RAILWAY MILLIONAIRES

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As Railways ventured into Kashmir Valley, it paid 600 crore as compensation for land to people. But as the train chugs, the traces of the millions are barely visible. Hamidullah Dar reports.

File photo of Rail in Kashmir

File photo of Rail in Kashmir

The rail line in Kashmir that provides an alternate means of safe transport and is expected to enhance economic activity within the Valley has left many cursing their fate, though for surprising reasons. The people who sold their land to railways for tracks and stations received a lot of money in compensation, but, before the train started chugging, the money was gone.

The construction of railway line in Kashmir threw up many millionaires overnight, in the most unexpected of places. As the Qazigund-Baramulla train runs through rural areas many poor villagers whose land fell under the track received a windfall of money, which they could not hold on to. Meanwhile, after parting with their land most of these millionaires have become landless labourers in less than four years.

Prof Nisar Ali

Prof Nisar Ali

Prof Nisar Ali of Kashmir University’s economics department says, “In Kashmir there are small agricultural land holdings and when farmers parted with land assets, it should have been replaced with liquid assets. Unfortunately due to unawareness and illiteracy, the land donors could not invest the money in profitable economic activities that could have ensured a secure income in absence of land.”

In the absence of any understanding of wealth management, the cash did not last long, though these “millionaires” enjoyed a luxurious interlude. Some really poor villages, which sold the land to railways, saw a construction boom during 2003 to 2005.

“They should have established small scale industrial units or at least deposited the money in the bank. But it went into consumption like making houses or paying debts,” says Ali.

Kurigam village provided its agricultural land for the 800-kanal Qazigund railway station. More than 40 families of the village became millionaires overnight. However, after five years the traces of prosperity have disappeared.

In a couple of years after the land sale, the village would be abuzz with 30 odd vehicles moving on its narrow roads with frantic construction activity going on.

Local resident Abdul Gani received over 20 lakh rupees in compensation of the land he gave to railways, four years later he works as a wage labour.

“There was construction boom all around and a huge demand for men and construction material. I too purchased two Sumo vehicles besides constructing this house. I married off two sons also. Two million rupees vanished in less than two years. The vehicles had to be sold to pay for the debts accrued due to construction of house. Now we work for others to eke out a livelihood,” says Abdul Gani.

Another Kurigam villager Bashir Ahmad Mir, who runs a medical shop outside Sub-district Hospital Qazigund, is bitter over the way his fellow villagers “wasted” the money. “There were 40 millionaires in our village in 2003 but today almost 70 percent of them work as manual labourers now. They are slightly better off than beggars,” rues Mir.

Well, Mir could afford to be angry with others as his family is a rare case, which invested the money wisely. Mir’s family purchased 30 Kanals of land with the money they received for the 24 kanals taken by the railways.

Today, barring a row of good houses adjacent to the railway station, there is no visible sign of prosperity that could suggest that this village once owned more than Rs 18 crore in cash.

The story is the same elsewhere. While sauntering in his small paddy fields near the Sadura railway station in Islamabad district, farmer Abdul Majid wears a bitter grin. Most of his small land holdings were taken over for constructing the station. He got one and a half million in compensation. “I got Rs.15 Lakh for the land and soon constructed separate kitchen and bathroom as our house did not have any. Then we purchased a truck and I went on Hajj. Unfortunately, except for that kitchen and bathroom, nothing is left,” says Majid. “Whenever I visit this remaining patch of land the train looks like a python that devoured my lands,” adds he, cleaning his nose with the right sleeve of his Pheran.

The 119-Km Qazigund-Baramulla railway line winds its way through136 villages and has consumed more than 16000 kanals of mostly agricultural land. It threw up hundreds of millionaires but only a handful still have the millions.

The reasonably good houses in Ganoora village in Islamabad betray the poverty of its inhabitants. Out of the 130 households of the village 90 are classified as living below poverty line (BPL). Land belonging to more than fifty families came under the railways.

After receiving the money around forty persons performed Haj, which was quite unusual in this poverty stricken village before the railway money.

“Until 2003 only three persons from our village had gone on holy pilgrimage. The easy-come money made people impatient for this conditional religious obligation, leaving aside other important things like ensuring a permanent source of income in absence of land. Today 90 of the 130 families in the village live below poverty line,” says Mohammad Ayub Bhat, who works in the Social Welfare department.

Ghulam Mohammad Palla of Ganoora, who received Rs11.60 lakh for 7 kanals and six marlas taken by the railways, is listed as a BPL family now.

“I purchased two kanals of land, constructed a house, married off two children (son and daughter) and performed Haj,” says Palla. “Today my condition is so bad that I had to sell paddy straw to pay school fees of two grand daughters as there is no money in hand.”

Land from a total of 34 villages from Islamabad district (including Kulgam) was used for laying railway line. About 4269 kanal of land were compensated with an amount of Rs 790 million in the district.

Though many of these “railway millionaires” mismanaged the money by indulging in “luxuries”, there were many who tried to put it in some business but could not. In the absence of any skills or simply because they had been farmers all their lives, they could not hold on to the money.

Mohammad Abdullah Bhat of Tokna in Pulwama district was eager to get his only son, Tariq, rid of carpentry so that he could come home every day. As luck would have it, he got Rs 13 lakh as compensation for the land marked for railway track. The father-son duo went into frenzy and hurriedly constructed a house with Rs 8 lakh.

“With the rest of the money my son started walnut business. Having suffered losses in it he switched over to cattle trade but here also luck did not favour him and there remained no money with us,” says Bhat.

For Tariq, now work even as carpenter is hard to come by. “Now I have to wait for days together untill someone asks for work. The business (walnut and cattle trade) reduced my circle of contacts besides my erstwhile colleagues became jealous about my becoming millionaire overnight and living a cozy life for a few years,” says Tariq.

Tariq’s neighbour Mohammad Abbas Mir got Rs12 lakh and purchased a tipper truck. “I was earning well as I would ferry earth for the railway track. But once it was completed, the vehicle would remain in the house courtyard without work for days. The driver also proved reckless enough to render the truck worth Rs 10 lakh a mass of iron that I later sold for just Rs 3.5 lakh, which went into construction of three-room house,” says Abbas.

With the ten lakh rupees Ghulam Ahmad Mir of Mazhama in Budgam district received as compensation he tried to set up some business for his unskilled son. “I opened a shop for my son in a nearby village with an investment of two lakh rupees. After one year it had to be closed down due to heavy losses. Then I rented a shop for him in my own village and spent another two lakh rupees but the earlier experience of loss was repeated.

Gautam Navlakha

Gautam Navlakha

“With the rest of the money I constructed the house to at least save something,” rues Mir whose comparatively judicious planning was spoiled by his son.

But, some like Ghulam Rasool (name changed) of Reshipora Budgam did not invest the money in business. His only daughter would get no suitors as they lived in a tin shed with tarpaulin for a roof. He built a four room single storey house with the Rs 3.5 lakh they got in compensation for the land.

“I invested the money in constructing the house. Now I have a house but no money to marry off my daughter,” he says pleading not to be named.

However, many allege that they only parted with their land over promises of getting a job.

Ali Mohammad Lone of Pattan Baramulla convulses in rage and swears that he was cheated. “I swear I was cheated. They (railway authorities) promised me a job when they snatched my lands but did not keep the promise,” says he.

A labourer, Lone is left with no money. “Around Rs 9 lakh went in constructing this house (a five-room elegant structure) and another five lakh in marrying off my two daughters. I have no money,” complains Lone.

Equally “unlucky” is Abbas Lone of the same village. Once owning two million rupees, he purchased a truck, a Sumo passenger vehicle and one Maruti car for himself. “As ill luck would have it, everything disappeared in a matter of three years,” says Abbas who now ferries timber logs for Rs. 120 as wages a day.

Adjacent to Pattan railway station is a small hamlet Watawan. A row of newly constructed houses overtly indicates that “railway millionaires” reside here. Haji Ghulam Nabi Dar, now popularly known as ‘Naba Karori’ also lives here along with his family which includes seven daughters. He reportedly received Rs. one crore as compensation for the land that now is part of Pattan station.

“People just say I got one crore; it is not that much,” blurts Dar. “This blown out estimation of my wealth incurred jealousies and provoked machinations”.

Dar is reluctant to talk about the money he received. “Whatever I got, I purchased land for Rs 7 lakh and constructed house on it at a cost of one million rupees,” Dar leaves it here. However, after a few more minutes he says, “I purchased a 20-kanal orchard at Kawsar. At night unidentified persons would barge into my house and demand money. So I purchased land and now I have no money.”

One of his daughters busy doing chain stitch on a rug interrupted. “Why do you ask my father how he spent the money. Every family in this colony pocketed millions and they dumped it in banks, now feigning destitute. Everybody is after my papa.”

Even after receiving Rs one crore, Dar’s daughters continue with the work they used to do before their father acquired the sobriquet Naba Karori.

Unlike Dar, Nazir Ahmad of Kralhar, Baramulla is literate and a government employee. He works in the Baramulla Deputy Commissioner’s office. Railway consumed all his 14 kanals of land and in return he got two million rupees. He frankly divulges how he spent it. “I paid off some long pending debts. I also constructed a house and married off my children,” he says adding that he deserved one job for his son in railways as his entire land was taken away.

Prof. Ali says that the money was bound to be “squandered” as they were not skilled and lacked any understanding of wealth management. In the absence of any technical and entrepreneurial training the money went into consumption.

“It happened and happened in a shocking way. These land donors will suffer more now. However, if government provides them jobs then only their loss could be compensated,” says Prof. Ali.

Kralhar, Chandsuma and Khawajabagh in Baramulla had nearly 30 railway millionaires but today everyone of them is desperately seeking a Class 4 (low level) job in railways. They have formed a union of those whose land was consumed by railways. From Qazigund to Baramulla, every land giver told Kashmir Life that he had paid membership fees of Rs 500 to the union to ensure their employment. Haji Ghulam Rasool Allaie, President All Kashmir Kisan Railway Association said, “There are 3000 members of the union out of which 500 got jobs in Railways. We have been constantly taking up the matter with state and central governments so that every family whose land was taken by railways gets at least one job.”

 

New Delhi based economic expert and analyst Gautam Navlakha says that people everywhere (in subcontinent) meet the safe fate once they sell their land.

“How do you calculate the price of the land? A family lives on land for generations and how can you calculate the value of livelihood that you get from that land and how will you convert it into money? This is always a problem that the money you get from selling the land is never the right price,” said Navlakha.

He adds that land acquisition of farmers amounts to “luring peasants in parting with their lands without caring for their future.”

Thought government washes its hands off by providing compensation for the land, Navlakha says its responsibility doesn’t end there.

“Land givers should be educated to use money from enabling them to move from one source of livelihood to another. That was not done. Compensation must take into consideration that the land provider must enjoy at least the economic condition which it had been enjoying before parting with the land,” he said.

Another aspect of the acquisition has been the revenue frauds.  Almost all the farmers whose land was acquired by the railways allege that revenue officials, mostly patwaris embezzled crores of rupees. “The revenue officials would mark wrong Khasra numbers and extract money from farmers. My land under Khasra number 50 was taken by railway department while as revenue officials showed Khasra number 390 instead, which is about half a kilometer away from the railway line. I filed a writ petition in High Court and the case is in final stage of hearing,” says Ghulam Mohammad Bhat of Laribal, Pulwama

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