The Landscape of Disaster

There is a “Qutab Minar” in Kashmir as well. Surprised; don’t be. Prepare yourself for the shock.
This tapering land mass is of the recent origin, and unlike the one adorning the skyline of Indian capital and symbolizing architectural marvel of a civilization, this structure stands for ruin and vandalization. It’s like the April of Eliot – cruelest. On its top is an almond tree, perhaps a reminder of the onslaught. This Qutab Minar is located at Pampore’s Chandhara village, the proud birth burg of the great versifier of melancholy and the last Kashmiri queen – Habba Khatoon.
When the railway project started in Kashmir, it came with a seemingly bright prospect of brining here faster mode of transport along with employment avenues. This apparently positive side of the project was vehemently projected before the people, while the environmental costs that it inflicted in terms of vandalization of rich and fertile karewas of Pampore, and shrinking of the paddy fields were wickedly ignored. Contractors despite the ban on using rich saffron land for developmental purposes leveled hundreds of hectares of kerawas; out of the beautiful highlands are now created ugly gorges of eerie ambience. Now one needs to be extremely cautious while walking at the edges of these kerawas. What used to be serene descent just some years before are now 100 feet vertical death traps. A slight mistake at the receding summit can throw you down on hard surface; instant death is a sure thing.
In places like Patal Bagh, Samboora, Chandhara, Krenchu, Wuyen, and Befina the activity of hauling out rich saffron soil continues and administration seems to have forgotten that it exists not only for lathi charging and firing canister shells but checking such vandalization of prime agricultural lands as well.
In Patal Bagh, when the sun dips on the western horizon, a group of tippers waddling on rugged dusty surface enter what looks like a creepy canyon; they dangerously climb up a narrow strip that leads to a temporary landing where they assemble in a line to be filled by a big Hitachi earth mover. Everyday this monstrous machine, cleverly hidden behind the canyon, scoops out large mass of soil from saffron land and drops it in these tippers to be taken to the project site of new highway being constructed from Qazigund to Nowgam. The work on the 67 km long highway is going on and the one kilometer long stretch at Tengan is being filled with top soil excavated from the saffron land around Pampore.  The five kilometer long portion falling in Pampore will take a heavy toll on the saffron land, as work starts on the stretch.
I asked Ashfaq Ahmad (name changed), a tipper driver, do they have permission to extract the saffron land for filling. “Karaan chhis Taas pataas” is how he put the scenario of illegal extraction of soil from the saffron land. Taas Pataas, if roughly translated, means working the system to get things done. This Taas Pataas, an alarming phenomenon, is not an exceptional thing but has become a norm. Had that not been the case how is it possible that despite the ban contractors still manages to extract soil from the saffron land?
“Under section 133 of the Land Revenue Act conversion of agricultural land is prohibited.” says advocate Bashir Ahmad Malik, the chairman of Legal Cell Pampore, “Even the High Court have issued directions on the ban, but there seems to be an evil nexus between the administration and the brokers”, he avers.
“Government should not allow defacing of natural topography. It will have far reaching consequences” warns Javaid Ahmad Qadri, the Executive Member of Falah Behbood Committee Pampore, a local activist group that is vigorously pursuing the issue from the last four years.
It would be wrong to blame only one side for all the mess.  For the vandalization of saffron fields landowners are equally responsible.
“Many contractors approached me as well.” Muhammad Shafi speaks somberly, “They wanted to extract soil from my landholding and I was more than happy to allow them as they were offering good money. But as you know, they (authorities) do not allow extraction here any more”. If one glances around Muhammad Shafi’s vast landholding with neatly prepared matrix of earth beds and almond trees, it becomes hard to imagine how one would allow vandalization of such a piece of rich land for a petty sum. For every load full of tipper landholder is paid around 70- 100 rupees, which in turn contractors sell at around 1000 rupees to the project company. For landholders like Muhammad Shafi, whose land is high at the crest of the karewas, soil trading with contractors is always a profitable venture. They get not only good money for their soil but also a clearing (arid, of course) on which they can make a new house.
In the whitewashed spacious room with a sole laminated picture of saffron flower hanging on the wall, Tehsildar Pampore, Mr. Zaffar Hassan Shawl, informed me that: “For the last one month alone the Revenue Department has realized two lakh rupees in fine”. But why still soil extraction of the saffron land is not ceasing? I asked. “Unless there is a proper policy in place, such things are bound to happen.” He replied; adding: “We lack proper infrastructure and resources to enforce the ban”.
Paradoxically, while the ban on soil extraction is being enforced on the southern side of the karewas in Chandhara, just crossing the rutted road to the other side, behind a fine screen of poplar trees, earthmovers are still digging their big iron jaws deep into the saffron land. Taas Pataas is happening here as well. And in all this we are fast losing our heritage of saffron karewas. If this menace of soil extraction is not checked, time is not far when all of Pampore will become a barren clearing with haphazardly built concrete houses and nothing more to pride itself on other than poison ivies, poppies, and perhaps a reminder in the shape of the forlorn Qutab Minar.


First Published in Greater Kashmir on October 16, 2011: