The ambitious Banihal-Qazigund tunnel, which is part of the 342-km-long Jammu – Baramulla railway line has changed the economic landscape on either sides of Jawahar Tunnel in southern Kashmir. But the boom in economy can permanently alter the ecological landscape as well as the biodiversity of the area, ARIFA GANI finds out.
Mohammad Isaac, 35, is a happy man these days. Sporting a bright yellow workers’ safety helmet, an orange-color jacket worn over a tattered, dust-clad, traditional kameez-pajama, and carrying a rugged look on his face, Isaac warily looks towards an engineer for directions near Pir Panchal Tunnel in south Kashmir’s Qazigund. There is not much to do, for now. He turns towards me.
“Not only will this tunnel bring the people closer who have been geographically divided by Pir Panchal Mountains, it has also brought employment opportunities for many of us. I used to go to far-off areas to search for employment. But for many months now, I have been working with on this project in my own area,” Isaac says, jubilantly.
Isaac’s story is not an exception in this south Kashmir’s Qazigund – Banihal belt which have become a focus of attention after the work on the ambitious Rs 3•9 billion Banihal-Qazigund rail project by the government of India started in 2003. The project which was awarded to the construction giant, Hindustan Construction Company (HCC), is gradually pushing the once-backward areas lying on either sides of Jawahar Tunnel towards the brink of modernization.
With the arrival of monstrous machinery which is being used to cut through the heart of Pir Panchal Mountains to make a tunnel for laying rail tracks, came new roads, jobs and business opportunities; a welcome change for the area which was never on the government’s radar for development.
However, the boom in construction is depriving these places of the scenic beauty of nature which will gradually alter the ecology. For example, considerable land has been lost to construction in Banihal area which earlier had lush green meadows and rich vegetation. This has dealt a huge blow to the biodiversity and landscape of the area.
Says Shabir Ahmad Khan, a resident of Nowgam area of Banihal, “Most of the people lost their agricultural land to the railway construction and people who had earlier 4-5 kanals of land are just left with few marlas. Loss of agricultural land is not the only cost paid by the people. The water that seeps from the tunnel enters directly into Nalah Bislari, which caters to the water needs of the people. This has resulted in the death of a variety of fish for which this stream was once famous. In fact, the water has turned grayish with huge deposits of chemicals at its base.”
“For the last 4-5 years, the toxic water has made its way into Nalah Bislari. It is only now that the harm done to the stream has grabbed attention of the construction agency. This project has, however, managed to bring in jobs for the locals who have been employed in the construction work alongside the skilled and unskilled labor force from outside the state,” says Nisar Ahmad, a driver, who works with HCC.
The construction boom also led to the displacement of people, mostly farmers, whose land was bought by the government to make way for the railway network. The dry and wet land owned by the residents was brought at ‘reasonable’ rates. However, the government has not offered help to the residents in buying new farmable land in the adjoining areas.
“Since the government was taking away our land, we believed that we would be paid sufficient compensation which will help us in purchasing farmable land in the nearby areas. But we had to add money from our pockets to purchase new land,” says Habibullah Khan, a resident of Banihal.
To excavate the tunnel in Pir Panchal Mountains, extensive blasts were carried out by the construction agency which left behind a lot of redundant material, mostly stones, which have been used in the construction of roads, resulting in their poor durability. The blasts have also caused deep cracks in the houses lying in the vicinity of the mountains with the locals alleging that the government provided them ‘meager compensation’ for carrying out repairs. Most of the houses have been damaged beyond repair and almost all of them need to be rebuilt. The locals also allege that the sound of the blasts has also affected the hearing capability of some people in the area.
The authorities have