Oukhoo (Jammu and Kashmir): For years, Fayaz Ahmad Allie, a poor farmer, paid for his three daughters’ education by raising two cows and growing vegetables on a small farm near their residence in Oukhoo, a south Kashmir village.
But a recent decision by the Jammu and Kashmir administration, to take over land in Oukhoo for constructing a permanent base for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), has put dozens of poor farmers like Fayaz at risk of starvation and poverty.
“If the government takes my land, I will be left with nothing. I can’t work now because I have undergone two surgeries. I don’t know if my daughters can continue their education. We will have no option but to die by suicide,” Fayaz told The Wire.
Fayaz’s eldest daughter is pursuing a diploma course in radiation technology, an achievement of sorts in this poor village of some 250 households who depend on their farms for sustenance. His other daughters are still in high school.
“The government can find alternate land for the CRPF but where will we go? My family will starve if we are deprived of our sustenance,” Fayaz said in a tone of desperation.
In a meeting in October, the administrative council, headed by Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha, approved “transfer of 524 Kanal 11 Marla land in favour of CRPF for establishing battalion camping sites” in three south Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Shopian and Pulwama.
“The land will be transferred against the payment as per the Stamp Duty Rates notified for the year 2021. It will provide for safe and proper accommodation to CRPF personnel and their families,” the official spokesperson said on October 28.
According to Haji Mohammad Sultan Allie, a grocer in Oukhoo, some 80 kanal state land in Oukhoo marked for the CRPF takeover was barren till some decades ago, when the J&K government formulated an irrigation scheme for Pulwama district which brought two canals to the village.
“Water from the Jhelum river feeds the two canals which run parallel to the tract of land that is being taken over by the CRPF. Three generations of my family have drawn sustenance from here. Our children will be forced to beg,” Sultan said.
Oukhoo village was recently in the news after Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned it in one of his speeches in Mann Ki Baat, terming it as a “Pencil Village” of the country. According to reports, around 90% of slates used in pencil-making are supplied from Kashmir to leading manufacturers, including Hindustan Pencils, the makers of Apsara and Natraj, with Oukhoo being the leading supplier.
However, the farmers of Oukhoo, which has among the lowest literacy rates in J&K, claimed that the pencil trade has been monopolised by ‘two families’ who bring most of their labour and skilled workforce from outside the Kashmir Valley.
“There are only four government employees in the entire village of more than 1,200 people, while the rest are farmers. A handful of youngsters from the village work at the pencil factories,” said another villager, wishing to remain anonymous.
Locals said the J&K administration’s decision to transfer land to the CRPF will severely impact some 250 families in Oukhoo and Sethargund villages of south Kashmir’s Pulwama district associated with dairy farming and vegetable production.
“On one hand, officials claim that the agricultural land in J&K is being protected, but here they are uprooting the livelihood of two villages,” Sultan added.
Abdul Rashid, the village head, said some 200 kanal land in Oukhoo was notified in official records as agricultural land till 2007, when the record was revised by the J&K government. He said the land was marked as barren but it has been in the possession of villagers for several decades.
“We didn’t realise what the change in nomenclature could mean. We are a village of illiterates. New laws come into force every other day but we fail to understand their consequences. Some of the villagers managed to get their land registered but we remained in the dark,” Mohammad Maqbool Dar, a resident of Oukhoo, said.
Although the J&K administration has been issuing eviction calls since last year, the matter attained urgency after the villagers were recently told by the local administration that a team of engineers has carried out soil testing in the area to optimise the feasibility of the land for building the CRPF base.
“The government is saying that we will empower farmers of Kashmir by providing them with sheep and dairy farms. But if I don’t have land to take care of my family, how will I raise cows and sheep?” Fayaz said.
Division commissioner Kashmir P.K. Pole could not be reached for his comment. Deputy commissioner Pulwama Baseer-ul-Haq Chaudhary has said that the villagers have “illegally” occupied the land. “They don’t have any legal ownership papers,” he told media recently.
But the farmers of Oukhoo, who claim to have been growing vegetables, paddy and mustard here for decades, didn’t feel the need for the papers till last year, when they were asked to evict the land.
“There are hundreds of families whose livelihood depends on this land. It [the government] will be unfair to all of us?” said Haji Abdul Ghaffar Allie, a farmer from Oukhoo.
Ghulam Rasool Allie, another Oukhoo resident, said that his family has been growing vegetables, paddy and mustard on their farm for more than four decades and also paying a fee for using water from the irrigation canals.
Dozens of villagers staged a sit-in protest in Srinagar’s Press Enclave on Monday to press the administration of LG Manoj Sinha to roll back the land transfer decision.
“If the government owns this land, why were we allowed to grow vegetables on it? Why were the water usage charges collected from us if the land doesn’t belong to us?” said Allie, showing a handwritten receipt of 10 year water usage with the seal of a revenue official (numberdar).