It is a cold December morning. Amid drizzle, Aashiq Hussain Sofi, all alone along the road in Khullangam Bagh area of Kupwara in north Kashmir, is herding his cattle but in a different direction than he used to some weeks ago.
The patch of land Sofi used to take his cattle to graze is no longer a pasture but a demarcated area for the transit accommodation of Kashmiri migrant employees.
“We used to herd our cattle for grazing here but it is over now,” says Sofi, turning his head in dejection.
Since the identification of this large patch of land, many farmers have sold their farm animals, citing unavailability of pastures. Things were not going well even before as a large chunk of it was already occupied by local police.
For the would-be transit accommodation, authorities have erected green-coloured iron pillars. Strolling near the fresh structures, Fayaz Ahmad, a 42-year-old local labourer, says that he has been directly effected by the “arbitrary decision” by the government.
“I had to sell my cow which would provide 10 litres of milk daily,” Fayaz says.
Earlier on November 4, the Jammu and Kashmir government accorded administrative approval to the construction of transit accommodation for Kashmiri migrant employees recruited under Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s special package.
Following the onset of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, most of the Kashmiri Pandits left the Valley.
In 2008, the Government of India announced a “comprehensive package” for return and rehabilitation of “Kashmiri Migrants” — a category synonymous to the migrant Pandit community. The package will give them jobs and accommodation in different parts of the Valley.
According to an order issued by the Department of Disaster Management, Relief Rehabilitation and Reconstruction, the approved transit camps will be built at six different locations in the Valley at an estimated cost of Rs 201.60 crore.
Of the total 1680 units to be constructed across many districts of Kashmir, 288 will spread over 36 kanals and 14 marlas of land in Khullangam Bagh area of district Kupwara.
And that at a cost
“For the construction to begin, 51 walnut trees are to be axed for which the government has decided to compensate the affected horticulturists,” a government official told Kashmir Bylines on the condition of anonymity.
But for Shabir Ahmad War, 42, a local who owns 10 of the walnut trees, the compensation is “nowhere near the amount I earned yearly which helped me fulfilling the needs of my family.”
The expected loss is not just personal
A windowless panchayat building sits at one corner of the demarcated land. Altaf Hussain, the local Sarpanch says the district administration has ordered the dismantling of the building and shifting it elsewhere.
The locals had tried to get the building exempted from the land acquisition for the migrants’ accommodation but the administration seems to have made up its mind.
In an application accessed by Kashmir Bylines, the Sarpanch had written to the District Development Commissioner Kupwara about exempting the building and three Kanals of land from being sacrificed for the transit accommodation construction plan but the suggestion was declined. “I tried my best to halt the [land] acquisition but could not,” says Altaf.
Once the accommodation is built, the locals will have nowhere to graze their livestock. “Farm animals of nearly 500 families were dependent on the land,” the local Sarpanch says.
Like others in his village, Ghulam Mohammad Wani is worried too. In his seventies, he and his family rely on their farm animals for whom the soon-to-be fenced patch of land was once a grazing area.
“We have no land to take our animals after this area is taken over by the government,” Wani says.
Locals believe that the population of farm animals in the area will dwindle with time at the cost of their livelihood.
Expressing his anguish, a local government teacher, who wished not be named, said, “Most of us here are into farming and horticulture. Many had bought farm animals to increase their otherwise low earnings but the order will not let us do that and will have far-reaching effects on the local economy.”
And it is not economy alone that matters
The acquisition of land by the authority for migrants has also left the local children broken-hearted. Those who would go there to play are now wandering on the streets.
Barkat, a 7th grader, idolizes Pakistani cricketer Babar Azam and wishes to play like him. With no proper playground around and the authorities reclaiming the pastureland, he and his friends have started to play in the nearby rice fields which will only be available till early summer next year.
“I like watching and playing cricket but this won’t last beyond the sowing of paddy in the fields,” says Barkat.
As the maiden District Development Council (DDC) elections were underway, one of the independent candidates, contesting from Rajwar constituency of the district, said that they would fight tooth and nail to stop the construction of units for migrant employees.
“We will not let this happen because it’s an issue concerning the farmers of our society. We will file a PIL (Public interest litigation) in the High Court in this connection,” Abdul Hameed Malik, the DDC candidate, said.
However, locals term such promises as mere election gimmicks to lure people into voting.
Among the ones whose houses are next to the pasture is Mohammad Ashraf. He is apprehensive that he might be forced to sell his one-storey house if a security cover is given to the incoming migrant employees.
His neighbour, Mashooq, says he yearns for a “distress-free life in Kashmir” which seems elusive to him at a time when the authorities are bringing back some migrated residents at the cost of others.
On November 18, 2015, the government approved the construction of 6000 transit accommodations in the Kashmir Valley.
If 288 of them have cost a whole village its livelihood, a thought of over twenty times more leaves observers only guessing about the consequences.
While the loss of about 3000 jobs reserved for the migrants will be shared by Kashmiris irrespective of their residence, the transit accommodations pose a threat of varying degrees only to the populations living near the proposed sites.
The locals are not, however, averse to Kashmiri migrants returning home.
For 30-year-old Mashooq Ahmad, welcoming them is not an issue but separate “transit camps” is not a good way to begin with.
“We are not against their return but it is better if they reside at the places in the Valley they earlier did.”