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Farmers wait for compensation for eight years after Army acquires land near Srinagar airport

Nearly 500 families of farmers have been waiting for compensation for the last eight years after their land was acquired by the Army in Karewa Damodar near Srinagar Airport. The Probe’s Raja Muzaffar has accessed exclusive documents that show how the farmers have not been paid the compensation they deserved for their agricultural land.

By Raja Muzaffar Bhat
New Update

publive-image Srinagar International Airport | Photo courtesy: @AAI_Official | Twitter

Nooruddin Rather, 66, a resident of Buchroo village in central Kashmir’s Budgam district, was not even born when his family land measuring 13 kanals (1.62 acres) located near Srinagar Airport area (Karewa Damodar) was taken into possession by the Indian Army way back in 1952. In addition to Nooruddin’s family land, the Army also acquired a huge chunk of land (approximately 500 acres) belonging to hundreds of people from half a dozen nearby villages. According to the local residents, between 1975 and 1990, around 300 acres of land belonging to people from villages of Humhama, Gudsathoo and Lalgam were also acquired by the Indian Airforce and the Border Security Force (BSF). The affected landowners were compensated for the same, but the villagers whose land was acquired by the Army are yet to be fully compensated. 

Nooruddin Rather speaks to The Probe’s Raja Muzaffar Bhat 

Nooruddin is the adopted son of Assad Rather. Before his death, Assad transferred his immovable property to Nooruddin, which included the land under the possession of the Army near Srinagar airport (Karewa Damodar). As per the rate fixed by Deputy Commissioner/District Collector, Budgam, Noorudin was supposed to receive a payment of Rs 2.60 Crores as compensation, but he was paid only Rs 73.68 Lakhs in 2014. Nooruddin told The Probe that the Government officials promised him that the rest of the payment would be released within a week. But for the last eight years, he has been moving from pillar to post to get compensation.   

Nooruddin’s case is not a standalone case. Nearly 500 such families of farmers whose lands have been in possession of the Army are yet to be compensated. These 500 and odd families have received part compensation, around 20 per cent of the total amount they are entitled to.

“Buchroo village is located just outside the boundary wall of the Srinagar airport. There are around 500 families from half a dozen villages in Budgam district, like Kralpora, Wathoora, Lalgam, Rangreth, Humhama and Gudsathoo, who own the land at Karewa Damodar near Srinagar airport, but a majority of these families have never seen their land as the entire area is fenced with a concrete boundary wall for last many decades. Prior to 1952, the villagers who owned land at Karewa Damodar would grow almonds and apples on these lands. My father told me they would also grow wheat and maize, but in 1952 the area was taken possession by the Army. This brought a setback to our livelihood as we could no longer continue with our agricultural activities. For the last several decades, we have been waiting for compensation. In fact, we were paid rent from 1959 onwards, but that was a very meagre amount,” said Nooruddin to The Probe.

publive-image Nooruddin Rather | Photo courtesy: Raja Muzaffar Bhat

The Srinagar International airport is located in the territorial jurisdiction of Budgam district, which used to be a tehsil of Srinagar district until 1978. The Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, had set up Airfield at Karewa Damodar for the first time around 1942. 

Karewa Damodar 

The Karewas are small elevated tracts of plateaus that are spread across Kashmir valley in an area of approximately 2500 square kilometres. They are known as ‘wodder’ in the Kashmiri language. When the first batch of the Indian Army came to Kashmir on the request of Maharaja Hari Singh to fight tribal raiders from Pakistan (Kabalis), the Dakota plane carrying the soldiers had landed at the airfield located at Karewa Damodar on October 27, 1947. The place has immense historical significance. A big contingent of the Army was guarding the Srinagar airport post-1947, and around 1952 the Indian Army occupied 484 acres of land at Karewa Damodar. 

publive-image Dakota plane carrying the soldiers land at the airfield located at Karewa Damodar | Photo courtesy: IAF archives

“As the local villagers lost control over the chunk of land under the Army’s possession, the then Jammu & Kashmir government headed by Prime Minister Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad took up the matter with the government of India. From 1959 onwards, the Army started paying the annual rent to the aggrieved farmers for around 3879 kanals of land (484 acres). Initially, the rent was fixed at Rs 3 per kanal, per annum (1 acre = 8 kanals), then it was increased to Rs 5, and subsequently, the same was enhanced to Rs 1500 per kanal around 2005. In 2013, the payment of rent was stopped as the government of India decided to acquire the land. Around 2014, some part of the compensation (20 to 25 per cent) was paid to the landowners, but we have been waiting for the final compensation from the government of India. In fact, after article 370 abrogation, we hoped that the government would pay us compensation as per the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR Act 2013), wherein we are entitled to get 3 to 4 times more compensation for land than the market rate. But unfortunately, we are not even paid Rs 20 or 22 lakhs per kanal which is ¼ of the market rate in the area,” said Mohammad Ameen Kuchay, Vice President of the Zamindaran Committee Karewa Damodar.

The legal battle 

As the villagers from Kralpora, Wathoora, Rangreth and other areas lost their prime land, they decided to seek judicial intervention. The farmers were not satisfied with the annual rent they were paid. The land around the airport became prime property, and the costs increased. Several residential colonies sprung up in Humhama and Rangreth. 

During 1995-96, the land near Humhama was sold and purchased at Rs 30 to 35 lakhs per kanal, and a kanal of land would fetch rent at Rs 10,000 to 15000 per year, but in the case of the land that was under the occupation of the Army inside Karewa Damodar (located only 20 to 30 metres away), the farmers/landowners were paid a mere Rs 1000 or 1100 per kanal per year. 

The agitated farmers formed an association called the Zamindaran Committee Karewa Damodar and filed a Writ Petition before the Jammu & Kashmir High Court. The High Court on 22.12.2003 gave a landmark judgement directing the government to derequisition the entire land under section 6 of the Jammu and Kashmir Requisitioning and Acquisition of Immovable Property Act 1968 (RAIP Act) as it was already under requisition with the Army for many decades. The Jammu and Kashmir government also put the ball in the government of India’s court to acquire the land in case they didn’t go for handing over the land back to its owners.    

Aggrieved by the Judgement, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) challenged the order before J&K High Court Division Bench in 2004. The Division Bench of J&K High Court pronounced a judgement on 23.07.2009 wherein the previous judgement was dismissed, and the order came in favour of respondents - the Ministry of Defence and others.

“The Zamindaran Committee didn’t give up, and we went to the Supreme Court to challenge the J&K High Court division bench order. A special leave petition was filed in 2009, and the Supreme Court referred the case back to the J&K High Court, which directed the government of India to pay a fair amount of annual rent to the farmers or acquire the land. The Defence Estates Department (DED) decided to acquire the land but was ready to pay only Rs 1.23 lakhs per kanal as compensation. This was unacceptable to us, and we continued our struggle,” said Shabir Ahmad Sofi, President of the Zamindaran Committee Karewa Damodar.

“The official communication and negotiations continued between the government of J&K and the central government, who finally agreed to enhance the compensation money from Rs 1.23 lakhs to 6 to 7 lakhs per kanal. The discussion and deliberations continued further until the government of India agreed to pay Rs 18 to 20 lakh per kanal as compensation,” Shabir Ahmad added.  

publive-image Srinagar International Airport | Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

DED places indent 

The farmers heaved a sigh of relief when the Defence Estates Department (DED) under the Ministry of Defence, the government of India placed an indent before the Deputy Commissioner, Budgam through Defence Estates Officer (DEO) Kashmir circle, Srinagar for acquiring land measuring 3879 kanals (484 acres) at Karewa Damodar. DEO placed the indent after getting sanctioned by the Ministry of Defence. 

After completion of land acquisition formalities under the RAIP Act 1968, the Deputy Commissioner’s office, Budgam submitted the case to the Home Department of J&K government on 4.06.2013 through Divisional Commissioner, Kashmir for publication of form J notification. 

The DC Budgam, under his official communication dated 9.06.2014, invoked section 8 of the J&K RAIP Act 1968 and fixed the compensation rate at Rs 18 lakhs per kanal for unirrigated land and Rs 20 lakhs per Kanal for irrigated land. The Defence Estates Officer (DEO) didn’t agree to the proposed rates. The DEO Kashmir zone, Srinagar, through his official communication dated 4.06.2015, stated that unirrigated land would be paid Rs 6 lakhs per kanal and irrigated/orchard land Rs 7 lakhs. In response to it, the Deputy Commissioner/District Collector Budgam, through his official communication dated 11.07.2015, told the Defence Estates Officer (DEO) that the compensation rates proposed by him didn’t match the market rates. 

The official letter, a copy of which is with The Probe, reads: “The aforementioned rates for compensation of the subject land as communicated by DEO Srinagar do not match with the market rate being adopted in the vicinity of the proposed land and hence not accepted.”

Deputy Commissioner Budgam, through his communication dated 11.7.2015, provided a list of villages with the market rate of the land in each of the locations. The Deputy Commissioner (DC) Budgam emphasised that the average rates in these villages were between 18 to 25 lakhs per kanal. In addition, a list of seven villages was also provided where the government had acquired land for various public purposes between 2008 and 2011. These villages/habitations, including Ompora, Rangreth, Wathoora, Humhama, Gudsathoo, Gogo, are located just 1 to 2 kms from the area where land is to be acquired by Defence Estates Department (DED). The compensation provided in these areas ranged between 10 to 15 lakhs per kanal, said the Deputy Commissioner, Budgam in his official communication, and he reiterated that Rs 18 to 20 lakhs per kanal rate was the final rate that was unanimously recommended by the district administration in consultation with the revenue officials. 

In fact, the affected villagers wanted more than this, as the market value of the land just outside the Karewa Damodar boundary wall in 2015 was Rs 1 crore or more. The Deputy Commissioner Budgam directed the DEO Kashmir Zone through his official communication dated 11.07.2015 to make a payment of Rs 690 crores so that the same would be disbursed among the affected farmers and land owners. Eight years have passed since, and the payment is yet to be disbursed.

“The market value of the land outside Karewa Damodar boundary wall, say, for example, in Rangreth (north side), was Rs 80 lakhs per kanal in 2015. It was Rs 40 lakhs in Wathoora (east side) and Rs 35 lakhs in Buchroo (towards the southern end). After nearly eight years, this is three times more as of date, and we are not even provided Rs 18 lakhs or 20 lakhs per kanal. What kind of justice is this? This is a violation of our fundamental rights. Our land has been forcibly acquired and we are even denied compensation by the government of India," said Ghulam Mohiudeen Dar, an affected land owner from Wathoora village in Budgam.

Land has a higher value, says DC Budgam 

The Deputy Commissioner Budgam, in his written communication, makes it clear that the market value of the land was much higher (Rs 50 to 60 lakhs per kanal) and had the airfield not been developed on Karewa Damodar it would have been one of the posh residential colonies in view of being located in the close vicinity of Srinagar city. 

publive-image A snapshot of DC Budgam’s letter to Defence Estate Officer, Kashmir Circle, Srinagar in 2015 | Photo courtesy: Raja Muzaffar Bhat

The letter reads: “During 2014, when a minimum rate of Rs 18 to 20 lakhs per kanal was awarded by the Collector, many grounds were taken into account, including those which stand referred to in your subject letter. The case was accordingly referred to the Committee of Collectors and Assistant Collectors of district Budgam. Under the said Committee, all points, observations and pros and cons related to the matter came to be discussed and deliberated at length, and the Committee unanimously agreed that the grounds referred to in the above-mentioned letter are not maintainable because the value of the said land per kanal is reportedly Rs 50 to 60 lakhs per kanal at present and even on the dates of its acquisition, the rates of the land were very high.”

The letter further reads: “This has been mentioned at the outset that the airfield is a contagious, intact patch and ideal site as well. Had it not been acquired for the development of the airfield, it could have been a posh residential/commercial area in the close vicinity of Srinagar city.”

Mohammad Ayaz, 45, an aggrieved farmer from Wathoora, Budgam, was paid Rs 25,16,150 by the Collector, Land Acquisition, Karewa Damodar, Budgam. The amount was transferred into his bank account on 15.11.2014. He has been waiting for the rest of the amount for the last eight years. Ayaz underwent kidney transplant surgery in 2014 and had to borrow money for his medical needs. He still owes money to his friends and relatives. 

“I lost more than five kanals of land at Karewa Damodar. I was paid part of the compensation in 2014 and was expecting the rest within six months. I am entitled to Rs 1 crore, but I have been waiting for the last eight years like 500 other farmers. The market value of my five kanals of land (0.625 acres) is around five crores, but I have been paid only Rs 25 lakhs, and for the rest of the Rs 75 lakhs, I have been made to wait for so many years. I underwent Kidney transplant surgery in 2014, which cost me Rs 20 lakhs. I had to borrow money from my friends and relatives, and even today, I am in severe debt,” said Mohammad Ayaz while talking to The Probe.

Many farmers we spoke to had similar stories to tell. They have been knocking on the doors of the government and the courts for justice. Some of the farmers are knee-deep in debt, like Mohammad Ayaz and many others say their livelihoods have been severely affected after their agricultural land was taken away.