The average size of operational landholdings in India, according to the last Agriculture Census of 2010-11, was 1.15 hectares. This figure was lower, at 0.62 hectares, for Jammu & Kashmir and even less for the districts in the Kashmir Valley: Anantnag (0.39 hectares), Kulgam (0.39), Shopian (0.56), Pulwama (0.48), Srinagar (0.31), Budgam (0.43), Baramulla (0.51), Ganderbal (0.37), Bandipora (0.48) and Kupwara (0.51).
Being a mountainous state and with very little land under cultivation, agricultural holdings in J&K are smaller than the national average. This applies even more to the Valley, where most farmers own hardly half-a-hectare.
Given this scenario, any policy relating to agricultural land acquisition in J&K, including for “development projects”, has to take into account its unique natural and topographical features. In the Jammu division, the bulk of agricultural activity takes place in the four districts of Jammu, Samba, Udhampur and Kathua, where the average landholdings also range from 0.73 hectares to 0.95 hectares. The other districts — Poonch, Rajouri, Reasi, Ramban, Doda and Kishtwar — are largely hilly, offering only limited cultivation possibilities.
But even within these geographical limitations, the sheer cropping diversity is noteworthy. Thus, the fertile South Kashmir districts of Anantnag, Kulgam, Shopian and Pulwama are known for their apple orchards. Pampore in Pulwama is synonymous with saffron. In Central Kashmir, Budgam district is a paddy, maize, vegetable, almond, plum and pear (especially the Naakh variety) belt, while Ganderbal has cherry and grape orchards. The North Kashmir districts of Baramulla, Bandipora and Kupwara are famous for walnuts and apples. Bandipora is also home to the Wular Lake and its produce of lotus stems, water chestnuts and fish.
But massive urbanisation, population growth and construction of new roads, highways and railways is steadily eating into these orchards, fields and water bodies.
During the mid-1990s, work on the Qazigund-Srinagar-Baramulla railway line was taken up. The project was initially welcomed. But when soil for the elevated railway tracks was required, the ‘Karewas’ were its first victim. These plateau-like sedimentary terraces, mostly found in Budgam, got bulldozed. Also, paddy lands and orchards were filled and elevated for constructing the rail line. The project engineers could have explored other options — such as building the line on pillars as was done for the Delhi Metro — to preserve precious agricultural land. Instead, hundreds of hectares of almond, plum, apple and pear orchards located on the Karewas were destroyed.
Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated two semi-ring road projects: A 58-km stretch in the Jammu region and a 62-km highway in the Valley connecting Pulwama with Ganderbal and passing via Budgam and parts of Srinagar. These projects again entail acquisition of already limited farmland. In Budgam district alone, nearly 600 acres have been acquired, with over 3,000 fully-grown apple, walnut, plum and other fruit trees set to be axed in a few months.
The point to be noted is that the acquisitions are being done not under the Right to Fair Compensation & Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, which is not applicable in J&K. The state government still follows the J&K Land Acquisition Act of 1934, dating back to the time of Maharaja Hari Singh.
The 2013 law, enacted by the then UPA government at the Centre, mandates consultation with Gram Panchayats for land acquisition even for so-called public purpose. Moreover, the landowners have to be paid four times the market rate. The J&K government has neither ratified this Act nor enacted a new law.
The sufferers are the state’s farmers, who, under the 1934 Act, are entitled to only the market value of their land, plus a 15 per cent ‘Jibanara’ or solatium. Even the market value is taken to be just the circle rate, at which stamp duty is payable. This rate is way below the actual market value. For a state with very little agricultural land and cultivated by sub-marginal farmers, the compensation levels should, in fact, be higher than even that provided in the 2013 law. Interestingly, the J&K Land Acquisition Rules provide for private negotiation between buyer and seller. The National Highway Authority of India has, however, not agreed to this, claiming that the land acquisition for the semi-ring roads was a “compulsory acquisition” by the government.
While farmers in J&K have been protesting against forcible land acquisition for the last one year, the government has shown no concern. Nor has the issue received coverage by the national media, for whom Kashmir seemingly matters only when there are encounters and militancy-related incidents. The Valley, in particular, is an environmentally fragile area that cannot afford mega railway projects, highways and industrial estates. The focus should, instead, be on development of the state’s agriculture and horticulture sectors.
And if Gujarat and Maharashtra farmers can be paid five times the actual market rate for their lands acquired for the Bullet Train project, why deny the same to their brethren here?