A note from the writer: Reporting for this piece was done in June 2019 as a part of the Impact Journalism Grant. In view of the recent state of affairs after the abrogation of Article 370 and Article 35a where land can now be bought by outsiders and the State has been divided into two Union territories, the Center-State relationship has radically changed. It is yet to be seen what sort of repercussions these matters may have on Centre-State projects such as these where vulnerable landless populations still struggle for basic rights.
It is difficult to traverse the muddy terrain of the colony’s settlements. Truckloads of soil are being deposited by huge cranes in the distance; vast stretches of marshy land stare back in defiance. A short spell of rain and the place turns back into the flood channel that it once was. Uninhabitable concrete structures lie abandoned with cracks in their walls and ceilings. Sewer spills emanate an acrid smell. “Even if they put gold on these roads, it will only sink; they have taken us out of heaven and banished us to hell,” says Faiz Ahmed Dar, 45, a resident of the Rakh-e-Arth Resettlement Colony, in Bemina, Budgam, an hour away from Srinagar. The image Dar articulates is palpable — the mesmerising Dal Lake, his previous home and the pride of Srinagar, looks ruefully like heaven in comparison to this hell.
The Rakh-E-Arth Resettlement Colony is the Jammu and Kashmir Government’s ambitious project to resettle some 10,000 land encroachers in an attempt to conserve the Dal Lake.
Started in 2000, it is funded by both the Centre and State governments at an estimated cost of Rs 416.72 crore; 7526 canals of land have been acquired for the project. The resettlement package includes a plot of land, Rs 1.05 lakh for building the house structure, and monetary compensation of Rs 3.91 lakh. Lake and Waterways Development Authority (LAWDA) of Srinagar, the implementing agency, is in-charge of developing the colony and initiating resettlement. The colony’s development plan includes roads, drainage and sewage systems, educational and health facilities, commercial complexes, recreational facilities and religious places spread across ten bays. Water and electricity have been provided. On paper, Rakh-E-Arth is a state-of-the-art colony; the reality is a far cry from this. The resettlement process began in 2009. In a decade, LAWDA has been able to resettle only 20 percent of the beneficiaries. Dal dwellers oppose this move; the ones who moved, now languish in despair.
The reason for this is the land itself. “Rakh means a game reserve. The colony is built on reclaimed marshy land which is basically a sinkhole,” explains Dar. The soil test report of the Civil Engineering Department of Srinagar (2013) found the land to be “mostly inorganic silt/clay of low plasticity”. The report concludes that this makes it “highly susceptible to liquefaction during earthquakes/ dynamic loading”. It recommends “earth filling of 2-3 meters” and giving the soil enough time to consolidate before building any structures on it. It also recommends the design of a solid drainage system. LAWDA now has the additional task of earth-filling. It has used 62.80 crores of the total 75.34 crores allotted to do so in Phase 1 of the project. The soil still will not hold.
The project has spiraled into a nightmare. The construction is faulty and the roads are riddled with craters. “The land is marshy, but there are ways to overcome these challenges. The people flout our recommended safety measures, then blame us for the problems they face,” says Sajjad Hussain, temporary vice chairman at LAWDA. LAWDA has been quick to blame the devastating floods of 2014 for the cracks that rip through several structures. However, Faiz Ahmed Dar, vice president of the Coordination Committee of Dal Dwellers, formed to mediate on behalf of the residents, counters, “LAWDA does not want to admit to the poor planning of the colony itself. Our houses had cracks and were tilting even before the flood. The land is not firm. How do we keep up with the added expenses of construction here? Our compensation packages do not suffice. Inevitably cracks develop in our houses. Some residents have even taken fresh loans to meet these costs. With no jobs, how will they repay the money?”
Many residents now live in more deplorable conditions as work is scarce. Jehangir Hussain Kand moved here with his family two years ago, lured by a plot of land of his own. In Dal, he rowed a shikara making up to Rs 3,000 a day during the tourist season. His family grew vegetables and nadru (lotus stems) and caught fish to sell at the floating market. From a boatman, he has now turned into a stonecutter. Earning a pittance of Rs 450 a day, he barely feeds his family of 12. “There is no work for the women or the older men. This land is like quicksand, nothing grows here,” he says. Now he cannot return to Dal. “We cannot go back. When we took the resettlement package, the authorities demolished our old house. We are neither here nor there,” he says.
Dar points to a line of six shops that comprises the shopping complex at Rakh-E-Arth. There are two cement shops, two PDS ration shops and two health centres here. The health centre does not have a doctor. Even for the smallest of ailments the colony residents have to trudge two-and-a-half km to JVC private hospital. There is no public transport here in the marshes, so a simple hospital visit becomes an ordeal.
Though land has been earmarked in Rakh-E-Arth’s layout for 18 mosques, an imambara, and a graveyard, only one mosque has been built.
“There was an imambara in Dal; we now pray in our own homes. There is no place to celebrate our festivals or even to bury our dead!” Dar laments. The plan shows provisions for 17 educational facilities, but there isn’t a government school in sight. “Both a hospital and a school are under construction. More importantly, power and water, two dire needs, have been met at Rakh,” says LAWDA’s Hussain. Dar, instead, points to the stretch in front of us: “Not a single house in Bay 3 has a water connection. There are over 500 residents there.”
LAWDA reports state that 18.5 km of the 36 km drainage has been constructed already and 3.5 km of sewer lines have been put to use. But in several parts of the colony, open drains spill out. Owing to this, Mohammad Maqbool tragically lost his three-year-old nephew a few years ago. The child fell into an open drain and was rushed to the Sonewar Children’s Hospital 10-15 km away. However, it was too late. “There was no enquiry; no one took the blame. Our lives were destroyed by that incident. He was her only son,” Maqbool says, pointing to the child’s mother, Hafeeza Begum. Similar cases have been reported in the local news.
A major setback to the rehabilitation process has been the selling of plots to outsiders. Blue signboards scattered throughout the marshes strictly forbid the sale of land to non-Dal dwellers. The District High Court in a recent judgment has ordered LAWDA to cancel all such leases and demolish any private structures. Nilofer Jan at LAWDA explains, “Sometimes more than one member of a family qualifies for a plot allotment. The family may decide to build on one plot and sell the other for a profit. As the plots are initially leased out, usually the transaction is by a Power of Attorney document. The new owners construct their own structures, and the money from the sale is used up by the original owners. This complicates matters when it comes to demolition. The court has forbidden the sale of property through affidavits and POAs. Another way to stop these sales could be to put a cap on the number of plots given to each family.”
But there is more here than meets the eye. According to Jehangir, “The project has failed (them). There is a dearth of jobs. Several families are in debt. Sharing their plots and selling them is a way to survive”. He also alleges that NGOs that help with the rehabilitation sell some of their plots to outsiders as well. “There are parallel deals that go on. We have seen officials sign leases to outsiders. Only 25 percent allotments remain with Dal dwellers — about 75 percent have gone to outsiders.” LAWDA confirmed that only 70 out of 112 houses constructed by the voluntary organisation Kashmir Welfare Trust were for rehabilitation. There is no official account of the rest.
In May 2019, the High Court ordered LAWDA to expedite the rehabilitation process as considerable time and money has gone into this.
Chandpora, a site which had been shortlisted earlier, seemed to be another viable option. Chandpora is on higher ground with hard soil. But the land can accommodate only 350 families. “We may reconsider it,” says Hussain. Insisting on relocating people to Bemina, he adds, “Rs 400 crore has already gone into the plan; we cannot abandon it now. A few more lakhs in compensation and people will go.”
Unable to return, the residents of Rakh-E-Arth live in limbo. The remaining 8,000 dwellers are increasingly reluctant to move. Nilofer Jan says, “In the larger scheme of things, our main aim is to make sure that these people don't return to Dal.”
Jehangir’s melancholic words come flooding back: “Madam ji, Bemina is Bemina but Dal is Dal.”
Jennifer Kishan is a freelance journalist and photographer based out of Kolkata.