done. But why don’t they respect Article 370 while implanting GST against our wishes or while sending NIA here?” asks Raja Muzaffar Bhat, a social activist.

For farmers like Pal and Bashir, the only ray of hope is if state government amends its Land Acquisition Act, 1934, and brings it at par with centre’s Land Acquisition Act of 2013. Under centre’s new Land Acquisition Act of 2013, compensation should be given at least one to two times the market value for land acquired in rural areas, and at least one times in case of urban areas.

“But I don’t see any political will among our politicians to bring us at par with the central act,” said Pal.

Demands

The members of RRLOWC headed by Pal have put forward three main demands: compensation should be three times of what government is offering right now; rehabilitation of farmers by offering one job each to the landowner; resettlement of those farmers who will be left landless after the acquisition. “But government officials, who often talk of farmer’s welfare on TV, are indifferent to our woes when you visit them in their offices. They don’t listen, rather try to dictate,” said Pal. “What will a person do with such small amount who have to move from a regular income to one-time paltry compensation and rebuild their lives? Taking a  farmers land is like cutting his arms or simply killing his sons. How can he survive?”

 Destroying Karewas

“Last time while constructing railways and Qazigund-Nowgam highway, authorities allowed soil extraction from precious Karewas of Pampore and Budgam. This soil was used for filling purposes, thus destroying the centuries-old Karewas,” said Raja Muzaffar.

According to experts, at least 20 percent of the Karewas in Pampore and Budgam are destroyed in the process. “If the process continues, we will be losing another 40 percent of the remaining Karewas.” The unmaking of Karewas has disastrous ecological consequences.

Instead, they should take soil from flood channel in Srinagar, which badly needs dredging. It will save Karewas, earn government some revenue, and clean the flood channel. It is a win-win situation for everyone.

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