February 2017 News

Kashmir Farmers Caught In Border Crossfire Hit Hard By Drought

3 February 2017
The Guardian

Srinagar: The past three decades have not been kind to the residents of Keerni in the foothills of the Himalayas. The village in India's Poonch district, in Jammu and Kashmir state, sits on the disputed line of control between India and Pakistan, and people and cattle have often been maimed or killed in crossfire or by landmines. Residents of Keerni's 750 mud-built homes have also had to deal with intensifying border conflict following India's strikes against purported terrorist camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in September. Now Keerni's inhabitants must grapple not only with heightened security threats but also a state-wide drought that is hitting them especially hard. Jammu and Kashmir is reeling under the longest dry spell in a decade, say experts. Winter crops that would usually be sown by October or November cannot be cultivated this season in many areas of the state reliant on rainfall. Sonam Lotus, director of Jammu and Kashmir's meteorology department, told local press in early December that the state had been dealing with a dry spell since 2007 and that it was unlikely to break any time soon. Isolated border villages such as Keerni - which lacks road connections, piped water, a school or a hospital - are among those worst affected by the drought. 'Since our area has not received any rains until now, our farms remain unploughed. We'll have to purchase food and fodder in the days to come,' says farmer Mohammad Fakir. Two factors are making it increasingly difficult to stay in the village, he explains. 'Farming is our only source of livelihood, and rains have become highly unpredictable. Second, the frequent ceasefire violations keep disrupting routine life, and no one feels safe here. In the wake of ongoing skirmishes, we couldn't harvest crops in time. Due to the delay, wild animals damaged a lot of our standing crop.' Fakir says he harvested 250kg of maize and 30kg of pulses from his half-hectare (1.25 acre) plot last season - a third of what he had anticipated. In the past, water shortages were not an issue, he says. 'About three decades ago, the village would get two to three feet of snow every winter, and there used to be no drinking water scarcity all through the year. But the snowfall has reduced drastically over the past few years. Now the village only gets a few inches of snow annually.' With no electric-powered flour mill in the village, the single water-powered mill has been struggling to meet demand as the flow of the stream declines. Villagers fear the mill may shut down due to a lack of rain, long before the stocks of grain to be milled are exhausted. Fakir says the security situation makes things even more complicated. 'In the wake of border cross-firing, [the] few remaining water bodies also become inaccessible to us and our cattle.' Locals are accustomed to threats from ongoing border strife between India and Pakistan. In 2001, all of Keerni's residents were evacuated for security reasons. When they were finally allowed to return to their rundown dwellings 10 years later, the village was virtually cut off from the rest of India by a huge fence on one side, and landmines marking the line of control on the other. Keerni's residents say they must cross this border fence - only open during specified hours - to get access to basic facilities such as healthcare and education. Fortifying the area used up a large chunk of farmland and restricted access to resources such as water, residents say. What agricultural land remained had also degraded after being left uncultivated for almost 10 years. Nazam Deen Mir, a local teacher with a monthly salary of 3,000 rupees (£36), says that because of the drought the government should act quickly to provide villagers with jobs under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a rural job scheme. Otherwise, he says, 'a majority of our men will have to leave their homes in search of alternative livelihood opportunities'. Citing drought affecting many parts of the country, Prime Minister Modi said in April last year that a 'massive effort' would be launched under the rural employment scheme to improve water conservation and storage. Some villagers have already left Keerni with their families to work as labourers in the state's winter capital, Jammu. Others sound increasingly devoid of hope about the future. 'A farmer in our border village knows exactly what to do in the face of exploding shells and bullets whizzing by,' says Khaleel Ahmed Mir, 22. 'One can somehow cope with the loss of life, limbs and livestock. But one really doesn't have any idea how to deal with this [drought] situation.'