Small J&K hamlet near LoC protests eviction notices, alleges injustice
The residents of a small hamlet in Jammu and Kashmir named Rangwar village, displaced by the 2005 earthquake and forced to settle three kilometers down on the Chowkibal -Tangdhar main road as mark of protest, have been served with eviction notices while the threat of demolition hangs over their heads.
The new settlement, raised after the 2005 quake, is mostly made up of tin and wood sheds on a vacant plot of more than one hectare in size on the roadside.
The new place was named Rangwar in remembrance of the old. The original Rangwar village, surrounded by icy mountains and forests, was always on the edge due to frequent natural disasters. Villagers say that it had been declared ‘dangerous’ in a survey by the geology and mining department.
First, the floods in August 1992 washed away the houses and close to three years later in March 1995, a landslide damaged over a dozen houses in the village before it was struck by another flood. In 2005, in one of the worst earthquakes to hit J&K, most of the houses in the original Rangwar village were damaged.
The villagers say they were directed by the officials to settle on a vacant plot close to forests.
“Our village was always at risk due to landslides, floods so we started pursuing a vacant plot of around 119 kanals which the government agreed to give us, since our land was washed away by floods in the village. As we were planning to settle there, the army established a big camp there. When the earthquake struck our village, causing devastation, we came down along with families from our village and began our protest. The officials came and asked us to construct temporary sheds till they could find an alternate piece of land for us,” said Afsar Khan, panchayat member of the Halqa panchayat.
“The floods in the Khemil stream washed away almost all the plain land of the village and the land that was meant for us was taken over by the army. Either government should get us an alternate land or it should shift the army from the place which was actually meant for us. Till then we won’t leave this place.”
The villagers are a worried lot after witnessing the eviction of tribal people from forest areas in various parts of J&K following the scrapping of the Roshni Act. The administration says the evictions were carried out as part of an anti-encroachment drive meant to retrieve forest and state land under the directions of the high court.
Imran Ahmad was six years old when he came to this place along with his family comprising eight members.
“We trekked down along with families and held protest with the hope that the government will do something for us. The officials gave us tents and asked us to settle down,” he said, adding that since the place witnesses subzero temperature, some non-governmental organisations (NGO) and locals provided them with tin sheets to construct sheds or small shelters to escape from chilling winters.
“Since then we are settled here and waiting for rehabilitation. Instead of rehabilitation, the forest department has issued us eviction notices,” said Ahmad.
Holding the eviction notice in his hands, Ahmad said the officials came and threatened to bulldoze the temporary houses.
“Where will we go in this cold winter? We will die here but won’t allow anybody to touch our shelters. We are poor people and we work with the army as porters. That’s the only work we have got. This is great injustice,” Ahmad added.
Saleema Begum, a widow who lives alone is equally worried.
“I came to this place and constructed this small makeshift shelter along with my husband. Two years ago my husband died, now I am living alone here. Where will I go if they dismantle my shelter, which is now my only asset along with two goats?” She asks.
Most of the residents of Rangwar village are Gujjars, who either work with the army as porters or in farms in neighbouring villages.
“We have occupied around one hectare of land while the army has occupied six to seven hectares of plain land and nobody dares to ask them to vacate that land. The threat of eviction looks real now as we saw the government dismantling huts of people in different parts of J&K. We are dwellers of forests, how can they throw us out without rehabilitation,” said Sajjad, a young man from the village.
Interestingly the government has made these 98 houses a part of Marsari Panchayat.
Another villager, Alam Khan, said that even this place is not safe for the residents as it becomes a frequent target of indiscriminate shelling by Pakistan. “In August, three persons sustained injuries when shells fired from across the LoC landed close to houses. We will move out from this place but give us an alternate land.”
Divisional forest officer, Khemil division, Mohammad Ayub, confirmed that notices have been served to the people who have set up shelters on the forest land.
“They (villagers) have occupied two hectares of the forest land. The notices have been served to them and the department is waiting for the orders from higher authorities about these people. The area is already under snow.”