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Posted at: Sep 10, 2017, 12:47 AM; last updated: Sep 10, 2017, 12:47 AM (IST)INDEPTH

The ‘island’ of neglect

Rachna Khaira in Kapurthala
For decades, the Beas has challenged the 5,000 residents living in the Mand (submerged) area. Boat ride is the only alternative. In the absence of govt support, the villagers are forced to fend for themselves
The ‘island’ of neglect
RIVER CURSE?: Mand villagers use a boat to cross the overflowing Beas at Baupur village in Sultanpur Lodhi, Kapurthala. Photos: Sarabjit Singh

Rachna Khaira in Kapurthala

THE Beas-bisected, jagged terrain of Mand in Sultanpur Lodhi is a dangerous place to live in. Peer Baksh, a revenue clerk, lived there 70 years ago before he migrated to Pakistan during the Partition. Hardy farmers, believing in the fertility of the soil stretched over 6,000 acres, and their fate, later came in. They fear fire and water: A burning piece of wood is enough to cause a big blaze in the forest; and the Beas changes its course almost each year. Today, a rivulet as wide as over 400 feet separates the 5,000 residents from the land. They have everything, yet nothing, as they cross to the either sides in boats; many women lose their lives at childbirth, the old and ailing die on the way and children learn why going to school makes little sense.

On way to work in her grandfather’s 2-acre farmland, Jaspreet Kaur (7) struggles to carry a spade and a sickle. She says her mother, fed up with the tortuous routine, left her when she was just four years old. Her father is a daily wager. “I can show you my mother’s picture,” says Jaspreet, wiping her sweat; her eyes moist. “She took my younger sister as well.” 

The “island” has many Jaspreets for whom crossing the river twice daily means dropping out of school. “We have two government schools for 16 villages. But most inhabitants have sent their children to schools located outside this area. Despite several resquests, the state government is yet to construct a permanent structure on the creek to get us connected to the land,” says Paramjit Singh, a farmer and district president, Kisan Sangharsh Committee. 

Last week Balkar Singh (52) was working in his field at village Baupur when he was bitten by a snake. His neighbours though rushed him to the banks; but he died in the boat. His wife Gurmeet Kaur says there is no dispensary or first-aid clinic in the village. “Women in labour either travel by boats to the other side or deliver in the boat.” 

Three years ago, Balwinder Singh decorated his house with fancy lights and colourful kites. His eldest daughter Minni was to get married three days later. His house and his 17-acre agricultural land were submerged in the overflowing Beas. He could not cope with the sudden loss and hanged himself. His daughter got married after the tragedy with support from villagers, but soon she was thrown out by her in-laws. 

A travel to these villages is an adventure in itself: vehicles frequently get stuck in the bog as villagers rush to pull the vehicle to safety. Many villagers have pucca houses and sheds for their domestic as well as pet animals. They have electricity and telephone connectivity. Two big gurdwaras have come up each in villages Sangra and Baupur. The villagers also own farm machines brought through the pontoon bridge operational only three months in year. 

“The land is highly fertile for organic farming,” says Kuldeep Singh Sangra, president of the Kisan Sangharsh Committee. “Rice and pulses grown in this area are free from any fertilizer and pesticides,” he says. “The only challenge is the river. It changes course every second year,” says Sangra. 

But why can’t they leave the “island” and use it only for cultivation? “The land was gifted to us by our ancestors who cleared it up with their own hands for farming. How can we leave it? Also, most of the farmers are poor. So, they cannot afford to buy land elsewhere,” says Yadvinder Singh, another farmer. 

Another major problem for the villagers is finding brides. “No educated girl would marry our boys because of the harsh life of the island. We are forced to send our sons to the other side of the island,” says Balkaar Singh, an old resident. 

As the villagers make strenuous efforts to make this fertile land livable, their only hope is one day a bridge would come up and change their destiny forever.


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