Saving Heritage

When contractors and mafia patronized by local administration started vandalizing saffron Karewas a local shopkeeper decided to challenge them. Saima Bhat meets Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, who survived threats to fight against the daylight loot of heritage.

Ghulam Nabi Sheikh
Ghulam Nabi Sheikh

On October 19, 2013 the town hall of Pampore was packed with people ready to share their grievances with the state administration. Shalinder Kumar, divisional commissioner Kashmir, district commissioner, assistant commissioner,  revenue commissioner, Tehsildar and the officials of state police of Pulwama district were present and then suddenly a man in his early sixties, sporting white beard stood up and un-hesitantly started shouting at all of them for being the main culprits for looting the world famous saffron highlands of Pampore!

Wearing traditional dress and a white skullcap Ghulam Nabi Sheikh, a shopkeeper by profession, is known to almost everybody in the local administration. His stand against illegal land mafia made him a known figure in his hometown.

Sheikh says it all started in 2000 when the construction for the Kashmir’s only railway link was going on and till date it is continuing as the widening process of the Highway is underway.

“The administration had ordered them to take soil for filing purpose from Malangpora, Khrew and Kazura,” says Sheikh.

The arrangement would have cost them 800 Rupees per tipper but the bigger constructions companies instead preferred to take the soil from Chandhara, Lethpora, Hathiwara and other uplands. “They did so because it reduced the cost of the soil by 50 percent, to Rupees 400 per tipper,” says Sheikh, “But what it did to the Saffron fields is unexplainable and unpardonable.”

But what actually disturbed Sheikh were around 500 trucks loaded full with soil that used to cross his area twenty times a day. He says that it takes decades to shape up the uplands; however Pampore had been lucky to have them naturally.

“But the mafia of these contractors has turned the beautiful uplands into useless pits,” says Shiekh.

Sheikh’s house is situated on the main link road from where these trucks pass daily. He says if sometimes the windowpane of his kitchen, where his whole family dines together, remains open the dust layer gets on their food in just a second.

Sheikh’s younger brother has passed away recently, “Doctors treating him had written on his prescription that he died of infection in his chest. And it all happened because of trucks and the dust they carried.”

But before his brother’s death, Sheikh had joined  the mission to stop the movement of trucks from his area.

From Divisional Commissioner to Tehsildar, Sheikh along with some other members of the Traders Federation met almost everybody to stop the menace. “It was under Baseer Khan’s administration, DC Pulwama then, the tippers were asked to move during particular timings like before 9 in the morning and after 6 in evening.”

But Sheikh says it would not have happened but he gives credit to the news report that shopkeepers had published in a local daily that they are going to protest on highway along with the then opposition leader, Omar Abdullah.

“But then administration shifted and Naseema Lankar became DC and everything changed. What was happening hesitantly till then was now happening openly. We approached her and almost every administration head but nobody listned,” says Sheikh.

He says it was not possible without the support of administration. From a Panch, Sarpanch, Patwari, Tehsildar to DC everybody was involved with land mafia. He alleges that people, the actual land mafia culprits were ‘bribing’ everybody to be on their side. “They used to get money on monthly basis and the result is present day’s empty uplands, which look ugly.”

As per the ruling of High court any construction on Saffron fields is banned but situation on ground is entirely different.

The contractors involved with this scam tried to even bribe Sheikh but he says that he refused. “They offered me money, Rs 6 lakhs, when I refused they offered to construct the upper story of a local mosque and will help marry a poor girl from my area but I refused on all grounds.”

Unable to bribe him, the land mafia made it a point to harass Shiekh and his family.

The tippers crossing from Sheikh’s area used to buzz their horns for several minutes during night outside his house, “they did not let me sleep those days.”

“Then they planned to attack me physically. I am alive because I believe I was struggling for truth so nobody would harm me,” Sheikh says who himself owns 7 kannals of Saffron land.

He recalls a day when an FIR was filed in local police station against him. “Around 200 people accompanied me to the police station forcing the police officials to let me go.”

He also recalls the day when he and some of his other friends went to meet Dr Asghar Samoon. “He ordered a probe by Commissioner and when he came to our area to check how the land mafia has ruined our Saffron fields, he was taken away by Tehsildar and Patwari (Doosu area) and they misled him by showing him other fields.”

After that incomplete report another enquiry was ordered under the ACR Pulwama Dr Shah Faisal, but neither the report was made public nor any investigation was started, says Sheikh.

He adds that out of 100 shopkeepers in his area, “80 are suffering from chest infections and nobody is bothered.”

Sheikh even recalls one incident when he happened to be at a place in Pampore where a Tehsildar had come for inspection. “When Tehsildar asked to stop digging of soil, to my surprise contractor told him that he will cut him down into two pieces as the contractor had sent him Rs 60, 000 only a day before.”

But from this year, 2013 the administration is making some investigations as the construction of Highway is almost done. “They are just making fools of themselves by doing it now,” says Sheikh adding the gifts like money, mobiles and cars have become common bribes in Pampore.

Sheikh blames that a few big local contractors who are also suppliers for highway project, are the people behind the mess. “They call themselves senior citizens of our area but it was only because of them that our heritage is on verge of extinction.”

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