Kishtwar 'Cavemen' Seek Change

Kishtwar - It is difficult to believe that in this modern age, a substantial population residing in some parts of Jammu and Kashmir still have their dwellings in natural caves and rock cut shelters in wooded mountains and are surviving in the worst possible conditions.

A few kilometres away from district Kishtwar headquarters, the real picture of human struggle for existence comes true, in the villages of Gujjars and Bakerwal tribes who along with other communities, have been denied all benefits of modernization and development. Living in naturally made caves and dwellings in wooded mountains, these communities can be found in significant numbers in the higher reaches of Padder tehsil in Kishtwar district of Jammu and Kashmir.

As one travels towards Padder - the land of Sapphire, the cave houses start coming into view, lining the mountainsideand creating a beautiful picture along the left bank of the Chenab, dominated by a sense of serenity. As one moves further, the thickly forested and snowbound mountains shed their cliched image. The richness of the fertile black soil fields, rich mineral deposits and gushing streams of water is marred by the poverty of the locals who, except for a handful, do not own land.

About half the population in Jar Panchayat resides in the naturally made and dug out caves called "Kudu" in local parlance. Despite the abundance of resources in the area, the severely malnourished children present a picture of naked misery in villages like Laee, Kajai, Kundal, Kanthlu, Chowki, Dedi, Chanayes, Shashu, Chirdi and Bhamani.

Most of the rock dwellings exist in tall and straight mountains where few would dare to venture.

In their struggle to make life a bit stable, these remotely located communities have faced the worst; be it food, health, sanitation or education, they have access to none. Problems like dampness, absence of light and no ventilation pose health hazards. During inclement weather, they cook inside the rock chambers, putting up with the suffocating smoke that exposes them to risk of respiratory disorders, as is evident from a large number of asthma patients in the area. Moreover, there is always an ever present threat from poisonous insects and snakes. During rain and snow fall, these communities share the cramped shelters with their livestock.

These people of a lesser God reside across the mighty Chenab and risk their lives to cross the river. With no bridges spanning the river, they travel with the help of cables, or zip wires. At certain points in these mountains, cables are the only means of transport. However, at some points, the government has arranged wooden cradles perched perilously on two cables.

The wooden cradle that can accommodate two persons at a time, slides over ropes with the use of manual labour. "Only those who are ill, especially expecting mothers, use the cradle box but others usually use ropes (tied from bank to bank) to cross the gushing river," says Fareed Ahmed of Sakhna Shashu, who lives in a Kudu, recounting how every year some people die while crossing the river.

At Kanthlu, after alighting from the rope cradle, Rafeeq, a resident of Qaza Nullah (literally meaning death, in Urdu) who had trekked for three hours carrying his five year old ailing son Mushtaq on his back, shared his experience of living in these lofty mountains, "We are on our way to the hospital at Padder. We are living in a horrible situation here.

If someone is unwell, we cannot carry them on "Charpoy" to the hospital at the tehsil headquarter because in mountainous terrains, the tracks are too narrow. We crawl like ants when we have to scale up or down the mountains." At places where the cradles have broken over time, locals cross the river with the help of wires with no other option but to risk their lives.

Central legislations like the Forest Rights Act (2006) hold no relevance in this remote region. "Though we have been living in these forests for centuries, we do not have ownership rights over forest land or products. We cannot use wood for making even temporary shelters. A section of our population that has livestock migrates to upper reaches during summer. But there also they live under rocks," rues Saif Deen of Pather Nakki.

"Of a total of 500 households in my Panchayat, 250 live in caves as they do not have homes. I would request Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh to visit my Panchayat and see for himself that we have bigger challenges than sanitation," shared Sarpach of the Jar area, Mool Raj Rathore. "The department gives a financial assistance of about Rs 45,000 for the construction of a house under Indira Awas Yojana. But the benefit is given to one family unit in each Panchayat on a yearly basis. So the scheme is not serving its basic purpose here," says Rathore, indicating the sufferings his people bear due to the vagaries of climate, geography and militancy.

The MLA of the area, Sajjad Ahmed Kichloo, who seems to be unaware that people live in caves-says, " In my constituency 80 percent people are well off. There are many welfare schemes for the remaining 20 percent people belonging to weaker sections of society and we are implementing the schemes quite effectively." After being specifically told about the areas where people still live in rock dwellings, Kichloo says, "They live in Kudus just for 3-4 months and then migrate to upper reaches in mountains. If you have been there, you understand that it is almost impossible to reach there. However, I will seek information from field agencies and my sources. If it is found to be true, I will surely help such families through Constituency Development Fund and other welfare schemes."

Members of the community have no education and hence no employment. Some cultivate land while many are landless, primarily dependent on livestock. "The youth do menial jobs like scooping the sand into load carriers and quarrying stones from the river bed to eke out a living. But they are always underpaid and exploited. They do not have alternative means of employment. Like my family, there are 25 households residing in Kudu in my village," says Ishfaq Ahmed (25) of Pyas village who works at a workshop at Padder.

The way these communities have been left behind points out to the need of planning development strategies from their perspective. The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that until and unless we will walk hand in hand, we as a country will not be able to achieve the status of a developed country. A lot is required in this direction. (Agencies)

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