Garden town of Kashmir struggling to survive
7 October 2007
Bagh: Kissing her 13-month-old daughter Saba, she cannot control her tears. Two years ago on October 8, Salma Kausar lost her two daughters - Teenat aged 10 months and Hadiqa four years - in the devastating earthquake when her house collapsed in a matter of seconds. She still cries remembering how she saw for the last time Hadiqa holding a feeder for the little Teenat if both were alive. Her two other kids - Hanan and Jaweria - were lucky to be on their way to schools when the heavens fell on October 8, 2005. The life went on and she now has little Saba in her lap, but there is no end to her grief. She is not the only one to have faced such a trauma. Thousands of women, men, boys and girls left their dear ones for ever without even saying goodbye. And yet there are many who survived but only as disabled. The residents of this entire village called Oomah in Bagh district sympathise with Salma Kausar, although all of them have been affected by the devastating earthquake – some losing their dear ones and some their homes, cattle, property and other belongings. Everybody lost someone or something. Most of them have now rebuilt their two-room home under the design provided by the government and others are about to complete their shelters – thanks to support provided by NGOs and the government. Their lives may not be the same as before, but at least they are ready to live under the safety of their own roofs when winter heralds anytime soon. These are rural areas of Bagh where opportunities are minimal but the fighting spirit in abundance. People in the urban areas of Bagh – a district of Azad Kashmir that ranked third in terms of devastation after Muzaffarabad and Balakot – are struggling to survive. The official slogan of “build, back better” seems to be a far cry in this district headquarters of Bagh, named so because its scenic beauty. With a population of about 485,000, more than 8,500 people were killed, 7,000 injured and over 90,000 houses were damaged in this town which was the launching pad for liberation struggle against the Dogra Raj and India in 1947. Included in them are 14,000 houses in Bagh urban where construction is officially banned but private constructions are going on without any check. The death toll did not include the unknown number of armed forces personnel who were killed in Bagh’s three tehsils. What development or reconstruction could one expect in this unfortunate district whose master plan is yet not ready even after the lapse of 24 months. “As a result, people in the town have reconstructed permanent shops, plazas and residences without any planning and the city dwellers are now facing everyday problems of sewerage and sanitation,” says Dr Atiq Zahid, a former medical superintendent of the district headquarters hospital. A major portion of the town has now been declared a ‘red zone’, but in the absence of a master plan no construction could take place. The National Engineering Services of Pakistan, which had been awarded the contract about 18 months ago to prepare the master plan, is yet to open its office in Bagh, and one could understand how effective such a job could be while based in Lahore and Islamabad. A small town on the ridge of Nala Mahal in Bagh cannot be reconstructed at its original location because of two active fault lines. Bagh has been divided into four zones - highly hazardous, hazardous, highly dangerous and moderately dangerous. No part of it falls in the low-danger or safe categories. Its lorry station, postgraduate college for boys, Nindrai and Maldara are on the one fault line while the district headquarters, Huddabari, Chowki and girls and boys schools are on the other fault line. “The situation remains as it was a year ago,” Dr Atiq told Dawn on Sunday. Khwaja Javed Iqbal, chairman of the Anjuman- i-Shehryan, says that residents of Bagh want President Pervez Musharraf to visit Bagh again to see for himself what happened to the promises he had made to the people on his first visit soon after the earthquake. The president had announced that he would convert this challenge into opportunity and said that a new Bagh would emerge from the ashes. “Bagh continues to be in ashes and has in fact turned into filthy debris,” says Mr Iqbal. The reconstruction efforts have now effectively been taken over by local politics. The incapacitated Bagh Development Authority, instead of taking lead in the reconstruction efforts has become just an NOC issuing authority to allow illegal construction on political grounds. Many people now believe that the reconstruction activity and master plan have been delayed so much that acquisition of land has become a big issue. Khalsa lands have already been grabbed by influential people and revenue officials have become their tools. Secondly, the prices have also gone up because of migration of a large number of people from villages to the town. The fear is that about Rs27 billion allocated for the reconstruction of Bagh may go waste if the authorities are not made non-political.