Treading on trouble
True, hardships and miseries are not new to the residents of these border villages, where they settled down after migrating from Pakistan during Partition. Man-made miseries and natural calamities, coupled with the apathetic and negligent attitude of successive state and central governments, have only made them stronger and more resilient and they take life as it comes.
These border residents are like "unsung heroes". While soldiers from this region have been sacrificing their lives to protect their land from the enemy, the villagers have become victims of this very earth as well as water—losing their life and limbs in landmine blasts or in floods when the Sutlej river swells up.
First it was the fury of
floods that ravaged this border belt from 1947 to 1959. Barely had the
residents begun to rebuild their lives when they faced death and
destruction again, this time in the wars that broke out between India
and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. Soon after the 1971 war, just as life
started limping back to normal, the residents again faced floods in
1973, 1975 and 1978.
During the decade-long militancy, the residents faced the wrath not only of militants but also the Punjab police and paramilitary forces.
Says Dyal Singh, who migrated to the border town from the Bhawalpur area of Pakistan, "We were uprooted again when the Army was mobilised on the border during Operation Parakram launched by the government after the militants attacked Parliament. Now that the tension along the border has subsided, the mined fields pose more danger than the enemy."
Sher Chand, a resident of Mohar Singh village, located near Zero Line, says, "I was moving in the fields along with my cattle on January 17 last year and inadvertently, I put a foot on a mine. My foot was amputated in the blast."
Similarly, Anant Ram and Sohan Lal were working in the fields in Chak Shikargah village of this district on July 23, 2002. Suddenly a mine blasted. While Anant Ram suffered serious injuries, Sohan Lal died on the spot.
On March 10, 2003, Maj Des Raj of the Dogra Regiment died when a mine blasted in the Jalalabad sector, which the army personnel were clearing at that time.
Labh Chand, a resident of Pharuawala village, at a stone’s throw from Zero Line, who owns three acres of land, rues that his entire land holding has been mined.
In the past year and a half, three persons, including one Major and one jawan of the Indian Army, have lost their lives and 47 have been disabled in mine blasts in the border belt of this district. Ever since mines have been laid in the border villages, blasts have become a common occurrence and civilians in large numbers have been losing their lives and limbs while collecting fuelwood and feeding their cattle in the fields.
The defence authorities have fixed Rs 2 lakh as compensation for the next of kin of a deceased and for those who suffer 100 per cent disability in a landmine blast. A sum of Rs 1.5 lakh has been fixed for those who suffer 50 per cent disability and Rs 1 lakh for those whose injuries lead to less than 50 per cent disability.
As part of Operation Parakram, the Army personnel mined thousands of hectares of cultivable and uncultivated land in this district. The mobilisation of troops on a massive scale and installation of other warfare outfits like artillery, digging of trenches and setting up of bunkers badly disrupted the routine life of lakhs of people in the border areas. Thousands of people migrated to safer places out of fear of impending war while a number of villages were got vacated by the Amy.
According to official sources, about 29,000 hectares of land was mined in Ferozepore district. Information about how much area has been cleared of mines by the Army authorities was not as yet available with the district administration as joint verification by the revenue and military authorities was under way.
As per rough estimates, about 65 per cent of the area mined by the Army has been cleared but it has not yet been handed over to the respective owners and cultivators.
Though the Centre has been giving compensation to the farmers who have been suffering repeated losses due to their inability to grow crops on the mined fields, the Army authorities have not yet fixed any deadline for clearing the fields of mines and the process of demining is moving at a slow pace.
A number of farmers point out that the paltry sum of compensation coupled with the slow demining process has virtually turned the landlords into landless labourers. Almost all affected farmers have been borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest to meet their routine liabilities while some marginal farmers have started working as labourers in fields that have not been mined and are situated far away from the border.
"So far, we received Rs 5500 as the first instalment of compensation in July, 2002, and Rs 2300 as the second instalment recently from the district authorities. How we can look after our families and fulfil our basic needs with such a meagre amount? We have been left with no option other than to beg for food or to do labour even at less wages," say the farmers in anguish.
They also lamented the fact that due to the wild growth of weeds and lack of irrigation in the past two years, the fields that have been mined have witnessed a decline in fertility. They would thus have to toil hard for months together to make their fields cultivable again.
Besides, due to the non-harvesting of the standing wheat crop last year as the area was mined, rats have multiplied and have started damaging crops in the adjoining fields that have not been mined. It is difficult to check the rat menace as the rodents conveniently take shelter in the mined fields.
Balwant Singh, one of the affected farmers whose 7-acre field has been mined, has taken Rs 70000 as loan in the past 16 months. He says that the tubewell pumps and other motors installed in mined fields have also been damaged due to rust and other reasons but the authorities concerned have not given any compensation for this.
The district administration is yet to take any action though the information pertaining to the damaged tubewells and other motor pumps has been lying with the SDMs of three subdivisions in the district.
The mined fields have also affected the social life of the farmers in the border belt as some of them have postponed the marriages of their wards while some of them have disposed of their tractors to generate much-needed cash.
Nachhattar Singh, a young boy who was studying in one of the primary schools in the border belt, says that he left studies as his parents found it difficult to pay his school fee. Now he helps his parents to collect foodgrains and fuelwood from other villages to keep the hearth burning.
Beera too dropped out of school after Class X as there was hardly any income from their farm that had been mined.
"For us the hostilities are not over yet. Earlier, we faced hostility from the Pakistani side, now we are facing it from our governments, which have turned a blind eye to our plight and have hardly been making any efforts to mitigate our sufferings. The negligent attitude of the authorities makes us feel like aliens in our ‘motherland’ as our fate is being determined by those sitting in Delhi and Chandigarh," they remark.
With their fields paved with danger and the demining process showing tardy progress, it will be long before the villagers can step into a brighter future.
(With inputs from Anirudh Gupta)
Missing and drifting mines upset schedule
THOUGH the Army authorities have pressed a number of their personnel into action for the demining of mined fields, missing and drifting mines have been causing an upset in its schedule.
The Army authorities have also been finding it difficult to clear the mines expeditiously as the Engineer Regiment that had laid these down in 2001 is different from the one that has been clearing them.
The mines were laid as per a prepared map by the authorities concerned. The map is always kept under safe and secure custody. However, the army authorities have been facing a number of difficulties to trace the missing mines and those that have drifted away from their original locations due to the heavy rain and strong winds which lashed the area in the past year and a half.
Though the Army authorities are tight-lipped regarding their plans and time schedule to clear all the fields of anti-personnel (plastic mines) and anti-tank (metallic mines), a senior functionary of army told The Tribune, on the condition of anonymity, that what had upset the mine-clearing operation was the fact that some of the mines had been missing while a large number of mines had drifted from their original spots. He added that a case had been registered in the Jalalabad police station in connection with the missing of mines on the complaint of the L.T.R.D mine recovery party on January 8, 2003. Mines were found missing in the Meharsinghwala and Santokhsinghwala areas of the border belt.
It was one of the major reasons that the Army authorities have not been handing over the pieces of land that have been cleared to their original owners as it is suspected that some mines have not been dug out. Moreover, the clearing operation is slow because the clearing of mines is a more hazardous and risky job and requires specialised skills than the laying of mines.
The Army authorities have been taking the service of sniffer dogs, mine probes and other latest technology and equipment available in the world to dig out the mines to minimise the causalities during this task. Some of the mines have also drifted away due to water-logging of fields during the rainy season while some them became ‘unbarred’ when the layers of sand above them blew away with the strong seasonal winds that lashed this region. Some mines have gone deep into the soil. Rats have also been playing havoc with the mine-clearing operations as they have been contributing to the drifting away of mines from their original positions. Some of the mines have gone down into rat holes.
The adverse climatic conditions at the
time when the mines were laid down and when the mines are being cleared
have also added to the problems of the land-clearing teams. Mines were
laid during extreme foggy conditions in the winter of 2001 while they
are now being cleared in the thick of summer. To save the civilians from
straying into mined fields and to check any mischief by the forces
inimical to India, the jawans of the Punjab Home Guard (PHG) have been
posted for the surveillance of mined fields though they are not
well-equipped to perform in adverse conditions and for long hours.