249 Gujjar families in Jammu stare at third ‘forced’ migration
During the past four decades, scores of nomadic Gujjar families have been asked by the state government to relocate from the places where they had just begun to settle down. Now, they have again been asked to vacate a settlement.
As many as 249 Gujjar families face eviction from Rakh Barotian in Vijaypur, Jammu, where they have been living since 1999 on state land, which many believe has deliberately been chosen for building an AIIMS hospital.
By 1980, many Gujjar families permanently settled in border villages of Ballad, Chajwal, Chak Parthyal, Kajayal Kurada in Ramghar area of Samba district.
However, in the early 80s, the government settled refugees from Pakistan in their villages after asking them to vacate the lands.
"The government had then promised us suitable cash compensation and adequate land. That is why we moved to another part of Ramgarh, near the International Border," the Gujjars recall.
However, after Kargil war broke out in 1999, the army asked the Gujjars to vacate the villages.
The residents said that barring clothes they had on, they could take nothing along during the migration.
"After the war was over army did not allow us to settle there as the border fence was laid through our villages," said Alam Hussain, a prominent Gujjar of the Basti in his 80s who has witnessed both past migrations.
The government has asked the Gujjars to vacate the Vijaypur habitation, or face eviction. As compensation, each family will get a plot of 10 marlas (2700 feet), a common area for all the livestock, veterinary dispensary, anganwadi center, mosque, playground and community hall.
"We need large patches of land for our herds and a steady source of water because we mostly sell milk. We had asked for at least 5 kanals for each family," said Alam Hussain.
This time, the Gujjars want documents conferring ownership rights, not merely verbal promises.
"We have been betrayed twice in the past. What is the guarantee that we won't be evicted again if we relocate," said Alam.
The Gujjars said they met both ruling and Opposition politicians for help but in vain.
A habitant Shamash Din, said, "When we settled in this place no one had imagined that it would develop like this and now the land mafia and people in the government are eyeing it. There are 1600 kanals of land in this place. According to the plan AIIMS needs only 700 kanals."
"We are not against AIIMS, we welcome it, but not at the cost of our forced migration," he said. The government could start construction on the portion which is not dispute, across the road, he said.
Gujjars ask why only this settlement chosen was for the AIIMS.
Although state officials reportedly said that a central government team had selected the land, a Jammu-based newspaper reported that the state government had identified the land and the central team had only approved it.
The newspaper had mentioned a letter in which the chief engineer of the Central Public Works Department had informed the director general that "the site is approximately three metres down on both sides of the Highway and huge earth filling shall be required. Moreover, most of the proposed site is located in the waterway/floodplain of river Devak and hence extensive river training works shall be required."
The chief engineer had that the site would be prone to flooding if the required works were not done and also observed that the site was merely four kilometers from the border with Pakistan. Cross-border shelling is common along the border.
Senior National Conference leader and a prominent member of the Gujjar community Mian Altaf Ahmed said the state government has no clear vision on rehabilitation of Gujjars, resulting in chaos and confusion among people.
"The issue is very simple but there are some miscreants who are trying to project it in another way. They (miscreants) tried to portray Gujjars as anti-AIIMS but in reality they are not against the project and are willing to vacate the site against suitable compensation," he said.
"Gujjars only seek land equal in area to that they presently inhabit with clear ownership title so that in future no one displaces them. They also want appropriate compensation for their structures," he said, adding, "We also conveyed this to the government and requested for an amicable solution of this issue".
Deputy commissioner Samba Sheetal Nanda said there was no dispute "between the two parties" over the construction of the AIIMS.
"The Central Public Works Department has already started work of erecting poles at the site. The Gujjars living in proposed site have agreed to the government's rehabilitation plan and are willing to vacate land," she said.
Gujjar leader and minister for animal husbandry Abdul Gani Kohli said the land identified for the AIIMS is "most suitable" and "people have to understand that it must be constructed to boost healthcare in Jammu and one should not come in the way of development".
"The government has already notified an alternate site to rehabilitate the Gujjar families. They must cooperate and shift their base to new place to pave way for starting the prestigious project," he said.
Asked about the concerns of the families who alleged the government was forcing them to vacate the site, he said, "We understand that Gujjars from Vijaypur have migrated from the border but development should not stop and if they have any issue they should convey the same to the government."
Food and supplies minister Chaudhary Zulfkar Ali said the Gujjars are the third largest ethnic group in Jammu and Kashmir after Kashmiris and Dogras.
"Over 20 lakh Gujjar families are landless and leading a life of nomads but unfortunately they are soft targets because of their weak economic condition and poor literacy rate," said Ali.
He said after every 20 years Gujjars were being asked to vacate their land to pave way for development just because they do not possess the land legally.
"The Gujjar families of Vijaypur already saw two migrations in 1980 and after 1999 Kargil war. Therefore the government should come up with a solid rehabilitation policy, which will guarantee that community would not be asked to relocate after 10-15 years."
"I have already conveyed my concerns to the chief minister and requested her to formulate a rehabilitation policy for Gujjars, before displacing them," he said.