A case study of Nengroo Basti
MAHATMA Gandhi in one of his last notes while expressing deep social thoughts said:
“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man [woman] whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him [her]. Will he [she] gain anything by it? Will it restore him [her] to a control over his [her] own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions ? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.”
There is another important saying of Gandhi Ji wherein he asks authorities at the helm “to take decisions keeping in mind the last man standing in row gets benefitted”.
But India completing 75 years of independence this year, is the last man in the queue getting benefitted?
The Central and State governments announce several welfare schemes and programmes for the benefit of the poor every year, but how many of these schemes reach the bottom of the pyramid in reality? How many poor and disadvantaged communities are benefitted? Is the administration really serious about addressing the problems of people living in remote corners of India?
Case Study Nengroo Basti
For the last few months, I along with my team have been highlighting problems faced by people living in a small hamlet known as Nengroo Basti Darwan located in a remote corner of Charar-e-Sharief area of district Budgam. A deep field research and several visits to this area made me believe that poverty and illiteracy is a big factor for underdevelopment and Govt welfare services also don't reach to such voiceless people. The authorities at helm especially the Govt officials also take such people for granted. In November last year, I went to this area along with some friends. There is hardly any matriculate in this hamlet. All the households in Nengroo Basti live below the poverty line (BPL) and are mostly landless. People earn their livelihood by working at construction sites in the local town of Charar Sharief or surrounding apple farms. In the past, many would indulge in timber smuggling as well , but that has stopped now.
We headed to Darwan for highlighting issues pertaining to non-completion of road projects undertaken by PMs Gram Sadak Yojna (PMGSY). On the way I saw a small hamlet in the middle of a valley with no other population around. The houses were small and ordinary. While coming back from Darwan, we sloped upwards to the hamlet located some 100 meters from the main road. While entering the tiny village I found it had been fenced from all the sides and looked like a small jail. The local residents were mostly illiterate and poor. They looked like a primitive tribal group. I met one Akram Nengroo there. He told me that forest officials have fenced off their entire habitation. I was told that the forest department was not even allowing them to even bury their loved ones on forest land. In the last one year the locals have buried two persons in a Masjid compound.
The 15 families who live in Nengroo Basti did not encroach on this land but had been shifted to the area by the state government 14 years ago after landslides destroyed their own village at Sani Darwan. Under a rehabilitation programme, they were resettled in the area by National Conference Govt in 2007 and were also provided 7 marla plots (1905 sq feet) each. Same amount of land was allotted for a masjid and Govt school. But the Govt didn’t allot them any land for the graveyard.
People living in Nengroo Basti are the forest-dwellers like many communities such as Gujjars, Bakerwals and other traditional forest-dwelling tribes. Their way of life had remained reasonably undisturbed for centuries. But since October 31, 2019, when the Union government extended to J&K the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, a progressive piece of legislation that ensures the land tenure, food security and livelihoods of traditional forest dwellers, the majority of communities like that of the Nengroos have actually been treated more harshly than they ever had been before.
The forest officials have fenced the entire habitation. The locals are not even allowed to bury their loved ones here. This is a travesty of justice because these 15 families who live in Nengroo Basti did not encroach on this land but had been shifted here by the state government 14 years ago after landslides destroyed their ancestral village located around 2 kms away.
People like Akram Nungroo have grown up in these forests and today they are called encroachers and the entire habitation is fenced and converted into an undeclared jail.
In January 2021, when a public outcry to implement the Forest Rights Act -FRA in J&K ensured that the legislation was finally put into effect, the residents of Nengroo Basti rejoiced, just like many other forest dwelling communities. They were told on radio and TV programmes by the Govt that the FRA would entitle them to several rights, including the right to have a graveyard in the village and the right to acquire land for a school and health centre.
Before the Article 370 was abolished by New Delhi on August 5, 2019, FRA was not implemented in the state. The ruling parties, especially BJP, termed the erstwhile semi-autonomous status as the main reason for non-implementation.
But after the abrogation of the special status, 106 new laws were applied to Jammu & Kashmir, including the FRA. This law was meant to give relief to the tribal population. Under the Forest Rights Act, traditional forest dwellers are protected against forced displacements and have other rights as well, which include grazing rights, access to water resources and access to forest products, except timber.
Article 370 of the Indian constitution guaranteed special status to the mountainous erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union, whereby it was empowered to constitute its own laws and had the discretion of implementing or not implementing central laws in the state. This is why FRA 2006, hailed as a historic and revolutionary law elsewhere in the country by tribal population and observers, was not being implemented in Jammu and Kashmir.
After a wait of more than 14 years, due rights have been conferred upon the tribal community by implementing the Forest Rights Act, 2006, keeping in mind the basic spirit of social equality and harmony as guided by the Constitution of our country and Parliament, J&K Lieutenant-Governor Manoj Sinha said on September 13, 2021.
But these "due rights" seem to be a distant dream for the people living in this remote place. These people used to use a piece of land to bury dead people for the last 10 years or so, but after FRA that practice has been stopped by the Govt (forest department). Not only has the rollout of the FRA not provided the nomadic communities with the Act’s promised benefits, but its extension to J&K has actually made life more difficult for them because the staff of the union territory’s Forest Department appear to feel that the legislation challenges their authority.
I made several video reports about this issue and highlighted it in social media as well. A delegation of social activists including myself took part with Member of Parliament Mohammad Akbar Lone as well. He wrote a detailed letter to Tribal Affairs Minister Govt of India.
The official indifference and apathetic attitude of state authorities towards these poor and illiterate is clear. This is how poverty and illiteracy impedes social and economic development of an area inhabited with such people.
I went to Nengroo colony several times after my November visit. I also took an NGO Kashmir Welfare Trust (KWT) there around December end and they distributed a lot of food packets, ration and other essential items for winter. On January 28, we again went to Nengroo Basti. I requested some doctor friends to accompany me. We took a lot of medicines with us. Members of KWT also joined. They brought food packets, ration and warm blankets along with them in a lorry.
After reaching the area, we could not move up from the main road as the link road going upwards to Nengroo Basti was not cleared of the snow. The area had witnessed huge snowfall around 3 ½ feet on 7th and 8th January and until 28th Jan, it had not been cleared.
We could not move up and had to carry our medicine boxes with us. The local residents helped us. The food material, ration, and blankets were distributed on the main road.
While leaving Nengroo Basti, Gandhi Ji’s saying came into my mind. The last man standing in the queue is not at all getting benefitted by Govt’s welfare programmes. The inhabitants of Nengroo colony were first deprived of a graveyard which was their legitimate right and the snow was also not cleared from their link road when every road and link road in Kashmir were cleared by Govt. For the last 14 years I have been told that the Govt never ever cleared snow from Nengroo Basti.
I want to ask the Govt why this indifferent attitude with these basti walas? At a time when celebrations are being held since last year titled Azadi ka Amrit Mahautsav, how can the Govt deprive poor and disadvantaged people of their basic rights even after 75 years of independence? Isn’t it a mockery of this theme when the officers of a welfare state deny even the basic services like snow clearance from their roads to a particular community, only because they are poor, illiterate and voiceless?
Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer
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