Lush green paddy fields as far as the eye can see, the sound of water gushing from a tubewell, fields lined with tall poplars and eucalyptus. Notwithstanding the razor wire strung on a fence in the near distance, the view from the top of Gurwinder Singh’s double-storey house in this village – 700 metres from Zero Line, the International Boundary between India and Pakistan – could have been one of unmatched rural idyll, had it been another day or another place.
But a day after the Punjab government, acting on the Union Home Ministry’s advice, ordered evacuation of all villages in a 10 km radius of the border, even the prettiest sight takes ominous hues.
Most of the 450 people in the village left in panic. But as the sun dawned on Friday, many returned, worried about their crop, homes, animals, and confused about whether there was a real threat from across the border.
“Most people left last evening after the warning. I came back this morning to feed my animals and water the fields. In ten days, my paddy will be ripen and it will be time to harvest it, but everything is up in the air now,” said Gurwinder.
The BSF did not open the black gate on the razor wire fence this morning to allow farmers to access their fields between the fence and Zero Line. Of the nine acres owned by Gurwinder’s family, six lie beyond the fence. There is no fence separating his land from that of Pakistani farmers on the other side.
“If we can’t harvest it, it will all go waste,” said Gurwinder. On his mind is a Rs 6 lakh loan from the “arthiya” or commission agent at the mandi, that he took three years ago to add a floor and more rooms to his house, and for his marriage. He repays by pledging the crop to the arthiya.
“Maybe the government will pay some compensation,” he said, recalling that during the Kargil war, there was a similar evacuation, but the Army laid mines in the area and villagers could not return to the fields for over a year.
On Thursday, in the midst of the evacuation, Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal asked farmers not to panic, and not to harvest before the crop had ripened.
But with uncertainty looming, many men in Roranwala returned in the morning, after leaving their wives and children in Amritsar with relatives.
Gurwinder, his wife, one-year-old-daughter, parents and brother had left after packing a few clothes on Thursday night. They travelled by car to Chheharta in Amritsar to stay with his father’s aunt.
Gurwinder was one of the few men who returned to the village with his entire family, but like other men in the village, he said he was taking no chances and returning to Chheharta in the evening.
“If something really happens, the enemy won’t spare women and children. But maybe in five or six days, our government and Pakistan will sort things out,” he said.
“This village is famous for Basmati 1121 and Parmal (two rice varieties). The Parmal has ripened, but we can cut it only if there is peace and calm,” said Sukhdev Singh, another villager. “Some people have to cut in five days, some in ten.”
Sukhdev said the announcement for evacuation was made from the village gurdwara at around 2 pm. “The Block Development Officer called the sarpanch at noon and told him the details. The sarpanch made the announcement,” Sukhdev said, recalling that though the village has seen India-Pakistan wars in the past, this was the first time there was an announcement asking people to leave.
With the gates to the fields closed and no work to do, men who had returned sat in the village square next to the gurdwara. “Veley baithein hain (We are sitting jobless),” said one of them.
Raghubir Singh, 87, said he was among the few who had not left the village. “It’s our village, all our possessions are here — our crops, our animals. Can’t leave it all and go away. I can tell you there will be no trouble,” he said.
He pointed to the trade that was continuing at the Attari Integrated Check Post, 2 km from the village. “Pakistani buses are coming and going. And our soldiers are also not moving to the border. These are signs to watch out for if trouble is coming,” he said.
On instructions from the top leadership of the ruling Akali Dal, ministers and MLAs visited border villages all morning, reassuring people that “everything would be taken care of”.
“Government is ready to address every problem,” said Animal Husbandry Minister Gulzar Singh Ranike, whose constituency, Attari, is particularly affected. “Compensation will be paid if the crop cannot be harvested. Centre will pay.”
His son Lali Ranike, who was accompanying him on the rounds, said earlier governments “used to wait for the first bomb or shell to fall, and then ask to people to leave. We have taken advance measures”.
Assembly elections are due in Punjab early next year. A government official on evacuation duty said this was the opportunity for the Akali Dal to “reconnect” with people and mobilise supporters.
“This kind of work is not possible by officials alone. The political worker on the ground is of crucial importance, and the Akalis are going all out,” he said.
Ranike said that for villagers reluctant to leave, the government was organising all help. “We have asked them to form committees of six or seven people. If anyone has a complaint, they should go to the committee, and the committee will inform me,” the minister said.
In Roranwala, the evacuation had an unexpected fallout, and it is unlikely that any minister can do anything about it
Gurwinder’s cousin had received a marriage proposal, and just the day before the evacuation, his prospective in-laws had come to see him. The two families had exchanged photographs of the prospective bride and groom.
“Yesterday, they called to say they were not interested,” said Gurwinder. “They probably decided after watching the news.”