“Where will people go?”: New land laws instill fear among Kashmiris

As Kashmir struggles with the fear of New Delhi trying to change the demographic designs, small-time landowners continue to suffer.

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Rashid Ashraf Rather, a resident of Budgam’s Kralpora area, is still fighting for the ancestral land taken from his family during the construction of a military airbase — alias Sheikh ul Alam International Airport — in the district in 1965.

The three kanals of land had been in his family for generations, where they maintained orchards and grazed the animals on it. Mr. Rather, 28, was raised with these stories and how his family was informed about the “forceful” land transfer only after the construction was started.

In total, as per Mr. Rather, 4000 kanals of land were taken from thousands of families in the surrounding villages of the central Kashmir district, including Buchroo, Kralpora, Wathora, Humhama, Gogo et cetera.

Mr. Rather’s family was told that they would be given 6,00,000 rupees per kanal for their land that was used by the army — however, after years, in 2012, they were given only 4,90,000 rupees. For the last few years, Mr. Rather’s family has also refused to take the rent — 800 rupees annually — by the forces as they “had to ask for the money again and again”.

“We even went to New Delhi a few times but they say that our file is with the Defense ministry,” he said. “The market value per kanal is around two crore rupees.”

Now, between these families and their land stands heavily guarded concrete boundaries of the airport and army camps. “We cannot even go there. It is under army occupation,” said Mr. Rashid. “They will shoot us if we try.”

Left with a small piece of land in the area adjoining the airport, Mr. Rather has been worried since he heard the rumours about the extension of the airport. He believes that the army can take what is left with him anytime.

And the recent amendments to the laws governing land ownership and dealing in Jammu and Kashmir (J-K) are making his fears real. On 26 October, the Ministry of Home Affairs notified that any local area in J-K, on the written request of the army, can be declared as strategic by the government for direct operational and training requirements of the armed forces.

That’s only a part of all that has happened as New Delhi brought sweeping changes to the existing land laws of the erstwhile state by repealing twelve state laws. As per the notification, no domicile or permanent resident certificate is required for purchasing non-agricultural land in Jammu and Kashmir.

Until the abrogation of Article 35A — and article 370 — in August 2019, only permanent residents of the erstwhile state, also called as “state subjects”, were allowed to buy land.

The changes in laws have left the landowners in Kashmir worried about what comes next for them. The future of small landowners like Mr. Rather, he says, will end altogether. “A landowner can no longer think of investing money in his orchards or starting his business. Eventually, his land will be taken from him,” said Mr. Rather, “They have already started taking our land.”

The unprecedented changes made to the laws were promoted by national right-leaning media publications seemingly as advertisements to buy land in J-K. And it has irked many real estate players too.

Syed Adnan Qadiri, who is an Assistant General Manager at LeSolitarian Group, a real estate company, told The Kashmir Walla that due to the permission granted to outsiders to buy land in J-K, the rates of land will be sky high in the next few years.

“Rates fixed by the Government often differ from the market value,” he said. “Hence, even if the government fixes rates of purchase of land will be on paper only.’

More importantly, the lack of land in Kashmir Valley and the high rates of land can further force people to shift to apartments from houses, argued Mr. Qadiri — forcing the society to move towards vertical housing. “The sale will be restricted to plane areas which will definitely give rise to new residential plots and flat systems,” he said.

Whilst, Dr. Javaid Iqbal Khan, who is a Senior Assistant Professor of the Economics Department at the University of Kashmir, said these amendments will help the long-gone landlordism to revive again and establish a class system — that already is in place. “Before the outsiders come and settle here, the big Kashmiri business houses or people with money and resources will be in a position to capture more land,” said Dr. Khan. “Things will be divided and altered.”

But other than that, these moves by New Delhi have a psychological implication too, he added: “The government has made a statement that it does anything irrespective of the popular sentiment. It has put its writ large.”

The BJP has, in contrast to the popular sentiment in J-K, said that the moves have “democratized” the land market, paving path for awaited industrial development.

However, it cannot be the case in J-K, argued Dr. Khan, due to political uncertainty and the conflict. “The government cannot provide complete security to business establishments here,” he said. “Private individuals do not invest where they feel is an insecure environment.”

The new laws also invoked very sharp and critical reactions by the unionists in Kashmir and other civil society members. In an attempt to buzz them off, the Principal Secretary, Information and the government’s spokesperson, Rohit Kansal, on 2 November, falsely claimed that “over 90 percent of the land” can not be sold to outsiders, it being agricultural land.

In an explainer, veteran journalist Muzamil Jaleel explained that there is a “restriction on sale” of agricultural land that can be removed by “the government or an officer authorized by it” — but not a blanket ban.

As per the last census in 2011, the average land holding of Jammu and Kashmir is around 0.61 hectares, that is, around 24 kanals of land. “In such conditions, laws should be passed to protect the land and people should not be allowed to convert the land for non-farming practises,” said Raja Muzaffar Bhat, an RTI activist, and added that these actions “will slowly end the already shrinking land bank” in J-K.

So, even if the government pays compensation to the landowners under Right to Fair Compensation Law, the small land holding will cause a problem. “Where will people go?” he lamented. “Kashmir is a land deficit region.”

Instead of taking drastic measures to save agricultural land, said Mr. Bhat, the government is claiming to facilitate an “industrial revolution”. “We should have been promoting horticulture, floriculture, vegetable cultivation, dairy farming, sheep farming, tourism, and handicrafts,” said Mr. Bhat. “Kashmir is made for industries free from pollution.”

With a small land bank, setting up industries will cause an environmental disaster, said Mr. Bhat — and the settling down of people from outside will cause population explosion. “The need of the hour is to take this situation in a more environmental sense. This is an environmentally fragile area,” he said. “We need the support of environmental players and activists.”

As Kashmir struggles with the fear of New Delhi trying to change the demographic designs, small time landowners like Mr. Rather continue to suffer. “Even if I go to a far flung area, I will not get my three kanals of land for such a small amount of money,” said Mr. Rather. “Thousands of landowners are suffering.”

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