“Some 300 families rely on the land where we grow paddy, mustard, and wheat. The new crop is yet to be harvested, and the decision to build camps has come which has devastated the poor farmers who are completely reliant on the land.”
PULWAMA — As many as 300 families of Oukhoo—Kashmir’s ‘pencil village’—are on “the brink of starvation” as the government is forcing the villagers to evict the land that they have been cultivating for the last eight decades.
The cultivation of the land is the only source for the villagers to sustain their livelihood, the locals said.
On Saturday, a protest erupted in Oukhoo, about 22 kilometres south of capital city Srinagar in Pulwama district, after the government issued repeated notices asking the villagers not to cultivate the land.
The villagers have been cultivating the said land since 1954 before it was recently transferred to the Central Reserve Police Force for the establishment of a residential colony.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), in September this year, stated in a 36-page report that Oukhoo village is meeting India’s 90% pencil requirement and has since been called as ‘The Pencil Village’ of the country.
However, on October 28, the administration of New Delhi appointed Lt. Governor Manoj Sinha approved the transfer of state land for various purposes, including approximately 65 acres to the CRPF.
Land was transferred to create battalion encampment camps in crucial South Kashmir locations such as Anantnag, Shopian and Pulwama.
Permanent camps would be built in the Pulwama villages of Oukhoo, Kadlabal, and Koil, according to officials.
The residents of Oukhoo protested the decision after officials said that the land will be transferred against payment of the Stamp Duty Rates for the year 2021, as announced. “It will give CRPF men and their families safe and adequate lodging.”
Many farmers who cultivate the land congregated at Muhammad Sultan’s residence.
Sultan, 60, is a member of the local village committee, which was formed to devise a strategy to reach out to higher authorities in order to persuade them not to ‘seize’ the agricultural property.
“We’ve already paid revenue taxes. How come the officials collect taxes if the land isn’t registered as agricultural land in the land records,” wonders Abdul Rasheed, 55, who owns a shop near the village’s entrance.
“It’s been a year since we started receiving letters of eviction,” he added.
The villagers held meetings with the district authorities, but ‘all futile’, Rasheed said.
A few weeks after the farmers harvested the paddy on the stretch of 80 kanals (10 hectares) of land this year, officials accompanied by police warned them against harvesting the land and conducted soil testing for bearing capacity, which is done prior to the construction of buildings.
However, the villagers were able to cultivate the land after the Deputy Commissioner Pulwama, Baseer Ul Haq Chaudhary, intervened and instructed them to continue cultivating semiaquatic paddy this year.
On November 13, however, the locals claimed that the government is jeopardizing their livelihoods.
Local village elders and elected officials, including village panchs, who were part of the protest, insisted that the authorities should intervene.
The protest is “illegal”, according to DC Chaudhary, because the land is state property. “It’s being done by some people with vested interests,” Chaudhary told NewsClick.
The DC said that they will take further action “according to the law”.
Meanwhile, fear has gripped the womenfolk in the hamlet. Hafeeza, 40, said: “The women of Kashmir have been witnessing the consequences of security establishments in civilian areas for long. We do not want to go through the same.”
Ali Mohammad, another local resident, is concerned about the possible evacuation and demolition of houses built on the land. He said that they protested and tried to resist the move but eventually had to surrender to the forces’ power, accusing the latter of manhandling them.
Ghulam Mohammad Alaie, 60, one among those who attended the meeting at Sultan’s house, called the move ‘tyrannical’. “Today they are asking us to evacuate the land and tomorrow they will ask us to change our religion,” Alaie said.
At the meeting, Sultan urged the fellow participants to stick together to “pursue the cause”. “Surely, Allah helps those who are together,” he addressed the gathering.
Notably, it was during Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad’s tenure in the late 1950’s that the land was divided among the people for cultivation.
Two irrigation canals were built during that time to make the land cultivable. According to villagers, the land records from 1971 clearly state who owns the land and how much of it is cultivated.
However, in accordance with the 2007 regulations, revenue officials have classified the land as “barren”.
Sultan recalled that his forefathers farmed the land, and the land was converted to agriculture following “Gandhi Ji’s ideal of barren lands conversion into cultivable”.
He told Mountain Ink: “We were unaware that our land was being transferred for the construction of a residential colony for the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).”
This reporter contacted the CRPF for a comment on the story, but is yet to hear back. This story will be updated once the PRO responds to the queries.
The villagers have, however, re-cultivated the area for wheat and mustard production, and they are prepared to deal with any eventuality to protect their land.
Oukhoo has only this stretch of land under cultivation and most of the households depend on it for survival, Sultan said.
“Some 300 families rely on the land where we grow paddy, mustard, and wheat,” he said. “The new crop is yet to be harvested, and the decision to build camps has come which has devastated the poor farmers who are completely reliant on the land.”
Abdul Rashid, a village head, claimed that until 2007, when the 1954 revenue assessment was updated, there were roughly 200 kanals (25 hectares) of state land in the area that was categorized as agricultural land.
However, the administration recently announced the establishment of a farmer training college on 60 kanals of land, followed by the announcement of a stadium on 40 kanals.
And now, the allocation of approximately 80 kanals of land for CRPF camps has come as yet another setback to the local residents.
Rafeeq ul Islam is a bachelor's student of Journalism & Mass Communication at the Cluster University, Srinagar. He is currently a multimedia intern at the Mountain Ink.