The firewall

The firewall

Over 14,460 bunkers are being built across border villages of Jammu and Kashmir that are often at the mercy of firing and mortar shelling from across the border. The Indian Express travels to villages along the border where these grey, concrete structures evoke hope and a few questions: “I can't take my cattle there, can I?”

Inside a bunker at Panjore village in Jammu. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Last Tuesday, when gunshots rang out from the direction of the International Border, Sureshta Devi, 45, had that same sinking feeling.

“Over the last few years, whenever there have been firing and shelling, my children and I have had to shift to our relatives’ homes far away from the border, leaving behind my husband and 79-year-old paralytic father-in-law,” says Devi. But unlike in the past, this time, there was no hasty packing of bags. The family simply moved into the newly built underground bunker right outside their house. They eventually didn’t have to, as the firing stopped.

Pointing to the deep cracks snaking through the walls of her house in Panjore village in Marh block of Jammu district, Devi says, “This happened last year, when a few shells landed near our house. Every time, just ahead of the children’s examinations, the shells fall and we have to shift to the homes of one of my brothers in Jammu. The children can’t study and there is no stability in our lives.” Her two children are in Classes 11 and 9.

So, in 2018, when revenue officials came to Devi’s village looking for space to build bunkers, her husband Surinder offered a piece of the family’s half acre land for a community bunker. The family is mainly dependent on the monthly pension of Devi’s father-in-law Girdhari Lal, a retired primary school teacher.

Kathua, Jammu and Samba districts along the International Border, and Poonch and Rajouri along the Line of Control have been subjected to shelling

The shelter outside Devi’s home is one of 14,460 community and individual bunkers being built by the Union Home Ministry in residential areas along the India-Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir at a cost of Rs 415.73 crore. Of these, 11,649 bunkers, including 1,321 community ones, are to be built in villages along the International Border, across five border districts of Jammu region, from Kathua to Poonch.

Kathua, Jammu and Samba districts along the International Border, and Poonch and Rajouri along the Line of Control have been subjected to shelling and firing from across the border over the last few years, with 2018 witnessing 2,936 such incidents, the highest so far, resulting in the death of 61 civilians and security forces personnel.

In Panjore village, though there have been no casualties in shelling over the last many years, over a dozen families in the neighbourhood have had to move to safer places.

“You can’t fight destiny, but at least inside a bunker, there’s a sense of security,’’ says Garo Devi, 48, who lives alone in Panjore.

In these parts, where “destiny” works in the most unpredictable of ways, “security” takes the form of these unimpressive grey, concrete structures, with a flight of stairs plunging into the darkness below.


A temporary shield

Forced by circumstances of geography and politics, the border districts of Jammu and Kashmir have always borne the brunt of firing and mortar shelling by Pakistan. With such incidents spiking in 2018, the 14,460 bunkers being built across these border villages offer a rare ray of hope for villagers. Although the Centre sanctioned the project in 2017, work has been slow, with land for the bunkers yet to identified in several villages. While critics say the bunkers are merely a band-aid solution to a much larger problem, to villagers here, they are probably the only answer for now.

Each of the 1,321 community bunkers, according to a blueprint prepared by the state’s Public Works Department (PWD) and approved by the Union Home Ministry, has a plinth area of 610 sqft, with two spacious underground rooms. A flight of stairs, 4-ft-wide, ends in a 3.3-ft-wide corridor, which opens into the two rooms. One of the rooms has a slab meant to be used as a kitchen counter. Overground, is a washroom and a water tank. Senior PWD engineers say the community bunkers, meant to accommodate nearly 40 people at a time, will have electricity and water supplies.

Apart from the community bunkers are 11,649 individual bunkers meant to accommodate a family or two — about 8-10 people. Each of these bunkers has a plinth area of 164 sq ft, with a single room and a kitchen counter on the side.

All houses in Suchetgarh bear scars from cross-border shelling. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Since these individual bunkers are meant for the exclusive use of the family in whose premises they are built, these structures have no attached washrooms, with the family expected to use the ones in their homes. Neither are they provided electricity or water connections.
With incidents of shelling and ceasefire violations by Pakistan spiking since 2014, in February 2015, the then PDP-BJP government in the state submitted a proposal to the Centre for construction of over 20,000 bunkers covering a population of over 4 lakh along the India-Pakistan border, at a cost of Rs 1,000 crore. Ten months later, the Union Home Ministry approved a pilot project for the construction of 60 community bunkers costing Rs 3 crore.

Those bunkers, with a capacity to accommodate 20 people each, were concrete structures built by the Rural Development Department at a cost of Rs 5 lakh each. However, PWD sources say, the structures weren’t strong enough to withstand sustained shelling and the state decided to build better bunkers with reinforced concrete and with amenities such as washrooms, water tanks and electricity and water supplies.

There were other efforts too at building bunkers. In 2017, as incidents of ceasefire violation had escalated, touching 971 by the end of the year and resulting in 31 deaths across the state, more than 4,500 people left their homes along the Line of Control and migrated to relief camps set up in Nowshera. To ensure the safety of people who returned home, then Rajouri Deputy Commissioner Shahid Iqbal Choudhary decided to get 100 bunkers built though community participation. Each bunker was to cost Rs 2.40 lakh, for which Rs 1.50 lakh was provided under the capital expenditure budget and Rs 90,000 came from MNREGA. The construction of these bunkers had been completed last year.

But these isolated efforts weren’t enough to tackle the problem.

In December 2017, the Union Home Ministry sanctioned the construction of the 14,460 bunkers, with the state government, told to first build bunkers in areas closest to the existing border posts — 0-1 km from the border — next, those falling within 1-2 km, and finally those in the 2-3 km range. It also asked the PWD to send the designs for the new bunkers.

However, for the next seven months, there was little progress on the bunkers even as incidents of firing and shelling by Pakistan intensified — 2018 witnessed an almost three-time increase over the previous year, with 2,936 incidents of ceasefire violation killing 61 people and injuring 250.

Jammu Divisional Commissioner Sanjeev Verma says bunker sites were identified on the basis of factors such as vulnerability. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Explaining the slow progress in the bunker project between December 2017 and August last year, Jammu Divisional Commissioner Sanjeev Verma says, “We had to arrive at a consensus on the design, model of construction and strength of the bunkers, besides getting land. We had to meet people, persuade them, carry out site visits and then make changes according to the situation.”

With a standard design and budget for all the bunkers, construction remained a non-starter in Rajouri and Poonch districts, where it costs more to transport material uphill. After a lot of meetings, says Verma, it was agreed that “a one-size-fits-all situation can’t work and the budget had to be increased for bunkers in Rajouri and Poonch”.

Verma adds that finally, in these districts, the cost was revised and ended up being 25-30 per cent above what had been fixed for community bunkers (Rs 8.5 lakh each) and individual bunkers (Rs 2.40 lakh) in Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts.
Land for bunkers was identified on the basis of various factors, including incidents of shelling and their vulnerability. “Even in places like Poonch, where the response was less, we went ahead in villages which were directly in the line of fire, or where incidents of cross-border fire and shelling had been more,’’ he says.

As of January 29 this year, 982 individual and community bunkers have been built, while another 432 have been built “up to slab level” and for 709, foundation stones have been laid. The maximum number of bunkers — 350 individual and 44 community ones — have been built in areas along the border in Jammu district.

By the end of this month, Verma claims, construction of nearly 2,000 bunkers will be complete and that, at the current pace, all the bunkers will be ready by May. However, that still leaves out a lot of villages. An estimated 25-30 per cent of the border villages in each block haven’t been covered under the project.

At Dub Sudan, a village with nearly 100 houses in Jammu district, the panchayat ghar and the cremation shed fall within 50 metres of a Pakistani post. Sitting outside her kuchcha house with her husband Rashid and their five children, Shani, 30, talks of how the family lost a horse to Pakistani shelling two years ago, but received no compensation from the government. Their house is the closest in the village to the border. The family has nearly 27 buffaloes, a cow, two goats and now, one horse. Shani says no official has approached them to construct a bunker near her house.

As of January 29, 982 bunkers have been built. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

Nearly 2 km away, at Sui village, Bansi Lal’s house is pockmarked with splinters from mortar shells fired by Pakistani Rangers. Last year, a splinter had hit his 28-year-old son Chaman Lal while he was standing outside the house. With the splinter still inside, Chaman Lal complains of pain, adding that he, along with his father, have been visiting revenue officials seeking a bunker on their land.
PWD Executive Engineer K S Nathiyal says that nearly 30 per cent area in each border block, from Kathua to Poonch district, is inhabited by refugees from Chammb (in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) and it’s impossible to find space for bunkers in these places. “These are people who lost their houses in the 1965 and 1971 wars and now have very small landholdings. They have no land to spare for bunkers,” he says.
“We have now written to the Deputy Commissioners to instruct revenue officials in their districts to identify land for construction of bunkers,’’ says Superintending Engineer N D Khawaja.

Former BJP MLA from Kishtwar Sunil Sharma, who was Minister of State for Roads and Buildings when tenders were floated for the construction of bunkers by the then PDP-BJP government, says, “The bunkers are meant to provide immediate protection to the lives of people in the event of cross-border shelling. I agree this is not a permanent solution to the woes of border residents, but at least they save lives.”

Community bunkers are meant to house nearly 40 people. Express Photo by Praveen Khanna

However, not everyone agrees that bunkers are a lasting solution.

Says National Conference leader and former Mendhar MLA Javed Rana, “Most of these bunkers are at a distance from people’s homes. How will villagers run to these bunkers in the case of sudden shelling?”

The Congress’s Ravinder Sharma too dismisses the bunker project as “political gimmick” ahead of the general elections. “Of the over 14,000 bunkers, work has only begun on about 1,000. The government should have instead created good infrastructure with all basic amenities for villagers at a safe distance from their homes.”


But Kashmir Singh, a PoK refugee at Chachwal village in Samba district, has a bigger worry. “We human beings can take refuge in bunkers, but what about our cattle and livestock? I can’t take them in, can I?’’