The ruling National Conference party in Jammu and Kashmir earlier this month said that it was in favour of a board of welfare to be set up in the interests of refugees from Pakistan-occupied -Kashmir (PoK).
Reading this news in a small room of his dilapidated house, Sham Lal Sharma, an octogenarian PoK refugee, laughs in ridicule. "Our problems will never ever find a place in the election manifestos of political parties of our state."
Sharma, a resident of 'Bhour Camp', -- a locality in the periphery of Jammu town in the northernmost Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir -- has been reading such news for years and has dismal hopes of anything positive happening now. He was in his teens when his family fled his native village in Pallandri town (now in PoK) in 1947 following the ?tribal? invasion of Jammu and Kashmir, leaving behind everything they had inherited.
Narrating the heart-wrenching tales of mass exodus and massacres, Sharma recalls how his family, along with scores of other families, was pushed into a large building by tribal militia in the wee hours of October 24, 1947, after which the building was set on fire. Barring a few, all those trapped inside were burnt alive.
Sharma?s family escaped death and had managed to reach Jammu but, he says, only to live a life fraught with afflictions.
This is not an isolated case of its kind but the saga of forty one thousand families who fled their homes when tribals raided Muzafarabad, Mirpur and Poonch areas of erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir on 22 October 1947.
The number of those displaced has shot up manifold over the past sixty five years and has reached more than 1.25 million. Nearly five lakh people are ghettoized in thirty nine camps in and around Jammu, while others are settled in Kathua, Udhampur, RS Pura and Poonch areas of Jammu in dismal living conditions, with State apathy towards their plights becoming an accepted reality.
Of the forty one thousand families that migrated in the wake of tribal invasion, nine thousand are not registered with the government and have not been provided any reprieve as the registration was made on the grounds that appear grossly unfair to these displaced people.
"Only those families were registered who had migrated along with the heads of families and had a monthly income not more than Rs 300. If the head of your family had died or was killed by tribal mercenaries, or your monthly earnings was more than Rs 300, you could not register your family," says Sham Lal Sharma.
Most of the POK refugees settled in rural areas are living off the land as agriculture is the mainstay of their economy, but they are forced to live a hand to mouth existence because of insufficient land.
The Government, as part of its rehabilitation policy, issued orders vide Cabinet order No. 578-C of 1956 that every family putting up in rural areas would be provided four acres of irrigated and six acres of non irrigated land but around 84094 families have not got sufficient land owing to shortage of land - or so the State claims.
?The land has not been allotted free of cost, as claimed by the Government time and again. We have paid its cost. The then state government deducted Rs 2500 as cost of land out of the ex -gratia relief provided to us by the then Central government? said R.C Sharma, a local journalist and PoK refugee settled in Bhour camp.
Sharma also pointed out that, on the one hand, the government claimed that they were short of land, but on the other hand, thousand kanals of land had been grabbed by land mafia in Jammu province. ?The problem could be easily obviated, if the government would release this land from the clutches of encroachers and allot it to those who were not provided sufficient land,? he added.
It is pertinent to mention here that in the last session of J&K assembly, Minister for Revenue, Relief and Rehabilitation, Ajaz Ahmed Khan, in reply to a question, appraised the House that Jammu figures at the top of the land-grabbing list, with an astounding sixteen lakh kanals under illegal occupation.
The PoK refugees have other vulnerabilities too, compared, for example, to Kashmiri Pandit migrants who also left their homeland after turmoil broke out in the Kashmir Valley in the early nineties, migrating to Jammu in large numbers.
?We can feel their pain and understand the ordeal they had gone through when they were forced to leave the Valley, but at the same time, we must admit that, in sharp contrast, they have been provided every facility by the government --monthly stipend, ex-gratia relief, special job packages, reservations in professional colleges and what not,? says Dr Nareindra Raina, Convener of PoK Refugee Sangharsh Morcha. His organization submitted a memorandum to the Parliamentary Standing Committee meeting held at New Delhi on 30-07-2013.
As per official statistics, currently Rs 6600 is provided to each Kashmiri migrant family as monthly cash relief, in addition to ration issued, which includes 9Kgs of rice and 2kgs of flour per head; and 1kg of sugar per family. A rough estimate indicates that approximately 22,665 crore rupees have been paid to 38,119 migrant families registered with the Government of Jammu and Kashmir Relief Organization (Migrants), Jammu, till March, 2012, while 1.25 million PoK refugees have been provided a paltry sum of Rupees 83 crore over the last sixty five years.
A bizarre problem attributed to ?status? also confronts this large chunk of displaced populace. Government of India does not, in any way, deem them as refugees as its official stand regarding the PoK is rather different. It considers PoK as an integral part of the country and therefore, PoK refugees in India are not accorded official refugee status.
The Charkha Development Communication Network, points out that for this official stand, a huge cost is being paid by these destitute refugees who are, due to the official status, bereft of the schemes designed for their welfare under national and international law. And all our leaders can do is, announce their desire to work in favour of this destitute lot.