SRINAGAR: Thousands of farmers, whose fertile orchards and agricultural fields in Jammu and Kashmir remain under the occupation of Indian security forces, are running from pillar to post to get them back.
The Indian Air Force, Army and paramilitary forces are using more than 40,000 acres to house their personnel, airbases, and ammunition depots.
According to a recent study, thousands of acres of orchards and agricultural fields across the state are with the army, and the owners say they get peanuts. Take, for instance, the Srinagar airport. Housing Indian Air Force’s largest airbase in Kashmir, it was here that Indian troops first landed in the state on October 27, 1947 to fight tribal raiders from Pakistan who had seized the Valley.
The airport has been built over a few square kilometres of flattened plateaus called Karewas, with one of them named Damodar Karewa occupied by the army. The Damodar Karewa has around 500 acres of land that belongs to farmers of central Budgam district. But for the last three decades, the owners say, they’ve been fighting a legal battle wanting their land back or an adequate compensation. “Every year we receive just Rs 250 ($ 50 approximately) as rent for one kanal (one-eighth of an acre),” says Ghulam Muhammad, a resident of nearby Kralpora village.
Besides the land in question, army also “owns” nearly 200 acres that were transferred to it by the state as defence land. “People of nearly 50 other villages in Budgam district had no option but to sell off their land to Indian Air Force, which now has 2,493 acres under the air base,” says Hilal Ahmad, a journalist with Srinagar-based daily ‘Greater Kashmir’ who did the study.
The combined land under the air force and army base, which are adjacent to each other is 3,203 acres. It once belonged to the farmers. “Nearly 20,000 people are directly hit,” says Ahmad whose study was sponsored by PANOS, a UK-based NGO.
The rent was ‘arbitrarily’ fixed by the governments in Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi. In 1964, it was as low as Rs 16 per kanal. “The increase in the rent over the years was always one sided, fixed by the government, and which didn’t come remotely closer to what the farmers earn normally from the produce of an acre of land,” Ahmad told OneWorld South Asia. And the meagre rent is seldom released on time, hence adding to the villagers’ woes.
The quest for more land doesn’t stop here. Last year the Indian Air Force requested the state to acquire another 900 acres for its proposed expansion of air base already built on nearly 800 acres in Awantipora area of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district.
Here in Srinagar, the state’s summer capital, army holds more than 1,000 acres alone at Badami Bagh housing its 15 Corps. The government gave army 212 acres in Sharifabad, on the city outskirts, in exchange for vacating 139 acres at Tattoo Grounds, in the heart of the city, where another garrison in located.
Army took possession of the Sharifabad land but has had refused to vacate the Tattoo Grounds.
Around 400 acres belonging to the state-run Sheri Kashmir University of Agricultural Sciences and Technology lie with the Army in Manasbal area of north Kashmir since 1990. Army, however, stakes claim on the land.
“According to an agreement between the Indian and the state government in 1956, the land used by the army of the erstwhile Dogra king of Kashmir would become the property of Indian army,” a senior army officer in the 15 Corps said, asking not to be named as he’s not authorised to speak to media.
Army also occupies thousands of acres of agricultural land and orchards belonging to farmers at Khundroo in southern Anantnag district. The Khundroo ammunition depot of Army caught fire in August 2007, spelling a doom on the villagers who had to leave their homes. At least 20 people died in the fire and its aftermath.
Around 500 acres of proprietary land, including apple orchards, in Pattan area of northern Baramulla district, remain under army occupation. The Pattan garrison is one of the largest army formations in Kashmir.
According to the Ministries of Defence and Home of Government of India, 39,210 acres of land is under the use of army in the state; similarly the paramilitary forces occupy 2,384 acres. Kashmir government officials however say the actual land under the armed forces is much more.
“It’s obvious that involuntary alienation of land in general, cultivable tracts in particular, will arouse passions,” said Gautam Navlakha, a New Delhi-based activist.-SANA