Spring of hope in Tangdhar

Print edition : March 10, 2006

The harsh mountain winter having ended, victims of the Himalayan earthquake get ready to rebuild their lives.

ON the map of the subcontinent, the Line of Control (LoC) runs through a little meadow outside the small mosque at Chhatkadi village, just a few metres short of the shrine of Ziarat Treda Sharif, which houses the tomb of the Sufi saint Sain Mitha Baaji. Nothing marks the border tension but for a single Pakistani soldier who has been assigned to keep watch and who peers out of his bunker to ensure that there is no transgression.

Until 1989, hundreds of leprosy patients from all over India would walk across the Tangdhar ranges and gather at the small mosque before passing through a police check-post to their final destination, the tomb of the Sufi saint. No passports, visas or travel permits were needed. Just the touch of the earth around the tomb, the faithful believe, would cure them. In 1989 terrorist groups began to target Indian patrols along the LoC and the authorities responded by shutting down the crossing. To many outside the region, the tragedy in Tangdhar was of special importance even though it was just one of a depressing series of natural disasters: it seemed to offer the prospect of salvation. India's six decades of conflict with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir, it seemed, would melt away in the face of shared suffering, a Crucifixion-like act of transformation which would give the tragedy meaning and purpose.

Discourse on earthquake relief was free of the nuts-and-bolts concerns that characterised debates over aid to the tsunami victims or the rebuilding of Bhuj after the earthquake of January 26, 2001. In fact, in Tangdhar, the concerns are more elemental. Having endured the brutal mountain winter, the people are now bracing for what is perhaps a tougher test: rebuilding their lives from rubble.

A house built of corrugated-iron sheets, at Panchtara village-

Aurangzeb Husain was just two days old when the great Kashmir earthquake brought down his home, trapping him under tonnes of debris. Husain had stopped screaming by the time soldiers from the Army outpost at Teetwal reached him; two of his uncles had died by then, crushed under piles of stone and wood. Husain is now a part of another miracle: a new village rising from the flattened earth.

Hundreds of new homes, made of corrugated iron sheets hammered together, have mushroomed across the Tangdhar mountains. More than 20,000 people were left homeless by the October 8 earthquake, but not a single family now remains without at least basic shelter. Although storms dumped over two metres of snow in parts of the Tangdhar ranges in January, there was not a single exposure-related death - an enormous achievement. It is starting to become clear, though, that the process of rebuilding Tangdhar's social and economic infrastructure may be much tougher than the relief operation itself.

Aided by the early onset of spring, many in the region have begun rebuilding their homes. The State government has so far paid out Rs.40,000 in emergency aid to each homeless family, along with a grant of Rs.35,000 for the construction of temporary shelters. Another Rs.60,000 will be paid in April, after public demonstrations of earthquake-resistant building techniques.

The aid, while substantial, is not as generous as it seems. "A brick that costs Rs.3 in Srinagar sells for Rs.5 here", notes Mohammad Kafeel-ur-Rahman, who represents the area in the Assembly. Even unskilled workers are said to charge up to Rs.175 a day.

Local traditions have helped meet the most desperate need in post-earthquake Tanghdar: labour. Residents of the mountains have long practised halla-sheri, the custom of contributing free labour to the community. At harvest time, for example, villagers often work for their neighbours, assured that the favour will be returned when their own crops ripen. It is unlikely, though, that halla-sheri will meet local needs as the volume of reconstruction work increases. "You can't build houses one at a time," says Syed Talib Husain Shah, sarpanch of Panjtara, "because no one wants to be the last to be living in a shed."

Electricity lines being restored at Panchtara.-

Replacing Tangdhar's social infrastructure is also going to be a slow process. Karnah tehsil had 163 schools serving a population of 52,000, a sign of the importance that the residents give to education. Few school buildings, however, survived the earthquake. When schools reopen in March, few children will have functional classrooms to go back to. Children in the region were given an exam-free promotion after the earthquake, but the residents know this is not a solution. "We're afraid," says Mohammad Yasin, the sarpanch of Chhatkadi, "that the earthquake has robbed our children of a future."

Besides schools, community assets such as pipelines carrying water to remote villages, power lines, roads, and cultural resources such as mosques, all accumulated over decades, were claimed by the quake. Worse, some villages may never be rebuilt. Hamlets such as Jabra and Panjtara, for example, are located on mountainsides that the earthquake has rendered unstable. Landslides, local authorities believe, could obliterate these areas during the summer rains. There is little agricultural land available for resettlement owing to decades of unchecked soil erosion.

Official institutions are doing their best in the circumstances. Ibkot's village postman has put up a bright red sign proclaiming that mail may be sent and received from the temporary shelter he shares with his family, while the staff of the State-owned Kamraz Rural Bank conduct business from an office put together with corrugated-iron sheets. The real question is: whose needs will come first, and whose last?

At Dringla village, a woman and her grandson in front of their temporary house made of corrugated-iron sheets.-

Soha Abbas reminisces about the life she led before the earthquake forced her family out of their magnificent traditional home and into a two-room corrugated-iron shed in a corner of their courtyard. Inside their old house in Dringla village, there were carpeted floors, tiled bathrooms and a television set. In the shed, though, it is always either too hot or too cold, and although the television set was salvaged, apparently intact, from the rubble, there is no power to run it.

The earthquake did more than level homes: it flattened the class and caste structures of the Tangdhar ranges. Compensation and aid directed at the region has given the region's poor more than they have received ever before.

Tangdhar's rich residents, though, have found that regaining their status and prosperity will need hard political lobbying. As emergency relief work gives way to long-term rehabilitation, Tangdhar's traditional elite - walnut traders, road and public works contractors, and shopkeepers - is pushing hard for relief that will allow it to salvage as much as possible from the ruins.

As everywhere else in India, elite castes such as Mugals and Syeds historically cornered a disproportionate share of development. Lower-caste Gujjars and Bakkarwals lost out. Earthquake aid, though, began to challenge this structure. In January, for example, the State government began work to link Panjtara village and the remote Amroi village dominated by Gujjars and Bakkarwals. Such a road will hit Panjtara's elite hard: the people from whom Gujjars buy supplies at substantial premiums and also hire the mules needed to haul them into the moutains.

Not surprisingly, Panjtara's representatives protested, arguing that the contract for the construction of the road ought not to have been given to an ethnic-Kashmiri from Kupwara. The traders mobilised the community behind this demand and forced the contractor to flee, ending work on the road. Syed Talib Husain Shah provides an insight into the motives that led to the death of the road. "I lost a shop and goods worth Rs.10 lakhs," he claims, "and I can't afford to lose the little business I have right now."

The mosque at Chhatkadi village, a few metres from the Treda Sharif shrine which Indian devotees visited freely until 1989 by crossing the LoC.-

Businessmen like him want a six-month tax break and a moratorium on loan repayment. Others want the government to underwrite the costs of reconstructing shops, and the payment of compensation based on the value of lost property, rather than a fixed Rs.1,35,000 grant, all commitments that could eat into reconstruction funds meant for the poor. "The government should also make labour available to us at affordable rates," says Syed Ghazi Shah, the sarpanch of Chanapora, "by bringing people from Bihar or elsewhere."

Tangdhar's businessmen point to their losses in defence of these claims. Walnut contractors, for example, send out over 500 trucks of shelled kernels each October. Last year, though, a part of the harvest - businessmen disagree on how much - was buried in the rubble. Prices for giri, the walnut kernel, doubled to over Rs.250 a kilogram in the market in Tangdhar. It was a blessing for the dealers based in Kupwara, Srinagar and Jammu but an insult to local businessmen and farmers, who had already contracted to sell the harvest at pre-earthquake prices.

Contractors and businessmen, more likely than not, will be more than compensated for what they lost in the earthquake by the massive rebuilding projects that will be initiated in the coming months.

But making sure that the local elites do not corner a disproportionate share of long-term relief, and not what happens at the LoC, will be one of the real tests of the integrity of the reconstruction process.

In Titwal, across the LoC, shelters built by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba.-

Bright-green sheds emblazoned with the Pakistan flag have begun to spring up at Chilayana, near the LoC bridge at Teetwal. Lettering on the walls of the corrugated-iron sheets announce that the sheds were donated by the Jamaat-ud-Dawa, the parent political organisation of the Lashkar-e-Taiba: a reminder that the LoC is still a symbol of hate, not hope.

Khwaja Fayyaz Ahmad's story helped explain why. Hoping to visit his uncle Abdul Aziz, Ahmad was among the five Teetwal residents who crossed the LoC. He found, however, that his uncle had been killed in the earthquake. His closest surviving relatives, the family of a cousin named Asmaan Joo, had moved to a refugee camp in Muzaffarabad. Ahmad returned home after sharing their struggle for three weeks. He does not intend to travel again. "My relatives were very welcoming," he says, struggling for words, "but decades stood between their lives and mine."

Work in progress on a temporary house at Dringla village.-

Similar sentiments are evident in Chhatkadi, too. Even as villagers rebuilt their homes, their relatives a few hundred metres away had neither aid nor food. It was only a week ago that United Nations helicopters carrying food, medical assistance and tents landed in the part of Chhatkadi in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. Had the LoC been open, relief could have reached there in days. Chhatkadi's sarpanch, Mohammad Yasin, has no sense of regret, though. "I am sad to see our relatives suffering," he says flatly, "but we must first care for our own." "Reopening the LoC," he asserts, "will not educate our children or put roofs over our heads."

Among Teetwal's older residents, the LoC still evokes a sense of loss. Many still remember the days when the village was a hub for trade between the high mountains and Muzaffarabad. Stories of the great merchants of Teetwal sponsoring mule-wrestling matches are shared with relish. Fond memories, though, have little bearing on the real world. Young people in Karnah now look to Srinagar, not Muzaffarabad, for jobs and livelihoods.

A seismic event, it was hoped, would have seismic political consequences. Sadly, there is little sign so far that is in fact the case - and Tangdhar's tragedy, as a consequence, has begun to vanish off television screens and newspaper pages. The rest of India now has to demonstrate that it cares about the people on the LoC, not just the conflict it represents.

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