Army top officers meet Kashmiri farmers

The Probe Impact: Army top officers meet Kashmiri farmers with an olive branch

Indian Army assures Kashmiri farmers that compensation would be released for land acquisition near Srinagar airport. This after The Probe reported on how 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.

Shabir Ahmad Sofi, President of Zamindar Committee Karewa Damodar and Vice President Mohammad Ameen Kuchay along with RTI activist from Budgam Mushtaq Ahmad Lone meet  Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla, General Officer-Commanding (GOC) of the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps(XV) | Photo courtesy: Raja Muzaffar Bhat

Mohammad Ayaz heaved a sigh of relief after walking from pillar to post for justice for his lost land for the last eight years. He has now been assured that he would get the compensation sum for his land that was acquired by the Defence Estates Department (DED) near Srinagar Airport for the Army in 2014. 

The Probe, on October 30, reported on how nearly 500 families of farmers have been waiting for compensation for close to eight years after their land was acquired by the Army in Karewa Damodar near Srinagar airport. This author accessed exclusive documents that showed how the farmers had not been paid the compensation they deserved for their agricultural land.

Ayaz, a 45-year-old marginal farmer from Wathora Budgam, who underwent Kidney transplant surgery in 2015, has been knocking at various doors for many years now to get compensation for his land. “My financial condition was so poor that I had to take a loan from my relatives during my kidney transplant surgery, and I have not been able to repay them. The acquisition of my land and the non-payment of compensation has deeply hurt my physical and mental health and the well-being of my family. I have three daughters who go to school and also have spent a lot of money on their education. We will be devastated if we do not get our compensation,” rues Ayaz, speaking to The Probe.

The delegation of some prominent citizens, farmers, landowners and rights activists, along with this author from Budgam district, recently met with Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla, who is serving as the current General Officer-Commanding (GOC) of the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps(XV). In the meeting, the delegation was assured by the Army that the aggrieved land owners, including Ayaz, whose five kanals of land (0.625 acres) had been acquired at Karewa Damodar near Srinagar airport, would be given compensation as per the government of India land acquisition rules.

As per the rates finalized for his land in 2013, Ayaz had to be paid one crore rupees in compensation approximately, but he was paid a sum of only 25 lakh rupees. In fact, the land rate of Ayaz’s land shot up by several folds in the ensuing years post the acquisition, but the renewed land rates were not considered by the government while calculating the dues for Ayaz.

The Probe’s Raja Muzaffar Bhat’s meeting with Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla, General Officer-Commanding (GOC) of the Srinagar-based Chinar Corps(XV) | Photo courtesy: Raja Muzaffar Bhat

“After the abrogation of Article 370, there is no elected government in Jammu and Kashmir. Even before that, J&K was under President’s rule from June 2018. The government, particularly the district administration of Budgam, did not take up the issue with the Defence Estates Department as they had other priorities. Only the representatives of landowners led by Zamindaran Committee Karewa Damodar had been following the case but only with the Defence Estates Office in Srinagar. The case had gone to DG Defence Estates Office a few years back and then to the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The aggrieved farmers, land owners and even the Zamindaran Committee had almost given up hope, but the recent meeting with Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla has once again made all of us hopeful for an early resolution. Moreover, the detailed story on the Karewa Damodar land acquisition issue published by The Probe triggered this debate again after so many years. We are thankful to The Probe as well. Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla received us warmly and keenly listened to the grievances faced by the 500 families. He took up the matter with the Defence Estates Department, and I believe very soon there will be a follow-up meeting for the release of the compensation money,” said Mushtaq Ahmad, a noted social activist from Budgam who was part of the delegation that met GOC 15 Corps in Srinagar.

Representation submitted to GOC

The Zamindaran Committee Karewa Damodar members submitted a written representation to the GOC 15 Corps Lieutenant General Amardeep Singh Aujla on behalf of the 500 aggrieved families during their meeting on November 5. The aggrieved land owners, in their written communication to the GOC, said that their case was in its final stage as the matter is said to have been resolved by the DG Defence Estates Department and the Union Cabinet, but the poor land owners have no access to these high profile offices located in New Delhi.

“Our case is in its final stage, and the matter is said to have been resolved by the DG Defence Estates Department and the Union Cabinet, but as we farmers have no access to this high-profile office, we are unaware when the payment will be released to the affected farmers. Eight years is a long time,” reads the representation submitted by the Zamindaran Committee before the Army.

The Zamindaran committee members, social activist Mushtaq Ahmad and this author also urged upon the GOC Lt Gen Aujla to rehabilitate those families who lost considerable amounts of their land and had a very meagre source of income. The GOC said that he would consider these suggestions and explore the possibilities of providing jobs to most affected families in a phased manner. The Zamindaran Committee had requested the GOC through their written representation that families most affected by land acquisition be rehabilitated by providing them jobs or allotment of shops inside the Karewa Damodar Estate around Army Units where already a large number of civilians have been working for decades, and many run their business units.

Srinagar International Airport | Photo courtesy: @AAI_Official | Twitter

“As we have no access to the Ministry of Defence or the DG, Defence Estates Department, we had only the option to reach out to GOC Lt Gen Aujla. In the past, we also tried a lot to get an appointment with GOC, but that didn’t work out. We are grateful to The Probe for publishing the in-depth article on the Karewa Damodar land acquisition issue, and we circulated it among many serving and retired Army and Air Force officials who then acted as a bridge between us and GOC 15 Corps office in Srinagar (Chinar Corps). We are now waiting for a follow-up meeting. We requested him to facilitate further discussions with the key officials and provide jobs to the young men and women whose families lost a large chunk of land and had no source of income. The GOC said he would look into that aspect also,” narrates Shabir Ahmad Sofi, President of the Zamindaran Committee Karewa Damodar.

Payment of fair compensation 

Around nine years back, when the Congress-led UPA-II Government enacted the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency under Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR Act 2013) in the Parliament, it was neither extended to J&K nor was an identical legislation enacted by the then J&K government headed by Omar Abdullah. Even the PDP-BJP government led by Mufti Mohammad Syed or Mehbooba Mufti also didn’t pass a law that could ensure payment of fair compensation to land owners/farmers during such land acquisitions. 

From 2013 onwards, thousands of farmers and landowners came to suffer post such land acquisitions as new infrastructure projects like the construction of highways, railways, dams, powerhouses, colleges, and universities sprung up in areas which were owned purely by the farming community.

“The Karewa Damodar land in Kashmir was also acquired during the same time when the government of India had already brought in the LARR Act 2013, but the National Conference-led government in J&K didn’t have a similar Act in the state. Article 370 was never an impediment in doing so, as many central laws were extended to J&K even before Article 370 was read down. If the J&K government could ratify central laws like The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA), National Food Security Act (NFSA) or Goods and Services Tax (GST) Act in the past, who prevented them from passing the progressive land acquisition law?” asks Shakir Mushtaq, a law student from Kashmir University who has been closely following the farmers’ movement.

When contacted, Badrul Dujja, Advocate J&K High Court, said that the aggrieved landowners must be paid fair compensation as land holding in J&K, particularly Kashmir valley is around half an acre only. He said that if the government pays three times more than the market value of land in other states, this should be five times in J&K as the land area is shrinking daily.

“The land holding in J&K is very meagre as most of our landmass is under mountains. The majority of the farmers across Jammu & Kashmir own less than an acre of land, and any Government policy related to land acquisition for infrastructure projects needs to take into account the small landholdings of the farmers. If the government pays three to four times more compensation to aggrieved farmers during land acquisition from 2013 under LARR Act 2013 across other states, technically, the government has to pay more in J&K as we have small landholdings. At a time when the agricultural land is shrinking day by day, the population is on the rise and authorities at the helm like the Defence Estates Department, National Highways Authority of India (NHAI), Power Grid Corporation, National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) are acquiring huge chunks of fertile land in Jammu & Kashmir plains as well. In such a situation, what is the future of agriculture in Jammu & Kashmir when the affected farmers are paid peanuts for their lands? The sad part is that even those peanuts have not been given to the farmers, and for that, they have been fighting for years,” says Advocate Badrul Dujja.

“Just outside Karewa Damodar, Srinagar Airport area, the present market value of land is rupees one to two crores per kanal (1 kanal = 5445 sq feet) whereas the government finalised a meagre rate of rupees 18 to 20 lakhs per kanal in 2013. It is now more than nine years and technically, the rates should be three times now, but unfortunately, the poor land owners are not even paid Rs 18 or 20 lakhs / kanal when the union cabinet has also given its consent to this case. I am sure that after the personal assurance of GOC 15 Corps Lt Gen ADS Aujla, the land owners might get justice, but legally they must agitate against the way they were treated for so many years before the court of law even after getting payment so that this is not repeated by the government again,” adds Dujja. 

Srinagar International Airport | Photo courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Non-payment of compensation is a Human Rights Violation 

The High Court of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh in January this year gave a landmark order on forcible land acquisition by the government. The division bench of the then Chief Justice Pankaj Mittal and Justice Javed Iqbal said that non-payment of compensation to affected landowners was a violation of their human rights. The High Court division bench noted that it was an abuse of the process of law by depriving petitioners of their valuable right to possess property.

The High Court order said that the Right to Property is a fundamental right under Article 300A of the constitution. The order reads: “The Right to Property/Land used to be a fundamental right, but now it has been recognised as a constitutional right vide Article 300A of the Constitution of India. It provides that no one can be deprived of his property save by the authority of law. The aforesaid constitutional right has been acknowledged to be akin to a fundamental right and, more importantly, a basic human right. Thus, no one can be deprived of his property without following the procedures prescribed in law and payment of adequate compensation.”

The High Court passed the order as the J&K government (Rural Development Department) constructed a community hall in the village Pogal Paristan of Ramban district on private land belonging to two brothers, Kishen Singh and Bishen Singh. Both landowners were deprived of any compensation by the government for more than ten years. The aggrieved went to High Court in 2021, which came to their rescue. The Court also slapped a penalty of Rs 10 lakhs on the Govt.

The High court order further reads : “In the above circumstances, the respondents are clearly guilty of the violation of the human rights of the petitioners, and they are liable to compensate them for such infringement. At the same time, since the community hall has already been constructed and the land cannot be restored to the petitioners, it is desirable that the respondents complete the acquisition proceedings at the earliest and make a final award so that the petitioners may be compensated in a fair manner as per the market value.”

“The government cannot deprive the landowners of due compensation during land acquisition. This has become a norm in the country to make aggrieved farmers wait for years to get compensation during land acquisition. The High Court of J&K has made it clear that non-payment of due compensation is a violation of human rights, and Defence Estates Department must take serious notice of it and ensure aggrieved farmers of Karewa Damodar near Srinagar airport are paid the land compensation soon. The government must also announce a rehabilitation programme for the families most affected by this land acquisition around Karewa Damodar. Technically, the compensation should have been estimated as per LARR Act 2013, which is applicable in J&K with effect from Oct 31, 2019, and under which 3 to 4 times compensation is due to the landowners who lost the land during the land acquisition process. The Karewa Damodar land owners also are entitled to fair compensation as LARR 2013 is in vogue,” asserts Dujja. 

Rehabilitation programme 

Abdul Rasheed Wagay, 59, from Wathoora village, while talking to The Probe, said that he lost 90% of his agricultural land as the same has been acquired by the Defence Estates Department. He wants his son Haroon, 20, to be given some job by the government as he is unemployed despite completing his graduation.   

“I have never seen my half-acre land at Karewa Damodar, which has been acquired by the Defence Estates Department for the Army. The land was indeed our ancestral land, but it is located in such an area which is a high-security zone. Until 1990 we would at least visit the area, but after the outbreak of militancy, the entire Karewa Damodar area, including the old and new airport area, was fenced, and we could not see our land to date. Only we would get the small annual rent. Out of Rs 20 lakhs per kanal, we have only been provided Rs 4.80 lakhs. I am a lower-rung government employee and will retire within a few months. The meeting of the Zamindaran Committee with GOC Lt Gen Aujla has given us some hope,” says Abdul Rasheed Wagay.

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