'Fear is thick in the air': J&K border residents dread prospect of India-Pakistan conflict, rue lack of safety measures

Umar Shah | Mar 1, 2019 | 7 min read


Jammu: These days, radio is Madan Lal’s constant companion. He listens to hourly news from All India Radio to keep himself update to date on the mounting hostilities between India and Pakistan after the Pulwama terror attack.

This 35-year-old farmer, a father of three, is anxious about what will happen if the two countries decide to wage a full-scale war against each other. And he has every reason to worry — he is a resident of Suchetgarh, a small village in RS Pura sector in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) close to the border with Pakistan. 

From his lawn, Madan can see Pakistani soldiers moving about and, sometimes, if they shout at each other, he can even hear their voices. “Nobody knows what will happen the next moment. You can taste the fear, thick in the village air. The minute they come down to war, our entire village will be destroyed in a flash,” he says.

Going by how tensions between the two countries are escalating by the minute, one can only imagine what Madan and his fellow villagers are going through — senior armed forces officers on Thursday said the military remained “deployed in a high state of readiness … poised in all three dimensions. On surface, under sea and in air”.

While India has accused Pakistan of “unprovoked cease-fire violations” and “factually incorrect statements”, the latter says India has been trying to establish what it calls “a new normal”, which, according to Pakistan, is “a thinly veiled term for doing acts of aggression at whatever pretext they [India] wish on a given day.”


In the line of fire

Madan vividly remembers how, in January 2018, a mortar shell fired from the Pakistani side had struck his single-story house in the middle of the night, destroying a major portion of his dwelling. Fortunately, there was no loss of life as Madan and his family had gone to their relatives in another village just a day before skirmishes between the two sides had begun at the border.

“The idea of losing my family to war terrifies me every day. I don’t know from which side a shell could hit our house and kill us all in an instant. That’s the only reason I keep the radio glued to my ears, so that I can flee with my family if a war starts.”

Similar concerns are echoed by other inhabitants of the village, who say they are the ones who feel it the most when relations between India and Pakistan worsen. 

Ratan Lal is another villager whose dwelling was damaged during the shelling in January 2018. He and hundreds of villagers had fled from their homes, when the two countries had started trading fire, and taken shelter in a government school far away.

When he returned, he found his half-acre land virtually blanketed with shell splinters, completely destroying his basmati crop. “There was no harvest for me that year. I lost almost everything,” he recalls.

To make matters worse, Ratan is yet to get any compensation for the damage. Pointing towards the blown-up portions of his house, he says he hasn’t been able to carry out repairs because he has no money. 

The 44-year-old adds that he had to sell his two buffaloes to clear the loan he had taken from his relatives. “My house and my land were destroyed by the shelling but I am yet to be compensated. Some government officials had come; they assessed the damage and left and haven’t returned since.” 


No bunkers, no healthcare, no protection

Last March, the Centre had approved the construction of 14,460 bunkers along the Line of Control and the international border in J&K, in a bid to protect the border dwellers.

One such bunker was constructed at Madan’s home too last June. However, according to him, it is built so badly that it might just prove to be a “death well” instead of a secure hiding place during shelling. “You can see there is no cover over the stairs. Also, it has no water and electricity. If we take shelter inside it, it will kill us anyway,” he scoffs. 

Another villager, Bhaga Ram, says the government’s half-hearted approach in constructing the bunkers shows that it cares the least for the lives of border dwellers. “Please see for yourself the dilapidated condition of this concrete structure, a so-called bunker. Rainwater has inundated it. One cannot survive inside even for an hour. How can the government expect us to stay inside it for days together?” he asks. 

Ram adds that the best possible thing for the villagers would be to relocate elsewhere. “Unless properly covered and with water and power facility, these bunkers are useless for us.” 

This small hamlet also has a dispensary, which was renovated by the Suchetgarh MLA, BJP’s Sham Choudhary, in 2015. Inside it are a few chairs, closed almirahs and single beds for medical examination. Pharmacist Ramesh Chander says that besides him there is one staff nurse from National Health Mission (NHM) posted there. However, the nurse didn’t report to work that day due to NHM employees’ statewide strike against the government over pending wages. “There isn’t even a doctor on the premises. So in case of an emergency, we shift the patients to the district hospital after administering first aid,” he adds. 

Chander says there isn’t any latest medical equipment, including something as basic as a blood pressure measuring device, at the dispensary as the place is yet to be upgraded to a full-fledged medical centre. It also doesn’t have an ambulance to ferry patients. 


What do locals want?

Usha Devi (29), a local, says she wants the government to ensure dedicated focus on the womenfolk living in the border areas. “There should have been vocational training institutes wherein women could get trained to earn a livelihood. However, we have been left in the lurch with no focus on our upliftment,” she rues.

According to her, there are no livelihood opportunities available to the people there except traditional farming. “Our crops are destroyed every time tensions between the two sides rise. We have sacrificed a lot in the past, but the government doesn’t seem to be interested in listening to our woes,” she adds. 

On the other hand, Anil Kumar, who is pursuing his graduation in a Jammu college, says there should be a special quota for youths living in border towns in army recruitment. “It is strange that Rs 10 lakh and a government job is given to a militant who surrenders in Kashmir, but those who are guarding the borders are left at the mercy of the situation. Shouldn’t the government think of our betterment, knowing full well the predicament that surrounds us all days of the year?” Kumar questions.

The area comes under the Jammu Lok Sabha constituency, where BJP’s Ashok Khajuria secured more than 1.66 lakh votes. From Suchetgarh, 19,000 votes were polled in BJP’s favour alone. Earlier, the seat was considered Congress’s bastion as the party had won it in nine of the total 14 Lok Sabha elections.

According to Bhupinder Singh, a local youth working in a private firm, the area voted unanimously for the BJP in the 2014 elections, hoping the party’s pro-development agenda would benefit border towns as well.

However, five years down the line, he adds, not much has changed and the locals continue to struggle every day to make ends meet. “We will now vote for whichever party gives ample assurances of protecting our lives and properties and compensates us for past losses.”


In defence of government

Choudhary, who has won two back-to-back terms (2008 and 2014 assembly elections), admits there is an urgent need to make the bunkers more secure and that he has already taken up the matter with the deputy commissioner. 

According to him, the government has also taken up the matter of giving special quota to border residents in police recruitment and more compensation to those whose houses get damaged in shelling.

He says the Centre, last June, took series of major steps for the border dwellers and also raised the compensation bar — damage to crops is now approved at Rs 37,500 per hectare and compensation for loss of livestock is Rs 30,000 for large animals and Rs 3,000 for small animals; Rs 1,01,900 is for fully damaged pucca houses and Rs 75,000 for partially damaged ones.

Choudhary, who beat Taranjit Singh Toni of regional National Conference in 2008 as well as 2014, is confident that the people will vote for his party in the upcoming elections.

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