Off Track

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Saqib Mir spends a night with the residents of a distant Kokernag hamlet to understand how they survive and grow without all the basic facilities like electricity, water and access to road connectivity

KL Image: Saqib Mir

The evening of December 11, 2002 was as cold in Kanjnad hamlet as it was in the rest of Kashmir. Residents of this dusky, calm hamlet, barely 15 kms from Kokernag, were indoors with  kangris inside their pherans. Silence prevailed as birds had returned to their nests.

Parvaiz 5, and his sister Mehbooba 7, were  still playing in the yard of their house. She lit a match-stick that playfully touched Parvaiz’s clothes and all of a sudden he was on fire.

Frantic screaming got the attention of elders and within a few minutes whole village was around. They succeeded in dousing the flames. By then, he was half burnt. They readied for hospital but they had to trek almost a kilometer long distance to reach a village where they could find a lift. Kanjnad is off track, without a road access. They got a car but by the time they reported to hospital, Parvaiz was declared brought dead.

Located on the banks of Mawar, a tributary of fast flowing Brengi, the twin hamlets of Kanjnad and Faatan inhibit the foothills. Even during deluge, these villages get disconnected and live at God’s mercy. Residents said many of them died for lack of access to road as in emergency situations, they are unable to reach hospital in time.

The 120 families living in the twin villages for almost a century are literally untouched by the “modern” Kashmir that existed just at a stone throw away. There is no electricity, tapped water, road connectivity, health facilities or a bridge. Compared to Kanjnad that is located on the plains, Faatan is on a low plateau. From a distance, the tin-roofed homes suggest prosperity but inside them the kerosene lamps fight the darkness.

But they have cell phones. They recharge their batteries either by trekking some distance to a neighbouring village or simply by solar systems. An LPG stove in these villages is a quantum jump to modernity.

“We have LPG stoves but we cook food on traditional hearth because refill is cumbersome,” Jaan Begum, a housewife, said. After their day schooling is over, many children still go and collect brushwood from the nearby fields and woodlands. Aisha Begum 35, of Faatan said her kids go routinely to fetch fuel wood, even though going against her advice. “They know, lack of fuel wood means going to bed hungry,” she insisted.

Gulam Ali Dar 50, father of Parvaiz, who was charred to death, said he lost his three kids and father because of his failure to get them to hospital in time. Parvaiz apart, his two other kids Irshad and Mehbooba also died as minors. “Had my three children received medical treatment in time, they would have survived” Dar insists.

His father Abdul Aziz died on October 27, 2014, at a time when the entire village tried their best to take him to the other side of the river but failed. The only culvert that was connecting them to the rest of the world had been washed away in September 2014 floods.

Death is destiny but the entire village remembers his burial. The village had no burial shroud. They finally waved their hands and cried for help towards the village on the other bank separated by 120 meters of a roaring river. They wrote it on a paper and tied it with a pebble and threw to other side. Then a bag with shroud was tied with a rope and thrown towards them. Failing to take Dar to his ancestral graveyard in the other side of the river, they finally buried him locally.

Dar did not die alone in situational isolation. Amina Jan died at the age of 40 in labour pain.

Mohammad Rasheed of Faatan said their children barely reach high school as they drop out in eighth class. Low literacy has impacted them financially. There are not many people employed by the state because they lack education. There are two forests guards and one cop. Interestingly, the village has a primary school.

The twin villages grown corn and walnuts. But the output of both the crops depends on climate. This area is known for cloud bursts followed by flash floods that wreck havoc. Most of the adult residents are labourers. The village still has a functional watermill.

The twin hamlets are connected to outer world with three small handmade wooden culverts over Mawar. But when the river swells with additional discharge, it becomes impassable. During winters, the frost and snowfall adds to the crisis as they have to shovel the snow away for almost a kilometer. Residents rarely move around in the dark because it is frequented by wildlife.

Despite the dislocation, the residents are happy that they are not facing the 1990s humiliation. In fact, all the residents have harrowing memories because army would frequently visit them and ask about rebels.

Qadir Bhat (not his real name) remembers the day he accompanied his deaf neighbour to forests for fodder. That was 1996. Soldiers shouted at them, asking them to stop. Bhat stopped but not his deaf companion. They caught Bhat.

“Soldiers forced me to stand in front of a tree and put a hand grenade into the front pocket of my shirt and tried to take a photo of me,” Bhat said. “Perhaps they were trying to label me as a militant. I took the grenade out of my pocket and put that on the ground. They again took the grenade and put that into my pocket. The process continued for some time till finally I took off my shirt and failed their attempts to take a photograph of mine along with the grenade. In the meanwhile my mother fainted after seeing all that and it was only after that they let me go.”

The governance structure has denied them the basics and intends to keep them survive within the traditional systems. But the residents are keen to become modern. There is lot of concrete and cement being used in the twin villages. “We get it on our backs into the village,” one resident said. “We are living in dangerous area, or homes must have strong foundations.”

More interesting is that their mosque, located on the banks of the river, has electricity. It has loudspeaker as well. How the mosque has current when the residents do not have? Residents said the mosque is located on the fringes of the village and they have got some wires to connect it with the neighboring village! But why did not they do it for their homes too? There are no answers.

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