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A winter of fear

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

The trauma of the residents of the border villages in Rajasthan caused by a war not fought.

IT has been the agony of wartime for people living along the border with Pakistan in western and northwestern Rajasthan. Even without a single shot being fired, thousands of people have become homeless and dozens of ordinary citizens and a few defence personnel have been killed by landmines. Hundreds of head of cattle and a large number of wild animals have been killed or maimed in the minefields.

Ever since the defence forces moved into the border areas, replacing the Border Security Force (BSF), in the wake of the terrorist attack on Parliament House on December 13, 2001, normal life has been a casualty in the border villages. The biggest movement of troops in recent times, it has had a more serious impact on life than the previous exercise of its kind, during the 1971 Bangladesh war.

The trauma is the most visible in the dozens of villages irrigated by the Gang and Indira Gandhi Canals in Sriganganagar district, the damage caused by the yet-to-be fought war is evident all along the 1,040-km-long border - in the districts of Jaisalmer, Barmer and Bikaner. In Jaisalmer and Barmer districts, the preparations for war have hit the tourism sector hard - the tourist season peaks during the winter. The damage in Bikaner and Sriganganagar has been in the form of crop loss, as the farmers had to move to safer places.

Landmines caused death and misery in all border districts. It started with a blast claiming 19 lives in Gamnewala near Longewala in Jaisalmer district in the last week of December. Mine blasts have been reported also from Munaba and Sundra in Barmer district, Kajuwala in Bikaner district and Srikaranpur, Daulatpura and Mirjewala in Sriganganagar district.

The border areas which form part of Jaisalmer and Barmer comprise mainly vast expanses of the Thar desert with a sprinkle of dhanis or hamlets. In parts of Bikaner district and most of Sriganganagar district, mustard and gram fields stretch up to the Line of Control (LoC).

IN the historic Hindumalkote village in Sriganganagar district (before Partition it was a town that linked Bahwalpur and Karachi), the last big village in Northwest India, people who have not left the homes wistfully watch their fields from a distance. "We can see the crop as well as the fodder standing in our fields. We know that we will never be able to harvest them," said 80-year-old Pala Singh Bhaturia.

The agony is aggravated by the fact that there was crop failure in the last three years. Reduced availability of water in the Himalayan rivers of the Ravi, the Beas and the Sutlej which feed the Gang and the Indira Gandhi Canals, and the blight locally called "American soondi" affected the cotton crops in the area. Moreover, soon after arriving in the 1,000-odd villages on the border in Sriganganagar district around December 20, 2001, the Army took control of the canal system. Even in the past, the rivers did not carry much water to the canals in the Congress(I)-ruled Rajasthan as the government in Punjab, run by the Akali Dal, now a constituent of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), did not release enough water. "Punjab's decision on the release of water to Rajasthan is influenced by the politics in that State," said Lalit Sharma, the publisher of the newspaper Seema Sandesh.

Many people in Srikaranpur and Hindumalkote complained about the overriding presence of the Pakistan TV (PTV) in the air waves. "PTV seems to have a better range. We get PTV programmes on our television sets even without an antenna while we don't receive Doordarshan programmes," said Santa Singh, a farmer of Orkhi village.

The mandis (markets) of Gadsana, Anupgarh and Sriganganagar, where trade in grain and cotton, worth crores of rupees, takes place in normal times, wear a deserted look. The vibrant district town of Sriganganagar, which shares its culture with neighbouring Punjab, is no more the same with the defence personnel ubiquitous.

"Adatiayas (middlemen) have stopped giving advance to the farmers. What is the guarantee of getting the money back under these circumstances?" asked Balraj Singh Gill of Dhannur village in Kesrisinghpur tehsil. Mines have been laid on all the three sides of Dhannur. Moreover a nine-foot-deep trench cuts off the village from the rest of the territory.

Hardev Singh of 10 X near Dhannur has all his four murabba (100 bighas) of land laid with mines. Bhanwari Lal, the patwari of Dhannur, said that 35 to 40 murabba of land in the village had been mined. "The area keeps growing. The girdhavaris (revenue surveys) are not of much help to assess the damage caused to the farmer as more areas are brought under the Army's control," said Hardev Singh.

Although the people feel that there is a slowdown in the preparations for war after the January 12 speech of Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf, the mining goes on.

The sight of gun-wielding Armymen patrolling the streets in open jeeps, coupled with the heavy presence of war machines in the neighbourhood, has taken away the cheer from the hardworking and fun-loving farmers. Traders have suffered heavy loss of business and the local economy is a shambles.

Although there was no official evacuation of villagers from the border areas, panic and memories of the exodus in the wake of the 1971 war, when the villagers were taken by surprise, forced many residents to migrate. "We did not have any other way but to carry away our valuables in advance," said Surendra Wadwa of Kesrisinghpur.

Open fields, once grazing land, are no longer accessible because the Army has covered them with landmines. Reports say that people are selling their cattle to butchers as they are not able to feed them. "The villagers have to stall-feed their cattle now as they cannot be allowed to graze. The fodder required for stall-feeding too has to come from the fields, which are inaccessible for humans," said Chandraveer Singh Rathore, who runs a non-governmental organisation (NGO) to assist the affected people.

Accidents caused by mine explosions take place almost on a daily basis in the border districts. Fatuhi, a prosperous village 13 km from the border in Sriganganagar tehsil, has opened a stable for cows that have lost their legs in mine blasts. Dinesh Kumar Sharma, who tends the cows, said hundreds of animals were still trapped in various villages where mines had been laid.

The people of Fatuhi, who left the village in the last week of December 2001, left behind 200 to 250 cows, many of which had strayed into the minefields. By January, the village, which once had 550 families, had only 60 to 70 houses occupied, that too by male members. "We sent 200 cows to a gaushala in Sriganganagar while another 50 or so were transported to the town to be left on the streets," said Vijay Singh, a progressive farmer of Fatuhi. "War is no answer to terrorism. We on the border, who take the brunt of such escalation, know that a war would roll back the country's progress by another 20 years," he said.

In the border villages, one came across mixed sentiments about war. Surprisingly, many people said they welcomed a war as that would "settle" the problems with Pakistan once and for all. Perhaps they thought that one-time suffering would bring peace and prosperity to the border areas.

However, on close scrutiny, one could see that the village residents were perplexed by what was happening around them. "We live on the border and we are aware of the dangers," explained Darshan Singh, the sarpanch of Dhannur. "Our villagers are ready to fight. We should be provided arms," said Nihal Singh Baba, the village elder.

However, despite such brave protestations, there was also an overriding sense of exasperation. "We are ruined because of the mines in our fields and the stoppage of water for irrigation. We should be duly compensated for our losses," said Ram Singh of 1X in Srikaranpur. The village, a stone's throw from the border, has a population of 1,000 now against 600 it had in 1971. Although only 25 per cent of the village land has been taken over by the Army, the rest of the fields too have become inaccessible to farmers.

THE problems of the border villages have been compounded by lack of availability of water from the canals. The local farmers, mostly Jat Sikhs from Punjab, were brought to the area by the ruler of Bikaner, the late Ganga Singh. They settled in the locality in the 1930s, after the Gang Canal was constructed in 1927.

The water situation worsened soon after the Army took charge of the canals in December 2001. The flow in the main canals and the tributaries has been monitored since then as the strategic location of the canals provide them a role in the defence of the border. Since January 24, water has been released to the canals only for drinking supplies and not for irrigation.

A large number of migrant labourers, mostly from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, and daily-wage earners belonging to the Scheduled Castes, have been rendered jobless following the mobilisation of the Army. Sewa Singh, a labourer in Dhannur, said that he was scared but had no place to go.

Some organisations have taken up the task of feeding the people of the border villages by setting up camps. For instance, the All Rajasthan Karamchari Mahasangh, a body of State government employees, has set up a camp at Gurdwara Shri Dukhniwaran Saheb at Hindumalkote and opened regular langars (community kitchens) with the support of the sevadar of the gurdwara. "The people are hard-pressed as they had to migrate during the Kargil crisis as well, fearing a breakout of war," said Kudlip Singh K.P., a leader of the Karamchari Mahasangh. In fact, many people, who left their villages during the Kargil war, still find it difficult to repay debts incurred in transporting their belongings. Some people did not even bring back their belongings as they had no money to pay for their transport.

This time too many people moved out of the border areas for fear of the safety of women and children amidst the overwhelming presence of Army personnel. Initially there were some instances of villagers resenting the presence of jawans in their neighbourhood but such problems were later sorted out with the help of the district administration.

A sense of distrust prevails among the people regarding the payment of compensation for damages suffered as a result of the preparations for war. Baba Nihal Singh of Dhannur said that he did not get adequate compensation for the loss of crops in the 1971 war. "I got only Rs.1,500 though the damages were assessed as much higher," he said. Neither the Centre nor the State government has announced any compensation for the farmers.

The villagers are also worried that mines will be left behind in farmlands after the defence personnel leave. They cited instances of mines laid during the 1971 war being left in the fields only to be detected years later.

The Rajasthan government, after a high-level meeting chaired by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot on February 3, decided to call off the collection of revenue, electricity and irrigation charges and cooperative loan dues from the people living in the affected border villages. While the District Collectors have been directed to look into the immediate needs of the people by taking care of the supply of rations and provisions, the damage to crops, roads and irrigation channels is being assessed.

War or no war, it has been a long winter for the people in the border villages, who have been made to pay for bad-neighbourly relations between the two countries. The military muscle-flexing has already cost the people of the border dearly as they pay for a war which, in all likelihood, will never be fought.