Kishtwar’s Forgotten Fight For Survival

Kishtwar’s Forgotten Fight For Survival

29 October 2012
The Daily Pioneer
Ashutosh Sharma

Srinagar: In India, where basic needs are no longer confined to roti, kapda aur makaan, there is a substantial population residing in some parts of Jammu & Kashmir which struggles every day to meet its minimum needs. A few kilometres away from the Kishtwar district headquarters, as the narrative of human struggle for existence comes alive in the villages of the Gujjars and Bakerwal tribes along with other communities, it dismisses all claims of modernisation and development. Dwelling in naturally-made caves in wooded mountains, these communities are found in significant numbers in the higher reaches of Kishtwar district’s Padder tehsil - the land of sapphire. Travelling to Padder, one can view the cave houses, lining the mountainside, creating a beautiful picture along the left bank of the powerful Chenab. Soon, though, the thickly forested and snowbound mountains shed their clichéd image. The richness of the fertile black soil fields, rich mineral deposits and gushing streams is marred by the poverty of the locals. About half the population in Jar Panchayat resides in caves called kudu. Despite the abundance of resources in the area, the severely malnourished children portray a picture of misery. Most of the rock dwellings exist in tall and straight mountains where few would dare to venture. In their struggle to stay alive, these remotely located communities have faced the worst. They have no access to food, health, sanitation or education. Problems like dampness, absence of light and ventilation pose health hazards. During inclement weather, they cook inside the rock chambers, inhaling smoke that exposes them to respiratory disorders, evident from a large number of asthma patients in the area. There is also the ever-present threat from poisonous insects and snakes. During rain and snowfall, the beleaguered communities share the cramped shelters with their livestock. In the absence of a bridge, they risk their lives crossing the mighty Chenab with the help of cables or zip wires. At certain points in the mountains, cables are the only means of transport; at others, the Government has arranged wooden cradles perched perilously on two cables to facilitate movement. The wooden cradle, which can accommodate only two persons at a time, slides over ropes with the use of manual labour. “Only those who are ill, especially expecting mothers, use the cradle but others usually use ropes (tied from bank to bank) to cross the gushing river”, says Fareed Ahmed of Sakhna Shashu, who lives in a kudu. At Kanthlu, after alighting from the cradle, Rafeeq, a resident of Qaza Nullah (literally meaning death, in Urdu) who had trekked for three hours carrying his five-year-old ailing son Mushtaq on his back, said, “We are on our way to the hospital at Padder. We live in horrible conditions here. If someone is unwell, we cannot carry them on charpoy to the hospital at the tehsil headquarter because in mountainous terrains, the tracks are too narrow. We crawl like ants when we have to scale or go down the mountains.” At places where the cradles have broken, locals have no option but to cross the river with the help of wires at great risk to themselves. The Forest Rights Act (2006) has no relevance in this remote region. “Though we have been living in these forests for centuries, we do not have ownership rights over forest land or products. We cannot use wood for making even temporary shelters. A section of our population that has livestock, migrates to the upper reaches during summer. But even there they live under rocks,” rues Saif Deen of Pather Nakki. “Of a total of 500 households in my Panchayat, 250 live in caves as they do not have homes. I would request Union Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh to visit my Panchayat and see for himself that there are bigger challenges than sanitation,” said Mool Raj Rathore, sarpanch of Jar area. The MLA of the area, Mr Sajjad Ahmed Kichloo, says, “I cannot believe that people still live under rocks in my constituency. In my constituency 80 per cent people are well off.” On being informed about the areas where people still live in caves, Mr Kichloo said, “They live in kudus just for three to four months and then migrate to the upper reaches in the mountains. If you have been there, you understand that it is almost impossible to reach there. However, I will seek information from field agencies and my sources. If it is found to be true, I will help such families through the Constituency Development Fund and other welfare schemes.” The manner in which these communities have been left behind in the march towards modernity points to the need of planning development strategies from their perspective. Unless and until we walk hand in hand, we as a country will be unable to achieve the status of a developed country.