Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Kashmir valley has an area of 15,948 square kilometers. Less than 50 % of this total area is cultivable and agri based activities take place only in plains between Qazigund and Kupwara plus some surrounding hilly areas. Rest of the area is covered with thick forests, huge mountains, and glaciers.
The population of Kashmir valley is settled between the plains of Kamraz (North Kashmir), Yamraz (Central Kashmir) and Maraz (South Kashmir).
The agricultural land is shrinking day by day as all the so-called developmental activities are taking place in the three zones of Kashmir mentioned above.
There are highways, railways, bridges, flyovers, airports, military establishments, business establishments, schools, colleges, universities, cement plants, brick kilns, industrial estates, government offices and much more infrastructure available within the three zones of Kashmir. All the constructions have come up on the agricultural land and on daily basis, Government and private players are acquiring land for setting up more and more industrial units, shopping malls, housing colonies, hotels, business units and highways etc.
When the work on Qazigund –Srinagar- Baramulla rail link began in the mid-1990’s, everyone welcomed it. Around 10 years later when the work was completed, people noticed how much destruction this railway line caused to our agriculture land. Our Karewas (wonders) became the first victims of development.
Karewas which are the plateau-like sedimented terraces can be found in all the three zones of Kashmir (Kamraz, Yamraz, and Maraz).
The Karewas are lacustrine in nature (associated with lakes) and found mostly in Pulwama and Budgam districts. There area almond, apple and pear orchards found in Karewas. Saffron is also grown on the karewa land. During construction of Qazigund –Baramulla rail-line, the Karewas were bulldozed as soil excavation was undertaken up from these elevated terraces. The railway engineers could have explored the construction of pillars for the said rail project on the pattern of Delhi Metro, but they chose to create an elevated highway like space on which railway tracks were set up. During the construction of rail line lot of earth, the filling was required and the same was obtained from the Karewas of Pulwama, Chadoora Budgam, Beerwah, Pattan and other surrounding areas.
Hundreds of hectares of almond, plum, apple and pear orchards were destroyed during this process.
It is estimated that 15 to 20 % of the Karewas have been consumed during construction of rail line and other construction projects from 1995 till date.
The destruction is still on as extracted soil is used for various civil works, creating residential colonies by landfilling of water bodies in low-lying areas. Instead of protecting and enforcing the complete ban on mega infrastructural projects to safeguard our limited Agricultural land, Government of India by taking J&K Government into confidence is continuously acquiring our fertile land for its own benefits.
National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) which is an organization controlled by Union Ministry of Highways is constructing an alternate highway in Kashmir valley called Semi Ring Road.
This highway is coming up in the next few years connecting outer Pampore highway with Ganderbal via Wathoora Chadoora –Budgam and Narbal. The proposed Semi Ring road project is around 62 Kms long which is basically meant to facilitate army movement from Ladakh and border areas of North Kashmir. Once again hundreds of hectares of agricultural land will be acquired in Pulwama, Budgam, Baramulla, Bandipora and Ganderbal districts. In the 1st phase, Gallandar to Narbal project will be taken up. During phase 2 Narbal Manigam Ganderbal road link will be executed. Most of the affected district is central Kashmir’s Budgam as around 4000 kanals of fertile agricultural land will be acquired very soon. In Ganderbal 2341 Kanals of land will be acquired. Can we afford to have so many highways and road links in an environmentally fragile valley of Kashmir?
The irony is that landowners and farmers are forced to give their land on very low rates against their will. In addition of losing our fertile land , the construction companies will once again target Karewas of Pulwama, Chadoora, Budgam and Pattan areas. If Korea was are again vandalized by the construction companies, 50 % of Karewas will vanish in the next 5 years. It is the duty of Government not to allow this unholy practice.
The National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) pays adequate compensation to the farmers / affected people whose land and property is acquired for construction of similar highways in other states of India. As per the provisions of Right to Fair compensation for Land Acquisition Rehabilitation & Resettlement Act (RFCLARR) enacted by Congress lead UPA Government in 2013, land and property owners get 4 times more compensation than the market value of land/ property in rural areas and 2 times in urban areas, plus jobs, rehabilitation and resettlement. As the said law is not applicable to J&K state, affected people are deprived of even fair compensation in our state. Same is the case with Semi Ring Road affected people. I have been writing on this issue from last 5 years and even took up this matter with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti in January 2017. Semi Ring Road land owners have also formed a Committee who are impressing upon Government to do justice with them. A delegation of these land owners met CM in Ganderbal recently. They held several protests to press their demands, but it seems Government is adamant and wants to go ahead with this project by not at all listening to the major stake holders (farmers).
Kashmir valley has lost its limited agriculture land. I am sure within 15 to 20 years 80 % of the villagers in Kashmir will be landless and on the other hand State Government is doing sheer injustice with its people by paying them peanuts during land acquisition process. During construction of highways fruit trees and orchards are axed. The compensation paid to apple , pear and plum growers is very meager. The formula adopted by Horticulture Department is Rs 13 to 16 / Kg of fruit and then an estimate is made accordingly. Vague estimates are made without taking growers into confidence, this is all loot and plunder. If a fruit tree gives 50 kgs of fruit , Govt officials have estimated mere 10 to 15 kgs and I have witnessed this personally being a fruit grower myself. The rates have been fixed way back in 1995 with 2 % increase after every 2 years. Right now even a B class apple per kg fetches Rs 50 to 60 / Kg in market , but the farmers are paid compensation @ Rs 16 / kg during land acquisition . The matter has been brought into the notice of Minister for Horticulture Syed Basharat Bukhari , Secretary Horticulture and Director Horticulture Kashmir who all have given assurance to revise the rates.
Why do we compete with states like Haryana, Maharashtra, UP or Punjab vis-a-vis development and infrastructure? Kashmir valley can’t afford to have huge highways, railways, cement factories, shopping malls, Industrial Estates in view of our less land availability and unique geography. We live in a small valley whose environment is under threat. Government of India has its own concerns as it wants to build up military concentration against China and Pakistan and we Kashmiris are made the scape goats. Our Government must focus on creating more agri based jobs which is the lifeline of our economy. Our future generations will curse us if we do not stop this unholy practice, loot and plunder.
Dr Raja Muzaffar Bhat is Founder of J&K RTI Movement