On Thursday, bright sunlight hit the rooftops of the pre-fabricated structures that comprise the Kashmiri Pandit settlement colony on the outskirts of Baramulla town, the temperature inside one of the cramped homes rose. Rakeesh Pandita, 36, lives here with his family. “It is terribly hot here in the summer, and chillingly cold in the winter. The life span of these pre-fabricated has already expired, and we are yet to have these turned into flats as promised to us,” says Pandita, exasperatedly wiping his glistening brow.
Located amid lush green Kiker trees, on the banks of the river Jhelum, 60 kilometres form Srinagar, the migrant settlement colony is home to 102 Kashmiri Pandits, all employees of the state government.
Their homes are part of a 2008 promise made by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, when he announced a Rs 1,618-crore package for the return of Kashmiri Pandits to the Valley. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Udhampur today to inaugurate the Udhampur-Katra railway line, the issue of the Kashmiri Pandits is back on centrestage.
As part of the Manmohan Singh government's package, 6,000 jobs were also announced for youth of Kashmiri Pandit families. Following this, the state government advertised 3,000 posts, selection was made for 2,154 posts. And of these 2,154 candidates, 1,447 are presently working in the Valley. They are posted in different districts of Kashmir and accommodated in five settlements, basically rows of pre-fabricated structures.
The problem is that the promised homes fell far short of the aspirations of Kashmiri Pandits being exhorted to return to the Valley. Apart from the mental stress of living in an isolated place - most of the colonies are located on the outskirts of towns - there are also logistical problems. Here in Rakeesh Pandita's colony, the drainage system is blocked, the electricity bulbs light up for a few hours in a day, and he travels 3 kilometres with with friends and fellow residents to a nearby village to get clean drinking water. And that is how, Pandita says, the days are passing.
“It was supposed to be a temporary accommodation. The promise of shifting us into new flats was never fulfilled,” says Raju Roshan, seated next to Pandita.
In South Kashmir’s Vessu, more than 100 kilometres from Baramulla, three people share a small room in a colony that's home to 700 Kashmiri Pandit employees of the state government.
“Apart from the the stench from the drains and the dustbin outside, we are living with a swelling crowd these days. As the heat becomes unbearable in Jammu, parents come visiting their children,” says Akash Kaul, another Kashmiri Pandit employed as a teacher in a nearby school.
Like in the Baramulla settlement colony, there is no drinking water here, supply is erratic and through tankers alone, and residents say they have to boil the water repeatedly to make it fit for consumption.
“But there is hope now,” says Kaul, after President Pranab Mukherjee spoke of Kashmiri Pandits during his inaugural address to the joint session of Parliament after the big BJP win in the general elections.
Mukherjee had said the new government would make special attempts to ensure that Kashmiri Pandits return to the land of their ancestors with “full dignity, security and assured livelihood”.
Recently, when the Chief Minster of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah meet Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, the issue of the return of Kashmir Pandits was discussed. The Omar Abdullah government had proposed increasing the package for return and rehabilitation of Kashmiri Pandits.
Now, according to reports, the Central government has asked the state government to identify and earmark 16,800 kanals of land in three district of the Valley, Anantnag, Baramulla and Srinagar, where the migrant families could be re-settled.
The plan is to setup three satellite cities with all the necessary facilities. Each city is likely to accommodate nearly 1 lakh people, with a medical college and two regional engineering colleges in each. Four degree colleges, 12 schools would come up in each colony, with 12 police stations in three satellite colonies for the security of Kashmiri Pandits, according to the proposal that is however neither being confirmed nor denied officially. For now, it remains in the realm of conjecture and rumour.
Social activist Roshan Lal, a retired teacher, who lived in the Bomai village of Sopore before the migration, said on Thursday in Baramulla that he would certainly prefer to live in a satellite city if the government build them.
“I don’t think the idea of living in villages and towns is still feasible, when Kashmiri Muslims are not sure about their own safety, how they will protect us if an eventuality arises? In these colonies the responsibility to protect us will lie with the government,” he said.
Neither the state nor the Central government has confirmed or refuted the reports about the satellite colonies, but it has already set off alarm bells in Kashmir.
Kashmir’s Grand Mufti, Bashiruddin Ahmad, said on Thursday that he welcomed the return of the Pandits, but any plan by Central government to create separate settlements in Kashmir for the Pandit community would have "dangerous consequences".
“We want them to return but they are being reestablished here because of a conspiracy. We will strongly oppose it," the Grand Mufti said.
Separatist leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani had also recently opposed the move of setting up satellite cities for Pandits. Though every separatist leader welcomes the return of Pandits to their homeland, they are generally against the creation of confined settlements, on the grounds that it could lead to a replication of problems that were experienced in Palestine for example, with the "settlers" gradually changing Kashmir’s demography.
"The government should pay them money for constructing their homes. They are sons of the soil, and they should come and live alongside their Muslim brethren. But creating separate settlements in the name of (bringing back) Kashmiri Pandits is unacceptable,” Geelani said recently at a press conference.
Currently, there are 40,857 migrant families living in Jammu. Besides, there are 21,333 families living mostly in Delhi and other parts of India, according to Revenue & Rehabilitation Ministry of the Government of Jammu and Kashmir.
For the moment, Rakeesh says, he and his fellow residents are ready to suffer the problems of the transit camp, but he would like to have his permanent address back, which he has been craving for decades, and for that he is banking on Modi.
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Updated Date: Jul 04, 2014 10:52:13 IST