As businessmen gobble up farmland, Kashmiri villages lose identity

By Sheikh Qayoom, IANS,

Haripora (Ganderbal) : Instead of a mud house, Hassan Parray now has a concrete house. His two sons do not go to school barefoot, but wearing branded shoes. He has also bought a sports utility vehicle. Parray might have become prosperous by selling his farmland but what is left unsaid is that many others like him in the Kashmir Valley are losing their identity.

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The land that Parray, 48, sold included a small apple orchard and over two acres meant for paddy cultivation. Now, a bottled water factory has come up on the plot Parray used to grow paddy.

Parray is not an exception. With land prices sky-rocketing, many villagers in Ganderbal district and elsewhere in the Kashmir Valley are also doing so – but at a price.

In Razin village, 30 km from Parray’s home, 35-year-old Riyaz Ahmad Tedwa stares with moist eyes at a plot he sold to a businessman from Srinagar. A retreat with a waterfront now stands where once Tedwa and his family used to sow corn.

“I had to arrange money for my sister’s marriage and that is why we sold our corn field”, Tedwa told IANS with regret.

Villagers have sold off the entire stretch of land along the waterfront – from Wayil Bridge in Ganderbal, measuring hundreds of hectares, to the Sonamarg tourist resort. Tourist huts, hotels, resorts, factories and malls have risen on these agricultural lands.

Even though people like Hassan Parray and Tedwa sold their ancestral lands at what appeared to be fabulous prices, given the steep rise in land prices, the sellers feel they have actually lost on their bargains.

For example, Abdul Majid, 64, a resident of Haripora village in Ganderbal district, sold his plot two years ago at Rs.3,000 a kanal (one-eighth of an acre); today the same piece of land is priced at anything between Rs.25-30 lakhs.

“There is always some sort of a divine curse associated with the sale of ancestral lands. The seller is always a loser. In fact, it is like disposing of a trust one inherited from his forefathers that must normally be passed on to the next generation,” said Bashir Ahmad War, a retired veterinarian in Ganderbal.

From high-end retreats to stud farms, the land along the banks of the Sindh stream that once formed the rice bowl of the district has been sold at exorbitant prices by owners to businessmen who have converted the agricultural lands into commercial hubs.

This despite the fact that Jammu and Kashmir has a law that prohibits use and conversion of agricultural lands for construction or any other purpose.

State Revenue Minister Raman Bhalla, however, disagrees. “The law is being enforced strictly. We are looking into complaints of conversion of agricultural lands.”

Yet, the scene along the banks of the Sindh stream has undergone change.

Cornfields, lush green paddy fields, small orchards and other signs of agriculture and horticulture are vanishing.

Motor repair workshops, hotels, resorts, gas pumps and drinking water factories have come up on these lands officially reserved for farming.

People who parted with their ancestral land for concrete houses, cars, TV and other modern facilities have in fact become poorer by losing their identity and heritage, say village elders in the area.

“The area is fast becoming a noisy mess of commercial confusion”, Abdul Majid, 65, told IANS.

(Sheikh Qayoom can be contacted at [email protected])